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January 21, 2016

Garnett Now and Then

Garnett Now and Then

THROWBACK THURSDAY – Writing a story of The Kid – twenty plus years later – is my pitch of the year. With The Players’ Tribune aka The Voice of The Game giving the stage to athletes, the odds are against me. Yet nobody has what I have, which are vivid memories of Kevin Garnett when he was 17 years old and playing for The Farragut Admirals on the West Side of Chicago.

I won’t reveal all the details or run the final story unless I fail to get the pitch, which again, would not be a huge disappointment. The story about how I got the story will always be one of my best memories as a journalist.

It was way back in the winter of 1995. At the time, I was in my fifth year at Northwestern University and looking for something that would keep my journalistic chops sharp and distract me from what was the toughest basketball season of my career. I read a story about two remarkable players, a transfer named Kevin Garnett and a local named Ronnie Fields. I put on my best sweatsuit after practice, my letterman’s jacket, and wore my old high tops just in case I had to step on the court. I basically went to the west side of Chicago armed with basketball gear.

I walked into Farragut and the first kid I run happened to be standing around seven-feet tall, and he, too, is wearing a letterman’s jacket. I said hello and introduced myself. Kevin was polite and welcoming. I told him that I’d called the principal to ask if I could write a story on him, so it’s best form for me to go see him first. Kevin shrugged and walked me to the front office. The principal said it was fine, and Kevin showed me to the gym. Then he went to meet his coach and said he’d be back.

I remember taking out a Sports Illustrated article and tucking it under my arm when Coach Ron Eskridge, the assistant varsity coach came up to me. Eskridge said that Kevin was boycotting the media. I was surprised since the coaches, principal and Kevin knew I was here to talk to him.

“But if you’re patient and he likes you,” Eskridge said, “you’ll be able to get him to talk.”

When Kevin returned, he stood next to me while the boys were finishing JV practice. “Can I see your Sports Illustrated?” he asked. I said sure. I gave it to him and he said, “I’ve always dreamed of being in Faces in The Crowd.”

Faces in the Crowd was one of the first pages of SI way back (and maybe even to this day) and it revealed high school kids who had potential. I thought he was kidding me. He was dead serious like most 17-year-old basketball players. Even I had the same dream. I looked at him and thought, “Kid, forget Faces. You are going to be on the cover of this magazine soon.” I didn’t because it would have ruined the moment.

Kevin started telling me about my life. The problem was that he was talking with such ease and color that I didn’t want to ruin it by taking out my recorder or notebook. Plus I didn’t know if he on the record or not. He stepped away again, and started munching on some fries as he talked to his coach. Coach ran the shortest varsity practice I’d seen where the kids mostly played against each other with maybe 10 minutes of coaching and yelling. Kevin didn’t have his physical in, so he couldn’t play. That’s probably why coach took the afternoon off. Then they ran up and down unsupervised for most of it. Ronnie Fields, the other star player, asked me to jump in. I did for a few minutes, but it wasn’t serious. Practice was a joke. It ended and I wasn’t sure where this left me until Kevin and I started shooting around.

As he was shooting, he was telling me more about his life – about how he learned how to play – by watching Come Fly with Me and stopping the tape and running outside to practice the move he just watched, then running back in the house, watching and repeating the drill. He told me about the first time he dunked and what it felt like. I eventually couldn’t hold it in anymore.

“Kevin,” I said, “How about if we play a game of HORSE and I win, you go on the record?”

He said sure.

Winning wasn’t hard. Honest. I was strong, in shape and used to shooting for hours on end. I remember he was cordial and didn’t take offense to my beating him – I think it was H or HO to HORS. And on E, I remember him standing next to me on the top of three-point line, dead center. I hit my shot and turned to him. His turn. He took a deep breath and missed. Then he looked at me and said, “I would have talked to you anyway.”

One of the greatest professional compliments of my life.

I took Kevin to Hawkeye’s restaurant nearby. When it came time to order, I held my breath because I only had $10. Kevin ordered Nachos and water, so I made it. I put my recorder on the table and he started telling me the story of his life. I wanted to ask about his family, his mother and father, but he was a 17-year-old kid, so I let him tell me what he wanted to tell, what he felt was important for the world to know about this Man Child.

I then followed him and his teammates for about seven games that season, including his final high school game in Champaign. I remember being at Westinghouse watching KG play with the flu and score 40 points to get the W. The place was so packed, the out-of-bounds lines were covered with toes. When the final buzzer sounded, money flew up in the air all around me. I saw him after the game, in a heap in the locker room. I told him I was so happy for him. He seemed to appreciate my being there to witness basketball history. He probably also realized that I at least didn’t look or act like the street hustlers, scouts and other reporters who lurked around him and Ronnie most of the time.

A few games later, a group of friends went to DePaul to watch him play. I saw Kevin do this incredibly smooth turn-around fade-away jump shot along the baseline – straight out of Come Fly With Me. My heart just stopped.

My story ran in The Daily Herald, thanks to an assist by Mike McGraw, who was the women’s basketball beat writer at the time. Sports Illustrated came to town to find Kevin, and they’d heard I was the only one who knew where he was. They called and asked me to help find him. I said I was sure that he wasn’t in town, according to my sources, but they were happy with having me drive them all over Chicago to be sure.

What I recall most about those fun times during a tough year was how much the team, the coaches, Kevin and Ronnie looked out for me. Sometimes I traveled with a friend or manager, but for most of the visits, I was solo. Kevin and Ronnie always made sure I got into my car. They sometimes followed me out to make sure I got on the highway okay.

I’m going to send a pitch to get a 20-years later story because I remember so much about what he said, how he said it and his way of thinking and acting. Kevin Garnett’s greatest attributes were his IQ. I don’t care what his standardized test scores said. The kid was reciting lines and doing impersonations regularly – and they were good. He was always cordial and respectful except when he, the self-proclaimed “Mouth of the South” was on the court. That’s why I admired him so. And the other notable intangible that has served the test of time is that Garnett knew how to play nice and be social and keep the hustlers, agents and gang members at bay at school without getting too close. He knew that it was wise not to trust people. He did it in a way that was never offensive.

I marvel at not only his basketball accomplishments, but at how he averted the pitfalls that plague so many other NBA players, but particularly those 18-20 year-olds who are thrust into the limelight without any ability to be in touch with reality and intuition.

When Sports Illustrated asked me if I thought he was good enough to make it, I said yes. They said why. I said because I saw the move he did at DePaul, and because I know what type of person he is. Even at 17, he was not The Kid – he was the tallest, most remarkable and talented kid I’d ever met.

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