As Timberwolves great Kevin Garnett was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend, Gophers coach Ben Johnson couldn't help but flash back to the time Garnett guarded him in a pickup game.
During KG's prime in the early 2000s, Johnson was a guard for the Gophers and played against the Timberwolves star in summer noon ball in Minneapolis, which included U teammates like Rick Rickert, Moe Hargrow and Jeff Hagen.
"In one game, I'll never forget KG was on the block and the ball got swung to me," said Johnson, who played his last two college seasons at the U from 2002-04. "I was a step beyond the college three-point line, probably NBA range. I'm thinking I got an easy three, so I took my time a little bit. KG went from being in the paint to flying to contest me as I'm rising up to shoot it. I was like, "Oh [crap]."
Johnson in his mind could see his shot being blocked into the seats, so he nervously tossed the ball in the middle of the jumper to avoid the embarrassment.
"I just remember thinking to myself that dude is a freak," Johnson added. "To be able to recover that quickly and contest a shot like that. The NBA is different, but KG was not normal. The intensity he brought to that pickup game was like Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It was just afternoon ball, but he took that game seriously and was on another level. He went at us and talked trash like we were NBA players."
Johnson, who took over the Gophers basketball program this spring, was in high school at DeLaSalle when the Wolves drafted Garnett in 1995 as the first preps-to-pros pick in decades.
"I remember seeing him on the cover of Sports Illustrated rocking the Timberwolves jersey," Johnson said. "The thing I'll respect the most is that KG loves the state of Minnesota. He still has a passion for Minnesota. For a guy who played here and spent a lot of time here to still value Minnesota and the people speaks a lot for what we have going on here. He always holds this place in high regard. That's pretty cool."
The "Big Ticket" inspired a generation of young basketball players to be great. His impact on building greater love and passion for the sport in Minnesota is still seen today, Johnson said.
"What it did is opened people in this state's eyes to good basketball," he said. "You're coming up, and whether you were a Timberwolves fan or not, you watched them. They had some good teams. You couldn't help but fall in the love with him and the NBA. It was must-watch TV. You had a lot of good things that drew you in."
Gophers women's basketball coach Lindsay Whalen admired Garnett playing high school and college ball in Minnesota, finally meeting him for the first time when he returned to finish his career with the Wolves in 2015-16.
Whalen, who retired from the WNBA in 2018, was at the end of her career with the Minnesota Lynx.
"He was such an influential part of the sports landscape in Minnesota," Whalen said. "We crossed paths a few times. I went on his show 'Area 21' on TNT. That night was cool. I get to spend three or four hours with him. He was great to me. He wanted to talk and pick my brain on the Lynx culture. A big part of why he came back was to instill that with the Timberwolves and their team."