The game itself was always easy for Kevin Garnett.
When the 19-year-old kid from South Carolina by way of Chicago tipped off one of the NBA’s most defining eras in 1995, the basketball world had never seen anything like him. At a slim seven-feet with hands that hung to his knees and feet that must have been borrowed from someone eight inches shorter, Garnett was potential and possibility incarnate. Here was the guy who made team-building and public-relations risks associated with drafting a high-schooler for the first time in two decades seem well worth it.
Those otherworldly physical gifts, we’d come to realize as similarly blessed youngsters attempted to make the leap over the ensuing 10 years, would never have been enough alone. Not even close. But the teenage Garnett also had something the vast majority of prodigies who eventually followed his footsteps didn’t: a burning desire to be great.
There was a time in the mid-2000s when Garnett was the best player on earth. He won MVP in 2004, Defensive Player of the Year four years later, and garnered All-NBA honors nine out of 10 seasons during a stretch that began in 1999. Garnett didn’t just live up to the hype that inevitably accompanied the pre-draft eye test and curious nationwide fanfare of his professional debut. With the maniacal intensity and innate instincts that matched his unparalleled natural and nurtured ability, he somehow managed to leave it behind altogether.
Garnett was no longer the preps-to-pros trailblazer. The unprecedented present made it easy to forget the precedent-setting past, but also led to the widespread criticism that once marked his playing prime.
As Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant traded championship trophies what seemed like every June, Garnett was failing to escape the first round of the playoffs. His Minnesota Timberwolves earned postseason berths each year from 1996-97 to 2003-04, only advancing that final season when they fell to Bryant’s ever star-studded Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The San Antonio Spurs would send the ‘Wolves home after four games on either side of the new millennium, Duncan further distancing himself from Garnett as the game’s greatest power forward in the process.