Kevin Maurice Garnett was born on May 19, 1976, in Greenville, South Carolina, a smal town located about 80 miles northwest of the capitol city of Columbi. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) Kevin’s mother, Shirley, was not married to his biological father, O’Lewis McCullough, so she looked after the infant and his older sister, Sonya, on her own.
Caring for two children wasn’t easy, and things got more complicated when a sister, Ashley, arrived. Shirley worked two jobs, one at a local plant and another as a hair stylist. O’Lewis, who remarried and started a new family, helped out with child support payments.
The Garnetts lived in a mostly black section of Greenville known as Nickeltown. Personable and outgoing, Kevin had plenty of friends there, and lots of relatives, too. Among them was cousin Shammond Williams (who would go on to star at the University of North Carolina). Williams informed Kevin that O’Lewis’s parents, Odell and Mary McCullough, owned a home a few blocks from the Garnetts. Kevin was intrigued by this revelation, and Shirley—who had shunned contact with the senior McCulloughs—finally took her son to see his grandparents.
Though Kevin’s father was not a constant presence in his life, he did have a major influence in one way. As a teenager, O’Lewis was a gifted hoops player. The captain of the basketball team at Beck High School in the mid-’70s, he was nicknamed “Bye Bye 45” because he wore number 45 and regularly blew by opponents of the fast break. A dominant center in the world of small-town basketball, O’Lewis was snubbed by big-time colleges because he stood only 6-4. After graduating from high school, he joined the Army and played in local basketball leagues. That’s when he and Shirley began dating.
O’Lewis’s talent rubbed off on Kevin, who became infatuated with basketball and fantasized about of making it to the NBA. His first idol was Magic Johnson, the All-Star point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. Kevin practiced around the clock to become the next Magic.
For Kevin, the basketball court also served as a refuge when life got tough. So hooked on the game was Kevin that sometimes he would sneak out of his bedroom window in the dead of night to go to a nearby playground.
Without O’Lewis in the picture, Kevin craved a “real” father—preferably one who, like his biological dad, liked basketball. Shirley married when Kevin turned seven, but her new husband, Ernest Irby, had no interest in sports.
Even as Kevin showed signs of developing into a basketball phenom, Shirley and Ernest demanded that he study hard in school and earn good grades. She was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness and taught her children the tenets of her religion. That meant that the Garnetts ignored holidays like Halloween and Christmas. (Kevin, in fact, was 19 before he celebrated Christmas for the first time.)
Soon after his 12th birthday, Kevin and his family moved a short ride away to Maudlin. There, on Basswood Drive, he was befriended by a group of kids who shared his love for basketball. His best friend was Jamie “Bug” Peters. The two became so close that they told people they were brothers.
As a kid, Kevin usually matched up against players who were bigger, older and stronger. Playing against more experienced competition motivated him to improve. He got his first taste of organized ball in 1991 as a freshman at Maudlin High School. Though still raw, Kevin averaged 12.5 points, 14 rebounds, and seven blocks a game.
The following summer, he joined an AAU team coached by Darren Gazaway. Kevin impressed Gazaway with his work ethic and team-first attitude. The teenager would typically head directly for the playground after a practice to work on something he had just learned. In games, he derived as much joy from blocking a shot or throwing a good outlet pass as he did from dunking over someone.
By his sophomore season at Maudlin, Kevin was performing at such a high level that his coach, James Fisher, barely recognized him. He moved around the court with tremendous poise, could play with his back to the basket and sometimes triggered and finished the same fast break. Regardless of his position, Kevin always took control of the action. He wore jersey number 21, the same as Malik Sealy of St. John’s. He had seen the star forward during the season and immediately identified with his versatility and unselfishness on the floor.
As Kevin’s star rose, his commitment in the classroom wavered. He didn’t always apply himself, particularly in courses that required large amounts of reading. When school administrators offered to provide extra tutoring, Kevin refused. He was certain that NBA riches awaited him.
Nothing during Kevin’s junior year at Maudlin dissuaded him from that dream. He poured in 27 points, pulled down 17 rebounds, and swatted seven shots a game. Along the way, he led the Mavericks to the state championship and was named South Carolina’s Mr. Basketball, making him the first junior in state history to be so honored.
In May of 1994, however, Kevin’s life began to crumble around him. A fight broke out at school between a white student and several black classmates, and Kevin happened to be nearby. (This version of the story has been questioned since. One report indicates that Kevin was part of a group of black students who beat a white freshman with rolled-up newspapers. The victim suffered injuries that required hospital care.)
When the police showed up, they arrested everyone in the vicinity. Kevin was charged with second-degree lynching, then was released on bail. The story made headlines across the state. Kevin’s once sterling reputation was trashed.
Just as he had done when he was a kid, Garnett retreated to the basketball court for solace. He received more distressing news, however, when a longtime friend named Eldrick Leamon was hit by a car and died from his injuries. Shaken by Leamon’s death, Kevin worked even harder on his game.
Kevin’s mother suspected her famous son would be hung out to dry in the swirl of racism, local politics and headline-grabbing triggered by the charges leveled at him. She was looking for a way out of South Carolina, and ultimately Kevin’s basketball would be their ticket.
That summer, Kevin starred for his AAU team, leading the squad to victory in the prestigious Kentucky Hoopfest. His performance there helped earn him an invitation to a Nike summer camp, where he competed against some of the best teenagers in the country. During the week, he struck up a friendship with Ronnie Fields, who played for Farragut High School in Chicago. Knowing Kevin’s situation, Fields suggested that he come to the Windy City for his senior season.
Shirley and Ashley accompanied Kevin on the trip north. In Chicago, rumors persisted that he transferred to Farragut because of academic problems at Maudlin. The story became national news when ESPN did a piece on it. Kevin scoffed at the suggestion, explaining that with all the negative attention back in South Carolina, he simply wanted a fresh start.
The new environment also provided Kevin with the opportunity to take his game to another level. Chicago produced some of the best high school players in the country, hence Farragut would provide Kevin with his first exposure to regular top-flight competition. His coach, William Nelson, planned to let his newest player showcase his full range of talents.
ON THE RISE
With Kevin and Fields leading the way, Farragut was a force to be reckoned with. The first big test for the Admirals came in December against the Vashon Wolverines at the Coca-Cola/KMOX Shootout in the St. Louis. In front of 12,926 at the Kiel Center, Farragut overcame a sloppy first half to win 58-55.
Seated among the crowd were coaches from national powerhouses such as Michigan, Illinois, and Kentucky. A host of NBA scouts were in attendance, too. Kevin had a solid 3.8 GPA since transferring to Farragut, but he had yet to pass the ACT, which threw his NCAA eligibility into doubt—and made him a strong possibility for the upcoming pro draft.
Kevin led Farragut to the state championship, but shortly thereafter—despite attending special classes designed to improve his test-taking skills—he failed to score the requisite 17 on the ACT, which made him in eligible for college play. Though Kevin wanted to go to school, the NBA was looking more and more like his smartest option.
During the first weekend of April, Kevin was in St. Louis for the McDonald’s All-American game. He joined Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Ron Mercer, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Stephon Marbury for the 18th annual classic. Kevin was particularly happy to see Marbury, who had made contact with him the summer before after hearing about his legal troubles. From there, they ran up huge monthly phone bills, talking about everything from girls to hoops to video games. Playing against his buddy, Kevin keyed the West squad’s 126-115 victory with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks. He walked away with the John Wooden Award as the game’s outstanding player.
Speculation about whether Kevin was ready for the NBA gained momentum when USA Today named him its national Player of the Year. If he opted for the draft, experts predicted he would be selected in the middle of the first round. Many compared him to Moses Malone, who signed with the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association as a 19-year-old in 1974, then moved on the NBA, where he enjoyed a Hall of Fame career.
On April 9, Kevin took the ACT for the fourth time. He had a month left to decide whether he would enter the NBA draft. With that deadline looming and still awaiting his scores, Kevin hired agent Eric Fleisher to help him sort out his options. The teenager sizzled in a private workout, and two weeks later Fleischer arranged a press conference during which Kevin announced that he was going pro.
Kevin was the wild card in the 1995 NBA draft. College stars Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace were more polished players and safer picks. But Kevin’s potential—he stood close to seven feet and had a guard’s feel for the game—was hard to overlook.
Kevin McHale, the new vice president of basketball operations for the Timberwolves, was among those intrigued by the kid. Minnesota owned the fifth selection and was looking to shake things up after six straight sub-.500 seasons since coming into the league. The T-Wolves had never even won 30 games in a single campaign. When Smith, McDyess, Stackhouse and Wallace went one through four as expected, McHale grabbed Kevin.
After Kevin was drafted by the T-Wolves, he got a call from his high school coach. He had scored 970 on the SAT, which meant that he would have been eligible to play in college.
Kevin agreed to a
three-year, $5.6 million deal. With McHale’s blessing, he invited
a couple of childhood friends from South Carolina to live with him in
a two-bedroom apartment and rented another pad for his mother. He also
found a pair of parental figures in Grammy-winning record producers Jimmy
Jam and Terry Lewis. After spotting the two in a mall, he “adopted”
them as surrogate fathers. The three remain close today.
The first half of
Kevin’s rookie season was more tumultuous than McHale wanted it
to be. With the team performing far under expectations, he fired Blair
and replaced him with Phil "Flip" Saunders. A college teammate
of McHale’s and a two-time CBA Coach of the Year, Saunders injected
new life into the T-Wolves. In Laettner’s mind, however, Saunders directed a little
too much attention Kevin’s way. When the former Duke star popped
off to the press, he forced McHale’s hand. Laettner was traded away
in the second half.
Laettner’s departure created an opportunity for Kevin. He had been scoring six points and pulling down four rebounds a game. After the All-Star break, Saunders started using him more and Kevin responded. Over one 10-game stretch, he averaged nearly a double-double while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. By year’s end, Kevin had boosted his season averages to 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, good enough to earn him a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. Though the T-Wolves finished 26-56, the year was considered a success. Their record was the second-best in team history, and Kevin was already exhibiting the earmarks of a young NBA superstar.
In the 1996 draft, McHale hoped to find a complimentary player for Kevin. Marbury, who had just completed a remarkable freshman season at Georgia Tech, was an interesting option. His explosiveness off the dribble was startling, and his range from the outside was excellent. Kevin lobbied hard for Minnesota to take his phone pal. On draft day, McHale arranged a deal with Milwaukee which made Ray Allen a Buck and Marbury a T-Wolf.
The 1996-97 season was a revelation for Minnesota fans. The team improved by 14 games, going 40-42 and making the playoffs for the first time. Gugliotta topped the squad in scoring and rebounding, Doug West provided valuable leadership, but Kevin and Marbury were the big stories. The chemistry between the two energized the franchise.
Kevin, still several months shy of his 21st birthday, served notice that he was ready to assume a leadership role in training camp. He chewed out center Stojko Vrankovic for banking in a layup instead of throwing down a dunk, letting his teammates know it was time to start asserting themselves. Kevin also led by example. Through the first three months, he was doing it all, averaging nearly 15 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and three blocks. Though slowed in December by a sprained ankle, he was named to the Western Conference’s All-Star squad. He was the youngest to play in the contest since his idol, Magic Johnson, in 1980.
Kevin and Marbury were also making headlines as a duo. Their inside-outside presence drew comparisons to Utah’s Kevin Malone and John Stockton. As Minnesota prepared for its opening-round playoff match-up against the Houston Rockets, people wondered whether the young pair could engineer an upset. But the T-Wolves crashed back to earth, as Charles Barkley and company swept them in three games. Afterwards, the veteran pulled Kevin aside and told him to keep his head up.
Despite the first-round exit, the ’96-97 campaign was a major step for Kevin. He thrived under his increased workload, raising his production in every statistical category. Kevin was clearly the special franchise player Minnesota needed.
The question was whether
the franchise was willing to pay for him. NBA rules allowed Kevin to request
a contract extension, but he shocked the basketball world by turning down
a six-year deal at $102 million.
Overnight, the pressure on the third-year star intensified. Vilified as a poster boy for greed and selfishness, Kevin was now expected to win and win big. McHale, a member of the great Celtic teams of the 1980s, knew it wasn’t that simple: a star needs complimentary players and a deep supporting cast. He surrounded Kevin and Stephon with veteran role players, including newcomers Tom Hammonds and Terry Porter. They meshed with returnees Chris Carr, Sam Mitchell and Tom Gugliotta to form a solid nucleus.
After an up-and-down start, the T-Wolves won 14 of 16 to put them on track for a return to the postseason. Gugliotta was elevating his game to star status, giving the T-Wolves their coveted third go-to guy, and the team was getting solid contributions from reserve centers Stanley Roberts and Cherokee Parks. In January, Kevin led the Timberwolves to a franchise-record seven victories in a row. He notched his first career triple-double against the Denver Nuggets, going for 18 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. Kevin also became the first player in franchise history to start in the All-Star Game.
Behind Kevin, the T-Wolves continued to surge in the second half, despite a season-ending knee injury to Gugliotta. McHale traded for Anthony Peeler, who replaced some of the lost scoring punch, and Minnesota ended the regular season at 45-37. At 18 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 4.2 apg, Kevin was the primary reason for the franchise’s first winning campaign. He broke the team’s single-season records for rebounds (786), point/rebound double-doubles (45) and minutes played (3,222).
The next challenge was a postseason duel with the Seattle Supersonics. Earlier in the year, the T-Wolves had snapped a 26-game losing streak to the Sonics on the strength of eight three-pointers by Marbury. But the franchise’s overall record versus Seattle was a dismal 4-32. Minnesota reversed history by winning two of the first three games. Then Gary Payton caught fire, and the Sonics escaped in the best-of-five series.
Kevin had a long time to think about Minnesota’s collapse. A lockout by the NBA owners—triggered in no small part by the enormity of Kevin's contract—suspended the start of the following season until January 1999.When the dispute was finally settled, the T-Wolves featured a different look. Gugliotta left for Phoenix via free agency, and McHale replaced him with Joe Smith, one of the four players chosen before Kevin in the 1995 draft.
More changes would come. Most notable was the trade of Marbury, who had grown increasingly unhappy playing in the shadow of Kevin’s contract. It was a three-way deal with the New Jersey Nets and Milwaukee. in which Minnesota received two draft choices and point guard Terrell Brandon, a skilled playmaker who, like Marbury, could score from the perimeter.
late start and short schedule prevented the T-Wolves revolving-door roster
from meshing as McHale had envisioned. The team split its 50 games and
was ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs,
the eventual NBA champs.
For his part, Kevin enjoyed another stellar year, increasing his output for the fourth straight season. Despite missing three games with the flu (which snapped an ironman streak of 181 in row), he led the Timberwolves in scoring (20.8 ppg), rebounds (10.4 rpg), and double-doubles (25).
Kevin’s effort earned him a spot on the All-NBA Third Team—not to mention the Dream Team, joining the likes of Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. He traveled with the U.S. Olympic squad to Puerto Rico in July for a three-game tournament, where he thrilled fans with his enthusiasm off the court and his performance on it. The Americans won all four of their games easily and qualified for the 2000 Summer Games in Australia.
Kevin looked forward to the 1999-2000 season. Brandon would be in uniform all year, and rookie forward Wally Szczerbiak was deemed NBA-ready by most scouts. When Minnesota got off to a rocky start, Saunders fiddled with the lineup until he found the right chemistry. His most inspired move was promoting bench player Malik Sealy—picked up during the 1998-99 campaign—to the starting lineup in December. Sealy, one Kevin’s favorite players a kid and now one of his best friends, proved the missing ingredient.
Kevin led the T-Wolves to three wins Christmas week and was named the NBA Player of Week. The day after receiving that award, he scored 26 points and hauled down a franchise-record 23 rebounds against the Orlando Magic. Kevin started for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second year in a row and tallied 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
The T-Wolves were rolling toward their first 50-win season when on May 20, Sealy was killed in an early-morning traffic accident by a drunk driver. Kevin was devastated. Emotionally drained, he and his teammates couldn’t get past the Portland Trailblazers and bowed out of the postseason’s first round once again.
Kevin’s final stats served as a tribute to his fallen friend. He became just the ninth player in league history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, posting career-highs in all three categories. Kevin also showed greater range from the outside, shooting 37% from the beyond the arc. To no one's surpise, he was selected to the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team.
After the season, Kevin refocused his energies as Team USA gathered in Hawaii for a series of workouts before flying to Australia for the Olympics. In Sydney, he didn’t waste a minute of his time. Kevin walked in the Opening Ceremonies, took a trip the Australian Wildlife Park, and formed friendships with several foreign athletes in the Olympic Village.
Come the hoops tournament, the Americans advanced to the medal round without much problem. Then, after dispatching Russia by 15 points, the Dream Team beat Lithuania in a nailbiter, 85-83. In the battle for gold , they faced France. The contest stayed close deep into the second half until the U.S. pulled away and cruised to a 10-point victory. Kevin, whose 9.1 rpg topped the competition, celebrated like he had just won the lottery.
MAKING HIS MARK
The jubilation of Olympic gold helped erase the pain of Sealy’s death. When the T-Wolves struggled early in the 2000-01 campaign, however, Kevin became frustrated. He was doing his part, averaging more than 24 points and 11 rebounds, but Brandon, Peeler, and Szczerbiak were all performing inconsistently. Newcomer Chauncey Billups couldn’t get into gear, either.
Minnesota began to
turn things around in December, with Kevin as the catalyst. A trend was
developing for the T-Wolves—they played their best not when Kevin
was their top scorer, but when he did all the little things. Consequently,
he passed up scoring opportunities to involve his teammates more. By February,
the T-Wolves moved back near the top of the standings in the Midwest.
Minnesota finished at 47-35, drawing the Spurs in the playoffs. Despite
a strong series from Kevin, the team failed to advance past the first
Kevin’s final numbers for the season (22 ppg , 11.4 rpg, 5 apg, 1.37 spg and 1.79 bpg) placed him in elite company. He also extended his double-figure scoring streak to 291 games, the 11th-longest string in NBA history. But another quick departure from the playoffs grated on Kevin. Fans and the media now wondered aloud about his ability to lift those around him.
When the 2001-02 season started, not much had changed with the T-Wolves. Because of an illegal deal struck the prior year by team owner Glen Taylor, Minnesota had been stripped of four first-round draft choices. Saunders tried to shake things up by moving Kevin to small forward, Smith to power forward and Szczerbiak to off-guard. Brandon, slowed by an assortment of injuries, would share duties at the point with Billups, a former lottery pick still trying to find his way in the NBA.
The new lineup paid dividends, aand Minnesota broke from the gate at 18-8. Kevin looked great. In the season opener against Milwaukee, he went for 25 points and 21 rebounds. In November, he torched the Los Angeles Clippers for 30 points and 19 rebounds. Against the Sacramento Kings in early December, he pulled down a franchise-record 25 boards and nailed a pair of treys in the final 30 seconds to send the contest into OT. Two days later, he victimized the Clippers again, hitting a game-winner at the buzzer. In back-to-back games versus Houston and Indiana, he swatted away six and seven shots.
By moving away from the basket, Kevin was causing all sorts of match-up problems for opponents. He could knock down the jumper, put the ball on the floor and see open teammates that smaller players couldn’t. In April, Kevin set a new mark by being named Player of the Month for the fourth time that year.
Though an injury ended Brandon’s season in February, Billups held his own and the T-Wolves managed to post another 50-win season. Kevin was the difference. For the third year in a row, he was a 20-10-5 guy, including career-highs in rebounds (12.1) and assists (5.2). Voted All-NBA Second Team, NBA All-Defensive First Team, and All-Interview First Team, he had established himself as one of the league’s marquee players.
The 2002 postseason was supposed to be Kevin’s coming-out party. But the festive atmosphere turned sour with a disappointing series sweep by the Dallas Mavericks. Kevin played well enough—including a 31-point, 18-rebound effort in Game 2—but it wasn’t nearly enough. Amid the ruins of another first-round exit, Magic Johnson was among those who questioned Kevin’s ability to lead a team at crunch time, saying he tended to disappear in the final minutes when his team needed him to take charge.
The criticism stung Kevin. Even McHale told him that he needed to be more aggressive, on offense and defense. Kevin reacted by embarking on his toughest offseason training regimen ever. He convened with a nutritionist, worked with a personal trainer, and also got into yoga. Kevin arrived for training camp lean and mean.
After the 2002-03 season’s first few months, it was clear that Kevin had had taken the words of McHale and Magic to heart. He wasn’t just playing better and more assertive basketball, he was imposing his will on opponents and taking over games when he sensed they were at a turning point.
Kevin increased his intensity on the defensive end, too. In January, he registered five steals against the Rockets and then blocked five shots against the Toronto Raptors. In the All-Star Game, he claimed MVP honors in a double-OT victory by the West.
With the Lakers playing unevenly, the conference was up for grabs. But all was not well in Minnesota. Injuries plagued Szczerbiak, and new additions Troy Hudson and Kendall Gill had not fit in as well as expected. Kevin managed to hold everyone together, and the T-Wolves continued to roll. Fans, writers and broadcasters began talking about him as the MVP.
Kevin remained a frontrunner for the award in the campaign’s final months. Three times he posted double-figures in assists, and he was named April's NBA Player of the Month. The T-Wolves ended with a record of 51-31, the best in franchise history. Starting all 82 games, Kevin put up career highs in scoring (23.0), rebounds (13.4), assists (6.0 ) and minutes (40.5). By going 20-10-5 for the fourth year in a row, he joined Larry Bird as the only two players in league history to achieve this feat. When it came time for the MVP balloting, he finished a close second to Tim Duncan. Basketball Digest, however, named him its Player of the Year.
For all his great work, Kevin still couldn’t get Minnesota past the post-season’s opening round. Not that he didn’t play well. For most of the series, won by the Lakers in six games, Kevin was the best player on the floor. Minnesota was actually up two games to one until LA reeled off three straight. Kevin was lauded for his effort, but the praise was of little consolation.
McHale sprung into action for the 2003-04 campaign, trying again to find the right supporting cast around Kevin. His two biggest acquisitions were point guard Sam Cassell and swingman Latrell Sprewell. He also plugged Michael Olowokandi in at center. Reserves Fred Hoiberg and Mark Madsen were brought in as sparkplugs off the bench.
The moves paid huge dividends, particularly Cassell and Sprewell. Besides giving the T-Wolves two viable scoring options—which allowed Kevin to focus even more on his defense and rebounding—the pair of veterans added dimension to the team’s performance. Cassell, a proven winner, worked the pick and roll with Kevin like they’d been practicing for years. And Sprewell left everything on the floor, every minute of every game, and refused to back down. The result was 58 wins and the top record in the West.
Kevin was hands-down the league’s best player. In fact, he won the MVP in a landslide, taking 120 of 123 first-place votes. Named to the All-Defensive First Team for the fifth consecutive season, he was also the only unanimous selection to the All-NBA First Team. Kevin pulled down his first NBA rebounding title, and when he finished atop the league in total points scored, he became the first player in 29 years to achieve that double.
Kevin was sensational from opening night to the conclusion of the regular season. In December against the Mavs, he recorded one of his two triple-doubles with a season-high 35 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. His next (20 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists) came in January at Golden State. He went for 22 points and 24 rebounds in February against the Kings, and a month later he handed out the 3,000th assist of his career. After a brilliant April, Kevin was pumped for the postseason.
Up first for Minnesota was Denver and lights-out rookie Carmelo Anthony. Kevin didn’t want to mess around with the upstart Nuggets. It helped to have playoff-savvy veterans like Cassell and Sprewell on the floor with him. Aside from a hiccup in Game 3 on the road, the T-Wolves took care of business, with Cassell exploding for 40 in Game 1 and Sprewell leading the club in scoring in the next two contests. Kevin topped Minnesota in rebounding all five games and averaged just under 30 points a night.
For Kevin, advancing to the second round produced a mixture of elation and relief. But those feelings were quickly forgotten when Minnesota dropped Game 1 at home to the Sacramento Kings. Kevin seizond control two days later to get the T-Wolves back on track with a 94-89 victory. Then he played a monster game in Sacramento to re-establish homecourt advantage for his team. In the heart-stopping 114-113 win, he netted 30 and grabbed 15 rebounds.
The Kings won two of the next three to force Game 7 in the Target Center. In the most pressurized contest of his life—and the biggest game in franchise history—Kevin showed his championship colors. But his stat line (32 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks and four steals) didn’t begin to tell the story. Kevin logged 46 spell-binding minutes, providing energy and leadership every step of the way. With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, he scored 10 in a row. He then deflated the Kings with a drive and dunk on Chris Webber and a dramatic rejection of a Mike Miller shot with seconds to go.
Minnesota's rousing playoff push came to an end against the Lakers in the Conference Finals. With Shaquille O'Neal having his way in the paint and Karl Malone smelling his first NBA title, LA flexed more than enough muscle to contend with Kevin. It didn't help when Cassell went down with a bad back. After dropping Game 1 on their home floor, the T-Wolves bounced back with a victory. But the Lakers responded with three victories in the next four to eliminate Minnesota.
The excitement of the 2004 playoffs did not carry over to the following season. Although Szczerbiak stayed healthy and played well, Sprewell, Cassell and Hudson failed to mesh and the team struggled to stay above .500. Kevin played in all 82 games, led the league with 13.5 rebounds a game, and was tops among NBA frontcourt men with 5.7 assists. He was named First Team All Defense and led the NBA with 69 double-doubles—including 19 in a row. He also set a new personal scoring high with 47 points in a game against the Phoenix Suns. It was all for naught, however, when Minnesota concluded its schedule with 44 wins and got edged out of the Western playoffs for the first time since the 1990s.
More bad news arrived in the summer of 2005 when both Cassell and Sprewell flew the coop, and the T-Wolves struggled to replace them. Hudson was not the answer, especially after an ankle injured ended his season early. Szczerbiak was shipped out of town, traded midyear for Ricky Davis. Kevin, meanwhile, received no consistent support, and the team descended into mediocrity. He sat out the final nine games with a sore knee, and the T-Wolves lost seven times. Their 33 wins left them out of the playoffs once again in 2005–06. Kevin had another great season, leading the NBA in rebounding for the third year in a row. Again, however, it wasn't enough.
The 2006-07 edition of the T-Wolves offered little in the way of improvement or even inspired play. Kevin was often the first guy in the gym and the last to leave on practice days. Sometimes he felt like the only guy on the team trying. Most nights, basketball just wasn’t fun anymore for him. The T-Wolves had clearly crested. They no longer had the multidimensional upside players whom Kevin could make better. Making matters worse, the team’s #1 pick in the draft, Brandon Roy, had been shipped to Portland, where he immediately blossomed into the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. The T-Wolves limped home to a 32-win season.
After the final buzzer of that dreary campaign, McHale, Taylor and the T-Wolves faithful finally seemed ready to face a difficult fact: to get better, they would have to deal the 31-year-old face of their franchise. Minnesota asked for the moon, and the Celtics answered. Boston GM Danny Ainge, foiled by the bouncing balls of the lottery, bit the bullet and gave up seven players for KG—Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff and a pair of draft picks. The Celtics then signed Kevin to a three-year extension that would keep him in green for five seasons in all.
Kevin joined Paul Pierce and newly acquired Ray Allen to form one of the NBA’s biggest Big Threes ever, especially given the constrictions of the modern salary cap. The trio ate up all but 25 percent of the team’s budget, leaving little to stock the bench and even less margin for error (or injury).
Kevin knew he was in the right place after just a few practices with Boston. He went back a long way with both Pierce and Allen. Kevin lived with Pierce’s family during an AAU tournament in LA. He also played with Allen at a youth event in South Carolina.
Pierce and Allen proved to be as dedicated to training and practice as Kevin, and like him, they each had exactly one sniff of the Conference Finals and nothing to show for it. The trio entered the 2007-08 season determined to return Boston to the top of the East. They did just that, as the Celtics went 66-16 and secured homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.
The key to Boston's resurgence was a renewed commitment on the defensive end. Coach Doc Rivers convinced his troops that there was no other way to win the NBA championship. Kevin led the charge. He clogged the lane, cleaned the glass and used his quick hands to create turnovers. For his efforts, he was named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year.
Kevin also contributed on offense, averaging 18.8 points a game on .539 shooting. He scored the 20,000th point of his career in March, becoming just the 32nd player in league history to do so. More often than not, however, he was happy to let Pierce and Allen take over when the Celtics had the ball. At times, Kevin was actually knocked for his team-first attitude. Some in the media said he needed to carry a bigger load for Boston to be successful. As the Celtics continued to pile up the victories, he brushed aside the criticism.
The playoffs opened for Boston against the pesky Atlanta Hawks, who pushed the series to seven games. The Celtics took the decider on their home floor in a 99-65 rout. But fans questioned whether Boston was tough enough to advance any further. The Hawks won all three games in Atlanta and exposed the Celtics' shortcomings in the halfcourt offense.
Kevin made a statement in Game 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, scoring 28 points and dominating inside. Again, however, the Celtics could not muster a victory away from Boston. They held on for a 97-92 win in Game 7, but the doubters grew louder. Kevin was among their targets. Too often, they said, he settled for the outside jumper. For the Celtics to become a championship club, he would have to be more forceful around the basket.
To his credit, Kevin listened to his critics and adopted a more aggressive style of play. Against the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, he was a monster. Detroit simply had no answer for Kevin. He controlled the boards on defense and took the ball hard to the rim. Kevin scored better than 20 points a game and got to the foul line more than twice as much as he did against the Cavs. The Celtics closed out the Pistons in six games and prepared to meet the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
It was more of the same for Kevin against Los Angeles. He presented serious matchup problems for the Lakers and pressed his advantage on the glass. Kevin averaged 13 boards a game, which fueled Boston’s transition game. The Celtics won three of the first four contests, and then captured the 17th title in franchise history in Game 6 in Boston. Kevin scored 26 in the finale and pulled down 14 rebounds. As the final buzzer sounded, he knelt down and kissed the leprechaun at center court. Again and again, he screamed, "Top of the world!"
For the first time in his career, Kevin found himself having to defend a championship in 2008–09. The season started well. He was voted into the All-Star Game for the 12th year in a row and was averaging close to a double-double. But in mid-February, he sprained his right knee while trying to complete an alley-oop against the Jazz. Kevin would play in just four more games that season, logging 57 in all before being shut down with a bone spur in the back of the knee. Without their big man, the Celtics still made the playoffs, but lost to the Magic in the second round.
The 2009–10 edition of the Celtics featured the Big Three, plus a much-matured Rajon Rondo. Kevin was part of a front line that blended experience and youth, with Rasheed Wallace, Kendrick Perkins and Glen “Big Baby” Davis. Kevin played in 69 of the team’s 82 games, leading the club in rebounds and finishing fourth in scoring at 14.3 points per game. He averaged under 30 minutes a contest for the first time since his rookie year, but he was still rated one of the best overall defenders in the league. This despite playing much of the year in tremendous pain as he regained the strength in his knee. There were some days when it looked as if Kevin was through. He was dragging his right leg and had problems getting off the floor for rebounds.
The Celtics finished atop the division with 50 victories, but they were given little chance of getting past the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Kevin thought differently, He was playing better than at any time in the season.
The Celtics first had to get past the Heat, which they did in five games. Kevin concentrated most of his effort on defense and rebounding. He made a clutch jumper in the waning moments of Game 3, which Pierce later won with a buzzer beater. Otherwise Boston had little problem overcoming Miami.
Next came LeBron and the Cavs. After Cleveland won the opener 101–93, many experts were predicting a sweep. The Celtics looked helpless as they were overwhelmed in the second half. But two nights later, Boston wiped out the Cavs on their home floor, 104–86. Kevin scored 18 and added 10 rebounds, while Wallace hit for 17. Rondo, meanwhile, had the best game of his career, dishing out 19 assists. Suddenly, fans were reevaluating the series. Rondo had established himself as the most dynamic player in the series and Boston’s new leader. And the Celtics proved they had a huge edge along the front line.
The series became a war when it moved to Boston. The Cavs blew out the Celts in the Garden, renewing speculation that Kevin and his teammates were too old and too slow. But Rivers made some key adjustments in Game 4, and Rondo notched a triple-double in a 97–87 win. Several times in the fourth quarter, James passed up opportunities to seize control of the game. Cleveland fans were dismayed by this development—and completely flabbergasted in Game 5, when their superstar basically disappeared in another blowout by the Celtics. This time, the Big Three dominated, with Kevin hitting for 18 and Allen raining three-pointers down on the Cavs.
Kevin had another superb game in Game 6, as the Celtics closed out the Cavs. He led the team with 22 points and 12 rebounds, and created havoc in the blocks all night long. Boston won 94–85 to advance to the Conference Finals.
There they met the Magic. Kevin and his teammates handled Dwight Howard in the first two games in Orlando and won bothby a total of seven points. Kevin’s fourth-quarter corner fadeway over Howard in Game 2 sealed the Magic’s fate. Game 3, in Boston, was a 94–71 laugher.
The Magic didn’t roll over. They won the next two games to force the Celtics into a corner,. If they didn’t win Game 6 at home, they would have to play Game 7 in enemy territory. The Celtics opened an early lead but their spirits sank when Rondo was fouled hard and had to leave the game with a back injury. Nate Robinson exploded off the bench for two clutch three-pointers. The Magic, meanwhile, couldn’t buy a trey. Boston won 96–84 to advance to the NBA Finals.
Against the Lakers, Kevin, Rasheed Wallace, Glenn "Big Baby" Davis and Kendrick Perkins faced a stiff challenge in the form of a big, mobile front line. They held their own, taking the lead in the series after winning Game 5. But a knee injury to Perkins left the Celtics at a disadvantage, and Los Angeles pounded the ball inside to win Game 6 easily. Kevin played gallantly in Game 7, but the Lakers wore down the Celts. LA spent the fourth quarter at the foul line and won 83–79.
In terms of who is “The Man” in Boston, Kevin could care less—especially now that he has his NBA championship. If Pierce, Allen and Rondo share this view, and all four stay out of street clothes, the Celtics could be poised for another run at history ... and guarantee Kevin a spot beside Bill Russell, Dave Cowens, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish as one of the franchise’ all-time great big men.
KEVIN THE PLAYER
In the NBA, where match-ups are everything, Kevin has been a one-man nightmare for most of his career. He moves with quickness and power around the basket, his medium-range turn-around jumper is accurate and virtually unpreventable, and he can also hit from long range if left open. He can station himself in the low post, fill the lane on the break or bring the ball up as point guard. Regardless of who’s checking Kevin, they will inevitably find themselves at a disadvantage. He has always been adept at the pick and roll. Paired with either Pierce or Allen in Boston, he continued to thrive in the halfcourt game.
In the past, opponents had goaded Kevin into trying to do things that were outside his repertoire. Never one to back down from a challenge, he often played into their hands. Today he is smarter and more mature. He sees the floor and understands the game. Now Kevin is the player making other guys do things they can’t. Though slowed by injury and losing a few inches on his vertical, he has made up for this by maximizing the considerable skill that remains.
Kevin’s defense and rebounding are ferocious. His quick feet and long arms enable him to guard men down low or out on the floor. He hits the boards extremely well at both ends and is a superb shot-blocker. One of the key adjustments Kevin made with Celtics was learning how to keep rebounds alive even when he could not control them. Many older players simply don't try for balls they can’t tear out of the air. “Not trying” has never been a part of Kevin's vocabulary.
Kevin has all the attributes of a leader who teammates gladly follow. He also knows when to share those duties when younger players show they are ready. With the Celtics, Kevin found perfect playing partners in Pierce—a slasher—and Allen, a smooth perimeter player known for stretching the defense. With Kevin on the blocks, many fans have feel as if they are reliving the Bird-McHale-Parrish days.
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