“I’m human. I hurt. I ache. I break. I’m like any other person out here”
Sometimes, just getting out of bed is the hardest thing you’ll do all day. Eight hours (if you’re lucky) of laying mostly motionless is supposed to rejuvenate you. But when you’re north of 35, it can make you feel like the Tin Man before Dorothy came skipping along.
That’s true of a desk jockey getting acquainted with atrophy and of even the most finely tuned professional athlete. It’s undoubtedly true of Kevin Maurice Garnett, who is staring down the end of a 36th year of life, and an 18th year in the NBA.
Getting out of bed isn’t the same as it was 17 years ago for Garnett. Back then, a wiry and spry kid bounded out of bed, anxious to start his next day in the NBA. Today?
Today, the 18 years will sometimes feel like 80. The appearance of his body hasn’t changed much over nearly two decades. He’s still got that wiry frame and bald head. But the toll on it has certainly evolved.
The toll makes joints hurt more and for longer periods of time. The toll makes pre and post-game treatments more necessary than ever. The toll makes the stubbornly prideful Garnett accept the need to miss games for the simple preservation of his ability to move properly.
Yet still, he performs. He’s still an All Star. He’s still the one player that can hold this defense together.
His defensive rating sits at 98, same as it was his second year in Boston, and the fifth best mark of his nearly 18 year career. The Celtics are giving up 0.99 points per possession with Garnett on the floor, 1.073 with him off it. No matter what forces conspire to rob him of lift or speed, he is there to defend our metropolis.
Or at least the paint.
Garnett is Boston basketball’s, grizzled, profane superhero. He’s also been Boston’s center for about a year now, and he hates it. But he does it because he’s Kevin Garnett, and Kevin Garnett does things like that. It’s a move that may have extended his career because other centers still can’t keep up with what Garnett can do on the floor. It’s a move that also comes with a price.
“My path has not been an easy one”
Kevin Garnett’s face betrays him.
He can run all the beaches in Malibu, but they don’t erase the lines drawn into his face. He can wear that scraggly, borderline-hipster look with the “I don’t give a shit” beard, the glasses he doesn’t need, and a scarf that’s worth more than my annual grocery bill, but it doesn’t hide the half of his life drawn from his face.
In the real world, of course, Garnett’s a young guy. 36 year-olds still go out to bars and do shots. 36 year-olds still crack up at fart jokes. 36, in the grand scheme of things, is nothing.
In the NBA, though, a 36-pushing-37-year-old is someone Taco Bell uses in a Super Bowl commercial, and he knows it. That’s why his tone lately has switched to something more wistful than many Celtics fans would like. He’s accepting his NBA mortality.
If that’s a phrase that makes your heart sink a little, imagine what it’s like being Garnett. No matter how at peace someone gets with the end of a career, there’s still the matter of achieving that peace. There are still those moments alone… on a plane, in the car heading home, sitting there watching TV at 3 a.m. waiting for Rajon Rondo to text you… where you have to come to accept that the game you’ve loved and lived for so long is slowly breaking up with you.
That’s what this is, really. Why do you think Brad Miller cried so much after his last game? You think he wants to grow up and face the real world? Not many people do.
Garnett’s fire is as hot as ever. The CPU in his head hasn’t slowed a millisecond. The years of experience have combined into an almost unprecedented spreadsheet of information that his brain processes on every play to determine with almost impossible accuracy the events that will unfold before him as he directs his teammates to their defensive positions.
You almost forget, as you watch him point, and yell, and spew the same exact NC-17 line when that very familiar frame rises and blocks a shot, that he’s been doing it since Bill Clinton’s first term as President.
But when you see that face stare at the floor of the locker room, lips pursed as he ponders another question from the horde before him, you remember. Garnett’s penning the final chapter.
“My drive is uncanny. I’ve always been easily motivated off the bullshit, off the naysayers. And I probably will always be.”
Kevin Garnett has a mental defect. So do all the greatest of the great.
Don’t get me wrong. They have rare physical tools too. But what separates them from the rest of the talented pack is a set of crossed wires that pushes them beyond any physical limits a normal person can recognize.
The annals of basketball are littered with guys who could run faster and jump higher than Michael Jordan, or Larry Bird, or Kevin Garnett. But the password to get into the Pantheon isn’t “East Bay Funk.” It’s more like “fuck you.”
Guys like Garnett don’t have an off switch. When you or I get pissed about a perceived slight, we invariably cool off at some point. We either accept an explanation or eventually blow it off. Garnett is probably still fuming at something that happened to him in high school.
I’m not sure how that will serve him in the real world, honestly. But it’s that passion that pushes him past legend after legend on those All-Time lists.
More points than The Logo. More rebounds than The Dream.
“I’m flattered” is the most he could muster about the accomplishments. As the crowd saluted him for becoming the league’s 15th All Time leading scorer, the look on his face was almost a shy “thanks, but can we please start playing basketball again?”
There is no doubt he is proud of what he’s done, because he hasn’t accepted any handouts or taken any shortcuts along the way. Challenge him on any of his statistical milestones and he’ll tell you flat-out that he’s earned it. And if you even squint a little bit at the response, you’ll see the flames rise in his eyeballs.
But sadly, there’s no forever in sports. And no amount of motivation will stop Father Time’s drive to the basket. In the NBA, Time always finishes the play, even if someone like Kevin Garnett has found a way to block his first few shots.
This may sound like an obituary of sorts. And I guess part of it is. I prefer to think of it as more of an appreciation. He still gets the job done. When most people in his position would have bought a small island and lived off the hundreds of millions they’ve earned over time, he still gets his creaky joints out of bed every morning and brings it every night.
Never satisfied. Never boring. There will never be another. Kevin Garnett.