Kevin Garnett, who announced his retirement on Friday, stood as the paragon of loyalty for a dozen seasons in Minnesota. Twelve long years spent trying to carry the Timberwolves to a title ultimately resulted in nothing but heart-wrenching disappointment.
So he left — and in so doing, he affected nearly every NBA championship since. Without KG, there would be no "Decision" from LeBron James and no westward migration by Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors.
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Of course, the league had seen super teams before Garnett joined forces with Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen as a member of the Boston Celtics. We can trace the trend as far back as the 1966-69 Los Angeles Lakers, who acquired Wilt Chamberlain to play alongside Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Yet Garnett’s choice was unlike any other.
He entered the league right out of high school. That by itself represents an enormous amount of freedom, which is a precious commodity even for multimillionaire athletes. True control over one’s career comes in fleeting moments for our sports heroes. For a brief window in time, the NBA not only allowed but also encouraged fresh-faced 18-year-olds to jump straight to the league, taking fate into their own hands. Usually, they failed miserably (and got paid for their services while failing, which goes down as a win in my book).
Not Garnett, though. He was so good so quickly that he commanded an astonishing six-year, $126 million contract in 1997 after just two years as a pro. That deal stood as the final straw for the NBA’s owners, who locked out the players to avoid such ridiculous contracts moving forward. The league instituted a rookie scale, among other measures, in an effort to reclaim what minimal control players exercised.
It took almost a decade for Garnett to wrest back some sliver of freedom, finally agreeing to a trade in July 2007, something he had refused to push for in years prior. He had to crush a fanbase along the way, abandoning the Wolves to seek greener pastures in Boston. With the benefit of hindsight, who could blame him? Within a year of joining the Celtics, Garnett was an NBA champion for the first (and only) time in his career. Any doubt about whether he made the right move evaporated. Kobe was vanquished. KG had his ring. Anything was possible.
This is the world that raised LeBron and KD. Garnett was a five-time All-Star when "The Chosen One" made his debut on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high schooler; LeBron’s own path from prep star to professional athlete was in no small part due to the example set by KG. Durant was a rookie when KG won his first title, helping to usher in an era of versatile players standing nearly 7-feet tall (or "6-foot-13," as Garnett insisted) like Durant.
Both LeBron and KD watched Garnett take on all comers with the Wolves as they dreamed of winning titles of their own. They watched the internal struggle over whether to stay or go play out on a national stage. They saw that sweet resolution for Garnett as a Celtic.
And yes, they saw the NBA try to maintain control over "labor" for as long as possible. LeBron’s current standing as vice president of the players union is no coincidence. His career has been a testament to the idea that players can be equal partners with owners as actors who help shape the league. Through the sheer force of his play, Garnett continued the fight started long ago by Oscar Robertson and those who struggled for player rights and free agency. LeBron and his contemporaries took up the mantle when it was their time.
When the time came to follow in Garnett’s footsteps as a basketball player, meanwhile, LeBron and Durant skipped all the misery that so often accompanies loyalty. Rather than sign one more deal with the teams that drafted them, then listen to trade rumors for years, like KG, they exercised their freedom. LeBron needed just seven years to figure out that Cleveland wasn’t the right place to break through for his first ring; although it took two years, he was vindicated with the Heat. And after nine years struggling against the West’s best in its various forms, Durant teamed up with Goliath. A title almost certainly will follow.
Both can thank Garnett for showing the way. He will go down as one of the modern game’s most underappreciated superstars — and a player who paved the way for the modern NBA.