the wild unicorn, by Andrés Monje

Report published in number 1,509 of the magazine, in June 2021, which you can get here

The intensity raised to the nth power, even carried to its irrational side, was once merged with a piece of the future, of visionary basketball, thrown onto the court more than two decades before its ideal era. From their mix emerged a generational beast, voracious and versatile until the last consequence. A turning point in the game and its circumstance.


Bridge between two eras and styles, a single scream in the air of Kevin Garnett it was always enough to inflame his people, dedicated to the competitive cause that marked the passion of their leader. Chauncey Billups, who shared a dressing room with him at the beginning of the century, said that there were times before a meeting that he even saw him shed some tears. “They were of pure intensity, I did not experience anything like it”, He would confess in amazement. As if for Garnett there was no greater desire than, intoxicated, to step on the court and offer his soul in every inch.

It was Doc Rivers, who directed him in the Celtics champions, that no matter how good he was – which he was – he never commanded that the first offensive play of his team ended up in his hands to shoot to the basket. “Because it always started out of itself “, admitted the technician. His fire was unstoppable. Garnett lived basketball as if it had appropriated his life long before he became aware of it himself. Because in fact, already at high school age, when everything was dreams and not realities, there were classmates who revealed that, during breaks in the game, he whispered things to the board. As if it were another confidant.

The vanguard was him

There is only one basketball, but there are many children that this sport has offered over the decades. A multitude of modes of expression from the same starting point. The evolution of the game is a fascinating phenomenon that is showing new paths for those who play it and Garnett was, in his day, a handful of future thrown in the mid-nineties. A connector of past and future.

Garnett burst into a basketball anesthetized in rhythm and hypermusculated in shape, dominated by defensive bolts and paintings of two interiors with a tendency to hug the rim. And he did it from a profile so novel that it would be difficult even for the League itself to understand what exactly that demon was that, being above 2.10 in height and 2.25 in wingspan, he did not behave like a big man. Or at least, and there the key, not like a traditional one.

His physique upon arrival, with an alarming lack of kilos, was little less than an adolescent among the buffalo that populated the areas. But its deployment was massive, more typical of a giant eaves with the capacity to cover much more track and full threat five or six meters from the rim. His technique also seemed taken from the laboratory. He didn’t bounce, pass, or pull like a man of size – he was several steps ahead – basically because he wasn’t a man. It was a hybrid to be deciphered.

Seeing his novel profile, Minnesota would employ him mostly as three during his first year, along with the talented Tom Gugliotta in four and any reference of more physical packaging, such as Dean Garrett or Stojko Vrankovic, in five. The rest of his career, however, he would draw a gorgeous four that, in its best setting, would have been the unique and perfect interior reference for today’s game. The Unicorn, like five, that every franchise would want on the court: versatile to the nth power, solvent in every defensive zone and ‘flared’ in the offensive phase, with resources to play facing the basket.

Garnett landed in the NBA a quarter of a century before the game understood that he was the future. An interior capable of combining traditional arts (forcefulness near the rim, hard blocking) with avant-garde ways (threat in shooting, mobility and resources in the boat and pass). One capable of protecting his rim and spanning any defensive range called for.

Around the latter, Kevin Johnson, an All-Star point guard during the nineties, recognized that his presence was overwhelming behind. “It was impossible to beat, fast as a feline and huge monsters, it covered everything. He also had a wild energy and to top it off he never stopped talking and provoking”, He confessed to Howard Beck.

José Manuel Calderón, a different base profile and also a very contrastate career, would speak in the same direction in his day. “When you stayed paired with him, anyone would think that being a big player you had to attack him for being you faster. But it was as fast as you, much faster than any other interior. And answered any kind of action, inside or outside”, The Extremaduran explained accurately.

Garnett has been, in practice, one of the most capable players in history when it comes to defending all five positions on the pitch and, indeed, any imaginable profile in front of it. An appositional prodigy that showed, through his example, the maximum versatility towards which the game was heading.

“I remind myself to think –Gregg Popovich, legend of the benches, would admit- if that would be the new norm, how could it be so big and with so many resources. It seemed incredible to me”. A vision that Paul Pierce, first rival and later partner, would later verify. “He represented the new generation of transcendent players. Nobody had seen guys like him, with that combination of speed, physical display and versatility”.

Garnett as a turning point

Garnett would not only be a sports link between two eras, it would also represent a turning point at other levels. One of them would be his precocity: he was the first player in two decades to make the leap straight from high school to the NBA (1995), after the cases of Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975.

And in fact he served as a pioneer for the new generation of players, with references such as Kobe Bryant (1996), LeBron James (2003) or Dwight Howard (2004) following that route until the NBA changed the regulations (2005), delaying a year the arrival of the players to professionalism. During that decade, a good part of the franchises would look for ‘their’ Garnett in the complex waters of the pre-university world.

It would, by the way, be the academic factor that would precipitate Garnett’s arrival in the NBA. He had planned to play at the university but was not able to pass the entrance exams on several occasions. That made him rethink the way to enter the professional field, something confirmed later during a private training session in Chicago, before NBA franchises and in the run-up to the 1995 Draft. There would be present, among others, Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders , both representing the Timberwolves. It would not take more, watching Garnett was like playing a movie in three dimensions before the turn of the century.

“It was possibly the best ‘workout’ I’ve ever seen. When we finished, Kevin and I looked at each other knowing there was no risk in choosing that boy. The only possible thing was that another franchise would take it away from us before”Saunders would explain. Minnesota would pick him at number five in that drawing. Only two years later he would make history in another way.

In October 1997, after only two seasons as a professional and just 21 years old, the Wolves agreed with the player a contract worth $ 126 million in six seasons. The largest in the history of the League at that time. The franchise wanted to ensure, by all means, the continuity of its prodigy. But in return it generated an earthquake in the NBA universe.

The agreement exceeded, for contextualization, the sale price of the Minnesota franchise itself two years earlier, making an unsustainable scenario visible: Garnett was worth, even then, more than the Timberwolves themselves. That changed the rules of the game forever.

The owners considered that that contract shook, by excess, the foundations of any order. All tensions and discontent would lead to the 1998 lockout, a circumstance that would not only start the 1998-99 campaign later but, above all, altered the collective agreement by creating a scenario of maximum contracts for the players that controlled, at least in part, the market.

As untamed as it is inspiring

Twelve years in Minnesota, bathed in individual recognition but without any collective success (in just one season, 2004, did his team win playoffs of Playoffs), were a prelude to his landing in Boston in the summer of 2007. He would do it at 31 but hungry for glory. It would leave an indelible mark.

Garnett, used to being a superstar, understood his new role perfectly and immediately: it was soul and heart of an extraordinary team, which would win the title in its first campaign (2008). He assumed the role of spiritual leader of a group that found in his character and passion the compass to follow, but at the same time being decisive on the court as an anchor for a defensive machine and an exemplary offensive complement for perimeter talents (Paul Pierce and Ray Allen ) that was next to him.

Few would define that spirit as well as Sam Cassell, the point guard he shared the field with in Minnesota. “He’s kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Off the track he is a fantastic guy, a great person. But once he enters it he is a true maniac, if you are not on his team he will declare war on you but if you are in it he will do his best for you “Cassell would express about his indomitable personality.

His fire reached such an extent that, a year after being champion with the Celtics, minutes before a routine training session during the month of February, Doc Rivers told Garnett – then on his way to 33 years – to take the free session, go home early and rest. “Coach, you don’t understand. Rivers himself would tell Jackie MacMullan, about Garnett’s answer-, If I take a day off, the rest will feel a feeling of weakness. And i can’t allow it.

Garnett would end up little less than sabotaging that session. As a leader, his obligation, as he considered it, was to always lead by example: not only could he not allow himself to stop training for one day, but in each sequence of each exercise he had to try, as insanely, to be the best.

Those who shared equipment with him told it many times: in the speed ones, he ran more than the little ones; in those of strength, he dominated any great. Garnett was a beast, many times even past revolutions with his people. If you weren’t at the level he demanded, he would hammer your ear with provocations. Not suitable for docile or fire-repellent players, Garnett demanded maximum commitment and was a fire by itself. And it would be, in fact, until the end.

Because when he returned to Minnesota (2015), as a prodigal son and after passing through Brooklyn, to render his last service as a professional, he did so under the same methodology and requirement. That summer of 2015, at the age of 39 and after twenty years of career, he indirectly offered a lesson to several of the young people whom he had to mentor.

Garnett appeared in Las Vegas in July, to follow the boys of the Summer League outfit. There he would coincide with Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, promising talents who were not scheduled to compete but also stopped by. He would arrange several training sessions with them during those days, renting a gym and meeting each other, for the first, at eight in the morning. When the three young men showed up, on time, they saw Garnett exercising, already bathed in sweat.

The veteran had arrived at six. And at the entrance of the young people he nailed a phase that they would never forget. “I thought you wanted to be really goodGarnett launched, alluding to the fact that if they really yearned for it, maximum effort was non-negotiable. That arriving first and leaving last should be little less than a philosophy of life.

It was his way of making them see that it was the path during the day to day that determined the goal, even despite being – as was his case – a profile ahead of his time. Garnett never saved a single drop of effort, combining that sacrifice and inordinate passion with an overwhelming catalog of resources, physically and technically, until he became a generational player. New age icon.

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