By: Rich Levine
LOS ANGELES Not every young NBA big man hates Kevin Garnett.
For every Joakim Noah, Charlie Villanueva and Dwight Howard; for every kid who grew up idolizing the Celtics star, only to become disenchanted after meeting him face-to-sweaty face, theres a young pro who still sees Garnett as the player theyd one day like to be; who doesnt take his affronts as a sign of disrespect, but more a means for victory; who doesnt care so much about KG the bully as much as they do KG the teammate or KG the NBA champ.
With all the hits Garnetts reputation has taken over these last four months, you wouldnt necessarily think this was possible. You got the sense that KGs antics had gotten the best of even his most ardent former disciples and that the only fans Garnett had left in the league were the 14 guys he shares a locker room with.
But from talking to some of the big men in Friday nights NBA RookieSophomore game, you realize thats not the case.
Now, thats not to say that these guys still idolize KG. None of them do, and thats more than understandable. After all, its one thing to look up to a player when youre growing up. When hes in a place you want to be. When hes reaching levels and dominating the game in ways that you could only dream. Everyone needs an idol; someone to push you to bigger and better things; someone to extend your aspirations and prove how much one person can accomplish. And if you were an especially bigespecially talented, young basketball player the late 90s or early 00s then Kevin Garnett was that guy.
But once youve reached this level, once hes your competition, you need to forget about all that idolization. Theres no more time for that.
OK, maybe just a little.
Pistons center Greg Monroe recalls the first time he took the court against KG:
It was weird, said the rookie, whos averaging 7.4 points and 6.4 rebounds this season. Thats somebody I idolized growing up. Thats Kevin Garnett. Hes one of the best big men to ever play the game. Hes definitely one of the best to ever play in my lifetime. So youre walking out on the court now, and pounding fists with him before the game, and hes doing his routine, and all this stuff that youve been watching him do for years, and I actually had to guard him. So you know, it was surreal but obviously you have to get out of that.
Once Monroe did get out of that he said he was able to then just appreciate all that Garnett does, without getting caught up in the extra curriculars.
I dont want to say its a tough guy image, Monroe said, hes just a tough player. Thats how it is in this league. People get it mistaken a whole lot. Most of the time hes not even talking trash. Sometimes he is, but most of the time hes just talking. Thats why hes such a good player, thats why hes such an anchor on defense. A lot of people take that as him talking trash but hes not.
The Nets (for now) rookie Derrick Favors was three years old when Garnett entered the league, but as he grew up and developed into one of the biggest frontcourt prospects in the country, Garnett was always a guy Favors looked up to. That came to a head when he first met KG on the court.
My first time playing in Boston I was a little nervous, probably the most nervous Ive ever been playing a basketball game, Favors said. I was star struck.
He also knew that those nerves were something Garnett might try to use to his advantage. He understood why, too. Because it gave his team a better chance to win.
And Favors respects that; he would even do it himself if he had the chance (and its likely that some day he will). But for now, all he can do is stay focused and not let Garnett get the best of him.
I knew I had to forget about all that and try to play my game, Favors said. Hell try to get up under your skin, but Ill never let him do that. Its tough but you gotta be tough. You gotta have tough skin and thats what I got.
Taj Gibson, 25, was thrown into KGs fire last season when he was drafted by the Bulls, and has logged a good deal of minutes in five career match-ups against Garnett. But for Gibson, the connection grew even tighter when Tom Thibodeau took over in Chicago. As the power forward in Thibodeaus defense, Gibson began looking at Garnetts game in a whole new light, and with a new level of appreciation.
Its kind of strange, because you look at him on film, and see how he plays and you see how Thibs has us doing that every day in practice, Gibson said. And its crazy because you want to get to that level. You want that championship. So I think its great. I think hes great
As for the reputation, or the antics that have led others, like Noah, Howard and Villanueva to take such a negative stance on KGs character?
It doesnt really matter what you think about him, Gibson said. At the end of the day hes a team player, his teammates love him, and they won a ring. He win games. Hes where I want to be.