The clock ticks on future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett’s career with every measured stride he manages during an injury-interrupted 19th NBA season. He will arrive hurting to Sunday’s reunion with the Timberwolves in Brooklyn.
It’s the kind of longevity promised to no one, the kind of longevity a newly hired Wolves employee named Flip Saunders had suspected but had no right to dream of the first time he saw this skinny teenager run during a private 1995 predraft workout.
“A lot of guys when they run, you can hear them run, the floor and everything else,” Saunders said. “K.G. would run and it was like he was running on feathers. You could never hear him run.”
Five weeks fresh on the job, Saunders and new Wolves basketball boss Kevin McHale attended that workout arranged by Garnett’s agent. It came during sessions of the league’s annual Chicago draft camp for 13 lottery teams curious about the first high school kid in 20 years attempting to make the leap directly into the NBA.
Nobody had done so since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975 and, lost in the mists of time since then, is both the intrigue and skepticism NBA executives brought with them that June day about a prospect whose maturity, character and intelligence seemed suspect at the time.
They were unaware how a player who possessed a guard’s fluidity with a center’s height would transform the NBA someday in so many ways.
Saunders and McHale entered a gym at the University of Illinois-Chicago that day prepared to praise Garnett afterward regardless of his performance, hoping their words would convince one of four teams ahead of the Wolves to take the kid so Joe Smith, Anthony McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse or Rasheed Wallace would drop to them with the fifth pick in the draft.
“About two minutes in, I turned to Kevin and said, ‘You know, we better hope he’s there at No. 5,’ ” Saunders said.
In that little time, Saunders now says he could see the effort Garnett expended with every move and how he did everything at game speed, a habit Saunders now encourages Ricky Rubio and Shabazz Muhammad to adopt. He could see how quickly Garnett picked up drills called out by Detroit scout John Hammond, Milwaukee’s current general manager who ran the workout that day.
Saunders also immediately recognized how a young man who measured what Saunders calls “6-13” — Garnett refuses to be listed as a 7-footer for fear of having his game stereotyped — ran “like a guy who was 6-4” and he ran light.
“That tells you he’s got a chance to play a long time,” Saunders said, referring to the silence with which Garnett ran. “Guys who you can hear coming, that hard pounding takes a toll on your body. If you run light, you’re probably not going to break down as quickly, and you probably have pretty good lateral quickness and pretty good speed.”
Nearly 20 years later, Garnett’s body finally appears to be showing its age. In his first season with a Brooklyn team that acquired him and Paul Pierce from Boston last summer, he has missed 16 games, the last 15 consecutively because of back spasms that will keep him out of Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves.
He has one season left on his contract beyond this one and has 12 million reasons to fulfill it, even if his aging body doesn’t cooperate.
But as that clock ticks, it does so on a superstar who Saunders says has changed the game as much as anybody in the past 25 years.
He led the way directly from high school into the NBA for Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady and others. He single-handedly shut down the league with its 1998 labor lockout and restructured the collective bargaining agreement and with it the NBA’s rookie pay scale after he turned down a $103 million offer from the Wolves and held out for $126 million instead. And along with Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, Garnett reinvented the power-forward position and was responsible for the birth of the term “stretch 4” to define a power forward who put pressure on opposing defenses with his midrange or three-point shooting.
“What would have happened if he’d totally flopped?” Saunders asked. “Would those other guys still have come out and would people have taken them? You don’t know that. The what-ifs if he hadn’t succeeded, who knows what things would be like now. He had a huge effect on the dynamics of our league.”
And on the Timberwolves’ franchise that drafted him. Saunders coached Garnett for nearly a decade, when the team made the playoffs annually but only advanced out of the first round once in 2004 when it reached the Western Conference finals.