Kevin Garnett has won an NBA championship, league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards and is a 15-time All Star, but a career that someday will carry him to the Basketball Hall of Fame took him on Wednesday to places during the Timberwolves’ 97-77 victory over Washington that he has never been before.
Garnett came home to the franchise that drafted him 20 years ago with a Target Center reunion that inevitably turned into the expressive party a sellout crowd wearing vintage No. 21 jerseys came way early believing it would be.
By the time it was over, a young team with a new esteemed leader had wiped out an early 18-3 deficit and won for the fourth time in its last six home games. But this one was different in joyous ways far beyond the season’s best defensive performance and largest margin of victory achieved.
“This is its own thing,” Garnett said afterward. “When I won in Boston, that was a special time. My kids being born was a special time. But this is full circle, coming back experienced. I’ve been back before, and I never paid attention to how much love is here still for me because I’m too busy being focused on the game. Tonight, it was over the top. I didn’t know the city missed me like this. I don’t think you can ever think the city loves you like this but to see it is reality. I’m very appreciative.”
A standing-room-only crowd announced at 19,856 stood throughout the team’s warmups before the opening tip and through scoreboard-video introductions that took 57 seconds to announce the Wolves’ other four starters and nearly two minutes to welcome back the best player who ever wore their uniform.
“The place tonight was rocking, man,” Garnett said. “I had a little bit of a longer introduction than I would have liked it to be, but I understood.”
Garnett said he knew he was not in Brooklyn anymore when he arrived back to the house he has owned in the Minneapolis suburbs all these years and saw the lake frozen and “two tons” of snow in his back yard.
But he never knew exactly what he left behind when he was traded away to Boston in 2007 until he did what author Thomas Wolfe wrote you couldn’t do in the novel “You Can’t Go Home Again,” published posthumously 74 years ago.
The man who brought him back home, Wolves coach and chief executive Flip Saunders, likened Wednesday’s welcome to the franchise’s Game 7 playoff game against Sacramento in 2004’s second round or a Gophers-Ohio State game he helped coach with the Big Ten title on the line more than 30 years ago.
“That was playoff atmosphere right here for sure, man,” said Wolves veteran Gary Neal, who played in a few such games with San Antonio.
The Wolves missed their first 11 shots and trailed 13-1 and 18-3 early before they reversed course and outscored Washington 94-59 the rest of the way to hand the Wizards their 10th loss in their last 12 games.
Rookie Zach LaVine called such a horrendous start “too much energy in the gym.” Garnett considered it something else: Understandable.
“I kind of figured when we were down 10, it being 1 to 11, that we were all excited, but you couldn’t help it,” Garnett said. “I was told yesterday they were going to tear the roof off and sure enough, they did.”
The 20-year veteran brought back home for his experience told teammates the same message — “You don’t win anything in the first quarter,” center Nikola Pekovic said — and the Wolves turned the game with their season’s best defensive performance, Kevin Martin’s 28 points and a 32-18 third quarter.
“Affected everything,” Wolves rookie Andrew Wiggins said about Garnett’s presence.
Before it was all over, Garnett gestured toward the seats at a dancing fat man who ripped off his shirt to reveal a welcome-home message scrawled on his chest and smiled at a fourth-quarter video that Garnett had taped when he was a very young man that implored the Target Center crowd to get on its feet.
“That one had swag,” Martin said, “and he had hair.”
That was long ago.
“I couldn’t do nothing but laugh, man,” Garnett said. “It’s good to be able to look back and be able to laugh at yourself and see how much you’ve progressed and how much you’ve changed. It was all good. It was a good night for everybody involved: the fans, the organization, the guys on the team. Hopefully, we can carry this momentum.”