The fury in Kevin Garnett’s on-court demeanor is legendary; it has followed him all the way from Mauldin, S.C., to Chicago, to Minneapolis, to Boston, and will take him to Springfield. It’s that fury that has motivated teammates and angered opponents, and it became a story line yet again when Garnett got into an on-court confrontation with the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony that Anthony tried to carry onto the Celtics’ team bus.
Anthony had to be separated from Garnett as the Celtics were boarding the bus to the airport following their 102-96 win last Monday in New York. He was another victim of Garnett’s brilliant mind manipulation. Anthony’s concentration was unnerved by Garnett’s words.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers denied rumors that Garnett said something about Anthony’s wife, former MTV VJ La La Anthony, and Garnett will never reveal his secrets.
Off the court, there is no more mysterious or private man than Garnett. What occurs on the court, he keeps on the court. To opponents, he is a despised, unrelenting nuisance, using his full arsenal of mental tactics against even the most vulnerable of subjects. To teammates, he is a fiercely loyal, passionate partner, willing to sacrifice his own personal success to help those on his side.
“I care about everybody on this team,” said Garnett. “Obviously, I care about their well-being. Performance-wise, if I can ever help someone with things that come with this game, off the court, anything that I’ve experienced, then I’ll share that.
“I try to give myself to the team as much as I can. If you want to label that a mentor or big brother, then yeah, that’s me.”
There have been occasions when Garnett was working with younger players such as Jared Sullinger or Ryan Hollins and became irritated when cameramen attempted to record the session. Garnett constantly holds court as the players watch game video and speaks through every part of the breakdowns.
Of course, his words are drastically different on the court. Four-letter words often fill the air. He curses to motivate himself, to chastise himself, and to encourage teammates. There is such a stark contrast between the on-floor Garnett and the one who wishes media members happy holidays after interviews.
“Ever since I moved from the South to the North [as a 17-year-old], Northern people are a lot more aggressive than Southern people,” said Garnett about his move from South Carolina to Chicago as a high school senior. “One of the lessons I learned living in Chicago is no one’s going to give you anything and you have to take it. I’ve carried that mentality into the league with me. Sam Mitchell helped kind of massage that mentality: stand your ground, this a man’s league.”
Mitchell was Garnett’s first and most influential mentor, a 32-year-old veteran when Garnett joined the Timberwolves at age 19. They played seven seasons together before Mitchell retired at age 39 and eventually went on to coach the Raptors.
Asked if he is the Sam Mitchell to Jared Sullinger, Garnett said, “I’m more like a — yeah, never mind. I was going to say something but I won’t.
“When I came into the league, I was trying to prove something to myself and everybody who doubted me, and to this day I think I am still driven by those same things. I’ve never been short of encouragement. I’ve never been short of inspiration and things that’s going to get me going. I’ve always found an edge and been able to keep it.”
Mitchell concurred with Garnett, saying that he has never gotten over the doubt surrounding his entry to the NBA out of high school, that he is still trying to prove worthy of that selection — 18 years later.
“Kevin has always taken the attitude that he’s not good enough,” said Mitchell. “The great players feel that way. After 18 years playing in the NBA, why does he play so hard? Not the money. It’s the love of it and the fact that he’s still proving to himself that he deserves to be in this league and he has to go out and earn it and prove it every night.
“I think that’s what separates him from a lot of people. He still doesn’t feel he’s quite good enough.”
Mitchell credited Garnett with helping to extend his own career by being such an intense and passionate practice player.
“He gives me a lot of credit for things that he’s learned, and I helped him, yeah, but Kevin helped me also,” Mitchell said. “The reason I played until I was 39 years old was because of Kevin Garnett, because I had to be ready to practice against him every day.
“I spent my summers getting in shape, getting ready for him. I was worried about nobody else. He made me a better player and I hope I in turn did the same with him.”
Mitchell is still close to Garnett and was bothered by the rumors about Garnett’s remarks to Anthony.
“I don’t care what anybody says, there’s not a finer human being than I ever met in my life than Kevin Garnett,” said Mitchell. “There’s not a more gentle man or a teammate or a person than Kevin Garnett. Kevin Garnett does things for people that they don’t even know he did for them.
“He’s a giving person to a fault, and I don’t care what anybody says, unless he tells me in his own words, I’ll never believe he disrespected or said anything to anyone that would cross the line. I just don’t believe it. Unless he tells me himself, and he’s not a liar.
“Kevin’s not a trash-talker. Most of the time he’s talking, he’s talking to himself. I played with Kevin for [seven] years, I never heard him talk trash like that.
“Now, Larry Bird, he used to talk trash.”
Mitchell said that, because of his reputation, Garnett doesn’t receive the respect he deserves.
“Kevin Garnett is one of the greatest basketball players who ever played, and it bothers me that people try to use negative words about him,” Mitchell said. “What has he done to garner a reputation that he’s a bad guy? Because he played hard? Because he’s talking on defense? Because he’s on his teammates? Because he’s loyal to a fault?
“Because he wouldn’t shake a guy’s hand [Ray Allen’s] because they came there together to finish their career out and one guy left? He took it personal. That’s what kind of guy he is — he takes it personal. Does that make him a bad guy. No.”
Suns struggle with new faces
The Suns stumbled into TD Garden Wednesday, headed for another lottery appearance. Their prized lottery pick from last spring, Kendall Marshall, had played in 10 games and scored a total of 7 points going into Saturday night.
The Suns attempted to get younger by dealing Steve Nash to the Lakers and allowing Grant Hill to walk as a free agent to the Clippers. They nabbed Luis Scola off the waiver wire, signed Michael Beasley, traded for Wesley Johnson, and acquired Goran Dragic to remain competitive.
But those transactions have produced nothing but inconsistency. The Suns (12-26 heading into Saturday night), have had trouble producing points — a sin in Arizona — and the younger core has fallen miserably short of expectations.
This was supposed to be an opportunity for Beasley to break out after languishing in Miami and Minnesota. But he was benched after shooting just 37 percent from the field, and he played just five minutes against the Celtics. Johnson, meanwhile, is turning into a bust, having played 95 total minutes this season, and Marshall is working with Suns development coach Lindsey Hunter on improving his shooting.
The person who may not survive this retooling project that has turned into a rebuilding project is coach Alvin Gentry. The Suns have an uneven roster without a true superstar and after missing out on Eric Gordon, their best chance to compete is making a deal to clear salary-cap space or hope one of their additions begins to flourish.
“Obviously it’s been tough,” said Gentry. “Our record is nowhere near close to where we would like it to be.
“It’s a process. I think everybody has gone through it at some stage. It wasn’t that many years back that they were going through the same thing here [in Boston], and it’s kind of what happens.
“I think the main thing is you’ve got to maintain, you’ve got to take your young players and get them better. I think you have to try to create an atmosphere where the chemistry is good, and that’s always tough when you add nine new players.
“But it’s kind of part of the business. Most of the great teams — you look at the Bulls, you look at the Celtics, everybody, really, but the Lakers — it’s tough to maintain. We’re in that phase now and we have to keep plugging away and we have flexibility, so we’ll try to add great players.”
The Suns’ problem in retooling is twofold: They haven’t been bad enough to get a franchise-caliber lottery pick and haven’t been attractive enough to sign a premium free agent. They made a $58 million offer to Gordon but the Hornets matched it, much to Gordon’s chagrin.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we can be flexible in the free agent market,” said Gentry, whose team will be $14 million under the salary cap this summer. “So obviously you have to try to land great players.
“I don’t think there’s any team winning without great players.”
Marshall’s plight has epitomized the Suns’ season. He was seen as the eventual successor to Nash, but a wrist injury hindered his summer development. The regular season has been rendered another developmental period. He didn’t convert his first NBA field goal until his sixth game and has played in more than 7:20 of a game just once.
“I think it’s strictly a learning year, and I think everybody is going through that,” Gentry said. “We always go back to the Steve Nash situation, where his first two years in the league were a struggle, and I just think you have to understand that this is a situation where you have to establish a learning curve and see where they are.
“I always tell all the young players that from the summer of your first year to the beginning of your second year is pretty important because you get a handle on what you need to do to become a good NBA player.
“Kendall is a really hard-working kid, and he wants to be good, so he’ll find a way to make it work.”
BACK IN THE GAME
After big loss, win for Seattle
The potential purchase of the Sacramento Kings by a Seattle ownership group led by local savior Chris Hansen, Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer, and department store owner Pete Nordstrom is a surprise only in the timing.
Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof were resistant to a sale, but the reported $500 million they would get makes them a healthy profit after feeling stuck in Sacramento.
The reality is, the NBA steered the Kings toward this fate. The Maloofs wanted to move the Kings to Anaheim and play at the Honda Center. The NBA wanted no part of a third team in Southern California, and commissioner David Stern did not want to penalize the city of Sacramento, which voted for a new arena plan before the Maloofs pulled out of the handshake deal.
For Stern, it was an opportunity to right a wrong executed five years ago. Despite Stern allowing Clay Bennett to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City — yanking the team out of the market after 41 years — he eventually felt bad about the loyal NBA fans in Seattle.
Stern was angry at the Washington state legislature, many of whose members basically laughed when he spoke in Olympia about the need for a new Seattle arena. The locals believed undersized and antiquated KeyArena was sufficient, when in today’s NBA it was a bandbox.
When Seattle’s local leadership changed — from Mr. Magoo-like mayor Greg Nickels to Mike McGinn — and Hansen orchestrated a serious arena plan that didn’t rely on an inordinate amount of state money, the NBA began listening. Construction of the arena won’t begin until a team officially decides to relocate to Seattle, but that hasn’t stopped the natives from getting excited.
Of course, that means taking the Kings from Sacramento, a feeling Seattle fans know.
“The city was destroyed,” said the Celtics’ Jason Terry, a graduate of Franklin High School in Seattle. “There was all kinds of ‘Save our Sonics’ shirts and signs and blogs. Again, this is definitely a good thing.”
Avery Bradley was 17 years old and a junior at Bellarmine High School in Tacoma, Wash., when the Sonics bolted for Oklahoma City.
“People are going to be excited,” he said. “Every time I go back home, I see everybody in Seattle stuff. I think it’s going to be great for the city. It means a lot. It’s going to be nice to go back there and have the Celtics beat up on the Sonics.
“My family is going to be excited and it’s going to help us appreciate having a team there.”
Of course, there are several hurdles to clear before DeMarcus Cousins tips off against Kendrick Perkins as Oklahoma City plays at Seattle on opening night 2013. The sale has to go through, be approved by the NBA Board of Governors, and the city of Sacramento has to accept losing the Kings without a legal fight.
It’s unfortunate that Sacramento has to pay the price for Seattle’s resurgence, but that’s the climate Stern created when he began playing checkers with NBA cities.
Varejao injury a huge setback
The biggest losers when Anderson Varejao was diagnosed with a split muscle near his right knee were the Cavaliers, who now likely can’t package the rebounding maven in a deal because he won’t be back until March or April. The one thing that has stopped Varejao from being one of the league’s premier forwards is health, and he was finally healthy this season before hurting the knee against Toronto in December. There was a great deal of interest in Varejao because of his rebounding ability and cap-friendly contract, and the Cavaliers weren’t going anywhere with him. Second-year forward Tristan Thompson has been flourishing in his absence.
No new taxes
There was speculation that the Celtics waived Jarvis Varnado and Kris Joseph to make roster space for a blockbuster deal, but the reality is the organization has been on the verge of exceeding the salary cap apron since the season began and has no intention of paying any luxury tax. While the Celtics like Joseph, it was apparent he wasn’t going to help the team this season, and the club has shown little hesitation letting go of recent draft picks for the sake of making roster space. Gabe Pruitt, J.R. Giddens, Bill Walker, Semih Erden, Luke Harangody, JaJuan Johnson, and E’Twaun Moore have moved on in the past three years. The first six are out of the NBA.
The reality in Milwaukee is that coach Scott Skiles wanted out months ago, putting his house up for sale in the area and banking that he could get the Orlando job. It didn’t happen, and Skiles had no interest in a contract extension with a roster that is a strange combination of aging veterans, solid but not spectacular youngsters, and the backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, who can score but can’t defend. Skiles never liked this roster and had lost his zest to coach, so his exit was good for both sides. Skiles wants to coach again, but he has burned bridges in so many locations that it’s hard to imagine him finding a job anytime soon . . . The Knicks will get a boost with the eventual return of second-year guard Iman Shumpert, who tore his left anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus during last year’s first-round playoff series against the Heat. Shumpert was the Knicks’ best defensive guard, with athleticism and the ability to score. He will make a major impact in the backcourt.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.