After the Timberwolves traded him, Wolves employees loved telling stories about Kevin Garnett’s rage.
The times he took swings at teammates in practice. The way he glared at unwanted visitors in the locker room. The time he screamed at team employees over a subpar meal on the team plane. The behind-the-scenes tirades about losing, or a teammate’s lack of effort.
The Big Ticket? Those who knew him best thought his nickname should be The Big Ticked.
Garnett arrived in Minnesota in 1995 a charming, eager young man. When the Wolves traded him to Boston in 2007, he was a superstar, with a superstar’s ambitions and sense of entitlement.
What’s important to the current Wolves, and especially Andrew Wiggins as he tries to become the second-best player in franchise history, is that Garnett didn’t take shortcuts on the road to riches and fame.
For all of the stories told about Garnett’s Hulk-like angry side, no one, publicly or privately, ever questioned his desire to win or to improve himself.
Thursday, the Wolves made what on its face is a strange move, trading a productive player in his prime, Thaddeus Young, to Brooklyn for a faded player approaching retirement in Garnett.
Being a terrible basketball team is liberating. Being terrible enabled the Wolves to trade their only All-Star this summer for a teenager, and to earn praise for the move. Being terrible has allowed the Wolves, winners of only 11 games, to rave about Zach LaVine winning the dunk contest as if it actually matters.
Being terrible allowed the Wolves to admit that Young was not a valuable player, and to trade his deceiving production for an important personality.
With Garnett, the Wolves are injecting competitive rage into a locker room filled with the basketball version of professional golfers — guys who don’t mind finishing 15th and taking home big checks.
Among current Wolves, perhaps only Ricky Rubio plays with the heart of a champion. Unlike Garnett, Rubio has yet to prove he can dedicate himself to developing his skills in the offseason, when champions are created.
Flip Saunders flirted with the idea of fielding a competitive team this fall until injuries sidelined most of his prominent veteran players. For months now, the Wolves have played games only because NBA bylaws insist, and because Wiggins requires a classroom.
Wiggins probably doesn’t know or care that Saunders was an excellent college player, or came within one silly Sam Cassell celebration dance of taking a team to the NBA Finals. He’s probably heard Saunders’ coaching spiel a hundred times already.
Wiggins could ignore Saunders if he wants. He will not be able to ignore Garnett.
Garnett insists on playing basketball the way it should be played. He insists on his teammates offering resistance on defense and sharing the ball on offense. He commands respect. And he is something Saunders, Glen Taylor, the assistant coaches and current players cannot come close to being.
He is fearsome.
He is also the only player in Wolves history who could teach Wiggins what he needs to know about becoming an NBA superstar.
When Garnett arrived in Minnesota, his primary skill was rebounding. Through diligence, Garnett would turn himself into an exceptional defender and a versatile, efficient offensive player.
Wiggins has shown he can play well when an obvious challenge presents itself, such as facing LeBron James. Garnett can teach him the importance of, and the difficulties presented by, the quest for, daily greatness.
In polite society, punching your co-workers is frowned upon. At Target Center, right hooks thrown by the right guy might be proper motivation for players who haven’t reached .500 since Garnett left.
For the next year and a half, Garnett, like Saunders, will be invested in making Wiggins great and the Wolves good. Garnett will set standards in a passive, losing locker room. He will give Wiggins an ideal role model. He will become Saunders’ spokesman and enforcer. He might even wind up owning part of the team.
This deal isn’t about nostalgia, it’s about competitiveness — a winning trait that defines Garnett and has eluded his once-and-current franchise.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at souhanunfiltered.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org