His shadow is measurable and recognizable by merely a glimpse. When he exits the Celtics’ locker room at TD Garden, Kevin Garnett generally wears a hood over his head, as if he truly believes it will camouflage a 7-foot man with a bald crown and diamond earrings.
He fully realizes it’s a futile attempt, but it’s an attempt nonetheless. It’s an attempt at privacy. It’s an attempt to retain normalcy in his life. It’s a signal that when the game is over, Garnett transforms back into a reclusive, sensitive, and mercurial person, far from the screaming, gyrating, and expressive man that shows up on game nights.
What happens with Garnett after this abbreviated season is unknown, and both the Celtics and Garnett are comfortable with that. He will be a free agent, and there are likely four options for the 35-year-old.
He could 1) return to the Celtics for another championship run; 2) sign with another club as the missing piece; 3) retire and soak in the adulation; or 4) retire and disappear into the darkness, flipping on his hood and walking away with little fanfare.
He won’t hint as to which way he’s leaning. What’s more, he cut off a reporter when she inquired about the future of the team. “Next question,’’ he said.
But it’s a legitimate question that will remain until he makes a decision. If this is it for Garnett here, he will leave having made an immeasurable impact on Boston basketball, helping the city become an attractive location for NBA players in their prime, and erasing that long-dried stigma for African-American players.
His influence on the Celtics and Boston as a championship sports town is as large as his shadow when he exits the building. It’s unfortunate that Boston fans don’t get an opportunity to engage with the real Garnett, the one who constantly jokes at practice, his voice piercing the walls at the Sports Authority training center in Waltham, expletives filling the air.
“Unfortunately people never really got to know Patrick Ewing in New York,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said when asked if he had been associated with a player as private as Garnett. “It’s not unfortunate but you’ll never really get to know the real Kevin, just how giving he is. He’s a great personality. He’s funny. So that’s the only unfortunate thing, that the fans don’t get to see that, but that’s part of what makes Kevin great to his team. And I’m fine with that.’’
Changes for the better
When president of basketball operations Danny Ainge acquired Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves on July 31, 2007, for five players and two draft picks, the sides desperately needed each other. The Celtics were seeking a return to legitimacy after years of misery; Garnett was looking for respect, tabbed as a great player on underachieving teams. His leadership skills and heart were questioned after years of playoff flameouts.
It has been a beautiful relationship. The Celtics have won an NBA title and were a mere quarter from winning another, and Garnett has remained one of the game’s great power forwards and spiritual leaders, even if he has earned scores of enemies with his on-court antics.
His resolve is strong enough to ignore his detractors, and he reluctantly acknowledges his place in Boston sports lore.
“I think that we’ve all said that this is going to be the culture since Day One that we’ve been here,’’ Garnett said yesterday. “Doc Rivers has instilled that culture. I’m just one of the players to carry it out along with the other guys here. Being a professional is something that you don’t have a choice in, something that you have to do every day, along with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, true professionals. They are great examples of that.
“At the time when we got here we had a younger team or some young parts and other components that were older and veterans. As far as being surprised [at my impact], no, because when you’re consistent with something then it’s what you are and we’ve been able to establish that here.’’
Culture is a word used often in Waltham. Ainge continually tried rebuilding the Celtics through the draft. He relied on flaky players who had no comprehension of the team’s history. Finally, he scrapped the “rebuild from youth’’ plan and acquired Garnett and Allen.
The Celtics developed a professional atmosphere and a tougher persona. Garnett is almost single-handedly responsible for the team’s defensive prowess.
There has been a heightened accountability here, a sense of one purpose.
“I would give Kevin probably the most credit of anyone in sort of changing our culture,’’ Ainge said. “I think that that maybe is said here and there but probably undervalued to the extent that he did.
“On top of how great a player he is, you couldn’t find anybody do what he did better for our team.’’
More than just talent
Winning legacies are plentiful in Boston. Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, Tom Heinsohn, Cedric Maxwell, and Don Nelson all have been lauded for contributing to Celtics greatness. Garnett was responsible, however, in pulling the team out of a two-decade doldrums, saving a franchise that had endured excruciating setbacks - such as the death of Reggie Lewis, the breakdown of the original Big Three, the abject failure of Rick Pitino - that relegated the Celtics to an NBA laughingstock.
He helped make Boston a free agent consideration for players such as the volatile Rasheed Wallace, who fell in line with the team’s chemistry and team concept.
“[Garnett] is not the most talented player to ever come through here, obviously,’’ former Celtic Tom “Satch’’ Sanders said. “But what he has shown is how important attitude is. There are an awful lot of players who had talent but they didn’t have attitude. They didn’t have passion. He has brought more of that to the table and if you tie that in with his talent then that makes him a really great player.’’
Of course, age and major knee surgery two years ago have robbed Garnett of the mind-boggling athleticism he displayed earlier in his career. He has compensated for that with a tireless work ethic. During yesterday’s practice, he spent time talking with rookie JaJuan Johnson about the intricacies of guarding big men on the perimeter. Last week Johnson said he wasn’t sure if Garnett even knew his name.
Garnett’s passion is apparent, and so are his rituals. When assistant coach Kevin Eastman walked away from the defensive session, a verbal thank you from Garnett was insufficient; he chased Eastman to halfcourt for a knuckle nod.
He followed that by shooting jumpers from around the perimeter, swishing most with relative ease and cursing himself for misses. The lone reason Garnett would consider retirement is the refusal to play another season a level or two below his prime. Some athletes can’t stand to see themselves less than dominant, and we are still unsure whether Garnett is one of those people because he refuses to discuss anything regarding his future.
He said he’s been hearing the “one last go-around’’ questions for several weeks, and he has little interest in discussing the potential end of this run.
He never said it wasn’t a legitimate question, only that his focus is strictly short term.
“I don’t like to anticipate in the future because things are not set in stone,’’ he said. “I’m not a person to go back on my word, so I don’t know. Whatever this year presents itself to be, it will be just that and then the next year everybody will come back and make a decision. So I’m cherishing a lot more not knowing what the future is. I’m embracing younger guys a little more. Young guys who want to work. Young guys who want to embrace our culture and what we’re doing here.’’
While the mission has been successful, it is hardly completed. Garnett’s sweat-drenched practice jersey is proof of that. He has enough focus to block out the future and looming free agency. And his attempt to camouflage that, like those hooded sweatshirts, is not an act, it’s pure sincerity.
“I got one more goal since I’ve been here that I’m trying to accomplish,’’ he said. “And I think falls in line with everybody else’s goal. I don’t think I gotta tell y’all what that goal is.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14