Thank you, Kevin Garnett

(Dale Tait/NBAE via Getty Images)

It doesn’t take us very long to count our sports championships in Minnesota, so we hang on to moments like these:

On a Wednesday night in mid-May 2004, Doug Christie of the Sacramento Kings lobbed an inbounds pass clear across the court, looking for teammate Chris Webber, who was breaking toward the 3-point arc. Christie’s pass eluded the reach of Kevin Garnett, the franchise star of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Webber caught the ball, and in the 2.1 seconds he had to work with, executed a pump fake that got Garnett far enough out of his way, lined up a clear shot, and caused 19,000 people to panic.

The Kings needed that 3-pointer to stay alive in Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal series. It had been an amazing, agonizing series for both sides. Sacramento had stolen Game 1 in Minnesota and should’ve been up 2-0, if not for a miracle 16-1 Wolves run to close Game 2 and erase a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes. The Wolves won Game 3, a 114-113 overtime thriller. The next three all went to the home teams. In Game 7, Garnett had carried the team on a sluggish night for everyone else, scoring 32 points, grabbing 21 rebounds, blocking five shots and adding four steals. And despite that effort, here we were, one Webber shooting-practice 3-pointer away from overtime.

From where I stood — up near the last row of Target Center’s upper deck — you could draw a straight line in the air from me, through Webber, and to the rim. As the shot went up, I knew it was good. The line was perfect. "It’s in," I said, to no one in particular in a building full of people used to postseason disappointment.

The shot hit the rim, and somehow — no one has yet been been able to explain it to me — bounced away.

Garnett celebrated with teammates, yelled to the rafters, embraced coach Flip Saunders and jumped on the scorer’s table to exult with the fans who had endured seven straight seasons of first-round playoff exits. The Timberwolves were four wins away from the NBA Finals. It was his 28th birthday. All was good.

Kevin Garnett is retiring, he announced Friday, after a 21-year Hall of Fame-caliber career, and that photo right there is his best moment for the team that gave him his start. The Wolves would lose to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals that year, then miss the playoffs the following year. Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell — the duo brought in to help get Minnesota to a championship — left the team. Garnett would stick around for two more miserable seasons before being traded to Boston in exchange for half the Celtics’ roster.

And so you might call it sad, to latch onto an opponent’s missed shot in the series that comes two rounds before the one that really counts. But that Game 7 was everything to a generation that grew up with Garnett, waiting to get over the hump. We’d have driven off a cliff with him right there. We didn’t know what was to come. Now that it has, it doesn’t really matter.

Minnesota has been with him for the whole journey. Drafted as a 19-year-old high schooler, Garnett came to the state at a time when it was ready for the next sports hero. It was 1995, just as the joy of two Minnesota Twins World Series titles in the span of five seasons was starting to fade. Kirby Puckett would play his last game three months to the day after Garnett was drafted, as the Twins were in the middle of a stretch of eight straight losing seasons. The Wolves were still a nascent franchise that hadn’t won more than 29 games in a season. The Vikings were a low-end playoff team. The Minnesota Wild had yet to replace the North Stars as the area’s NHL franchise.

But now we had this kid from South Carolina, via Chicago, who was supposed to change everything. And he did! After he showed great promise as a rookie, the Wolves won 40 games in his second season and made their first of eight straight playoff trips. It all culminated in 2004, with Garnett, Sprewell and Cassell leading the team to a 58-24 record and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Through it all, what was maybe most striking about him, more than his dynamic talent, was how charismatic Garnett could be. The big smile, the way with cameras, the seemingly inexplicable devotion to the team and the city. His knack for candid, hilarious interviews. He was impossible not to love if he was on your team and hard to tolerate if he wasn’t, with his constant trash talk often stooping to unsavory places.

Minnesota in the winter is a tough place to love. But somehow, Garnett did. He stayed loyal to the team, and most especially to Saunders. Such was his affinity for both that he came back to Minneapolis for the final act of his career. He was 38 then — a shell of the player he once was, not there to win championships but to mentor the new young core of the team that once again has so much promise. On his first game back in Minnesota after eight seasons in Boston and Brooklyn, it was clear he had been missed:

Fans in Boston surely love him too, but he was ours and he was home. The guy who had put basketball on the map in a city where it had long been an afterthought.

In his very first season away from the Timberwolves, Garnett won a championship with the Celtics, the franchise’s first in 22 years and the only one he would win in his career. He was an All-Star, an All-NBA First Teamer, and the Defensive Player of the Year that year too, but what people remember most is his crazed, brilliant on-court interview after the Celtics closed out the Lakers in Game 6, in which he screamed "ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE!" with his head bent to the sky and also quoted the 1949 movie "White Heat", for some reason. In between those things, he said this:

"This is for everybody in ‘Sota."

That was perfect. It was all we needed to hear.

You made it, KG. Top of the world. Enjoy it.