CHICAGO — What we witnessed Friday were the two sides to Kevin Garnett that perhaps Celtics fans aren’t familiar with.
During a podcast with former NBA players Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, Garnett spent 80 minutes telling stories, being casual with his cursing, reflecting on his 20-year NBA career, displaying pride in his accomplishments, and wowing the crowd with his Kendrick Perkins impression.
A few hours later, a more formal Garnett dressed in his customary V-neck sweater, jeans and white sneakers, was humble and uncomfortable in being named a Naismith Hall of Fame finalist in a city he calls home.
It’s a mere formality that Garnett will join greats such as the late Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan in the Class of 2020 in Springfield in August. But Garnett appeared as if he was still stunned by the honor. As brash and confident as Garnett was on the floor, he is rather modest around his NBA peers.
He admits he was mostly out-of-body during his career, turning himself into a basketball villain on the road, superhero at home. So the Hall of Fame announcement, as much as it was expected, was unforeseen at the same time.
“The Hall of Fame is something that you don’t really think about, don’t really dream about; it just happens,” he said at Friday’s ceremony. “It is a tremendous honor. It’s one of the more overwhelming situations I’ve ever been in. Thank you.”
And the honor came less than 24 hours after the Celtics announced they would retire his No. 5 next season. The first thing he told Celtics management is that he didn’t want the pomp and circumstance given to former teammate Paul Pierce. He wants a basic ceremony.
“Whenever you get your jersey retired, that’s earned,” he said. “I don’t need the Paul Pierce ceremony. I want to keep it real simple. But I am very appreciative asking to recognize me.”
Fast forward to the Hall of Fame announcement. Garnett was announced after Bryant, and the basketball world as well as everyday people are still reeling from Bryant’s tragic death last month in a helicopter crash. Bryant was two months younger than Garnett, which of course forces him, as well as all of us, to ponder our mortality. Our 50s aren’t promised. Growing old and getting those AARP benefits isn’t guaranteed. When he found out about Bryant’s Jan. 26 death, a weeping Garnett called Pierce and the two consoled each other.
The informal Garnett rolled off several Kobe stories on the podcast. The formal Garnett, still moved by watching Bryant video before his announcement, had little to add. He didn’t want to discuss the painful subject of a Bryant reflection.
“Things kind of stopped, if I’m being honest,” he said when his name was announced as a finalist. “I was watching the Kobe video and it kind of hit home to why we’re all here. [His death] was going to feel real at some point because it hasn’t. Today made it feel real.”
When a reporter then followed by asking Garnett’s memories of Bryant, he responded with, “Y’all take it easy” and he walked out of the United Center.
Just hours before, Garnett was telling stories about how much he respected Kobe, how he wanted to join Kobe with the Lakers in 2007 before Danny Ainge made Kevin McHale an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“If you really notice, he never got into it with somebody he really respected,” Garnett said on the “All the Smoke” podcast. “Kobe was a worker. And when Minnesota wanted to trade me, the Lakers were the first place I thought of. I wanted to play with Kobe.”
Garnett said he placed a few calls to Bryant about trying to play with the Lakers, but they went unreturned, and then Ainge called him and convinced him to become the next great Celtic, to approve the deal that would send him to Boston for a bunch of younger players.
In Boston, Garnett transformed from a star to a winner. In six years, he helped the Celtics win an NBA title and go to Game 7 in another season, both against Kobe’s Lakers.
During the podcast, Garnett describes a conversation he had with majority owner Wyc Grousbeck during his early days. He said the conversation was uncomfortable but necessary. He said he told Grousbeck that he would no longer be the quiet soldier he was in Minnesota. He wanted to have a say in how the Celtics moved forward, how they returned to respectability.
And eventually he did. And it’s definitely telling that the Celtics decided to retire Garnett’s number before the Timberwolves did, although Garnett remains Minnesota’s career leader in most statistical categories. Garnett’s game was shaped in Minnesota but his name was made in Boston. He has fond memories of those days, talking about telling Ainge to keep that “African kid” Rajon Rondo. Capturing the Boston fan base with his vigor, intensity and swagger.
But Friday, he was humbled. He was reflective early and saddened and melancholy late.
It was the two faces of Kevin, the man we saw regularly and the man we didn’t see often. It’s a reflection on how an all-time great is aging, trying to understand his place in the game but also grappling with Kobe’s sudden death — like the rest of us.