BOSTON – Everyone else rushed the Garden floor, dissolving into a dizzy delirium. Even now, Kevin Garnett had his own path, his own private journey. He marched to center court, dropped to his knees and K.G. kissed the leprechaun.
All his life, he had been searching for somewhere to belong, something to make him forever. For so long, the Minnesota Timberwolves had no history. They had no banners. They had nothing but him. He had resisted this trade to the Boston Celtics, but Paul Pierce told him: Give this city a reason to love you, and they'll never stop. He always found himself stealing glances to the banners above him, stopping a moment before flipping that No. 5 jersey over his head and running his fingers over that logo of his uniform.
He's such an old school character born of a different day, a different time. He has such traditional values about basketball and family, but circumstance never allowed him to be part of something with staying power, something with fabric, something forever. Soon, he turned around and there was his conscious waiting for him, the ghost of Celtics past, the standard of it all.
"I got my own!" Garnett yelled into Bill Russell's ear. "I got my own!"
"I hope we made you proud."
Over that deafening din, Garnett had to hear that cackling laugh that forever echoes a Celtics’ championship celebration. Eventually, someone passed him the trophy in a private moment on the bench, and Garnett cradled it like a newborn, talking to the golden orb between kisses of its shiny dome.
The Celtics didn't just beat the Lakers four games to two in the NBA Finals, they administered an ass-kicking of historic proportion. In losing 131-92 in Game 6, in quitting this way, the Lakers committed a stunning and shameful championship series crime.
Paul Pierce deserved the MVP of these NBA Finals, but Garnett changed everything for the Celtics. Garnett made the Celtics matter again. Around the rim, he inspired such visions of Russell, those long arms reaching forever to block shots and frighten foes.
Russell had a soft spot for Garnett, one of those young players who treated history with respect, who carried himself with so much honor and dignity. Russell had been blessed with Red Auerbach as the architect of his championship destiny and felt for Garnett that he had been cursed with Kevin McHale.
They had shared an awkward television moment on that cheerleading network a month ago, when Russell promised to give up one of his 11 rings should Garnett never earn his own. For the original Big Three's greatness, Celtics championships were never won with defense. With Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, Boston had the greatest frontline in NBA history. They didn't win with defense in the 1980s, the way that Russell's teams did back in the ’50s and ’60s.
"It's like coming into a frat," Garnett said. He always dresses like an Ivy League undergrad, but he never spent a day on a college campus. The Timberwolves had been constructed for him to be its epicenter, but he's always been the reluctant franchise player.
He fulfills the duties with ethic and leadership and accountability, but he never had what so many of his peers did: The shots, the stories, the spotlight. In all those photo spreads this season, all those magazine covers, did you ever notice Garnett posing alone? Never. Because he wouldn't do it. K.G.'s ground rules never changed: Paul Pierce and Ray Allen had to be with him.
"They let you know right away here that it's about tradition, and it's about team," Garnett said. "That's right up my alley. I've never been a selfish guy, or a selfish player. It's so much motivation coming in here every day with the banners on the wall, and seeing the ex-players coming in. As soon as you come through the doors, see those banners and see the jerseys and the pictures, you know that you're around something special."
It was past 1 a.m. now, and Garnett had been waiting for Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo to leave the interview podium. He carried with him a golden Spalding ball, and a tortured soul that finally seemed to let go. There's intense, and there's Garnett. All season, the man would sit wide awake on the team’s charter flights home, wired, and so everyone else – Doc Rivers included – fought off sleep out of respect for him.
"I ain't gonna sleep all week!" he yelled backstage.
His wife rolled her eyes and laughed. He was spinning in circles, all that nervous energy manifesting itself into something seldom ever seen out of stone-cold serious K.G.: silliness. His generation of superstars had won their titles, and he was the best player of his era still waiting, still pining, still most doubted. When Allen returned behind the curtain, Garnett had one more long embrace for him, one final rhetorical question.
"What are they gonna say now, boy?"
Garnett had been so loyal in Minnesota. He always understood that part of the responsibility of a franchise player came in the good and bad times, and he never publicly pined for an escape hatch. In some ways, he had become so insulated in Minneapolis, he had lost perspective on the big world beyond the Twin Cities. It didn't take long for Boston to fascinate him, throwing out a first pitch at Fenway Park to the kind of ovation that told him he was wanted, that he was home.
His sneaker company sent an oversized billboard to commemorate his trade to the Celtics a year ago and hung it outside the Boston Garden. Before training camp, the team shipped it to Garnett's Malibu home and he couldn't believe what covered it: "It has like 100,000 signatures on it," he marveled. More or less, all the fans' notes revolved around the same thing: Bring us that 17th banner.
Winning mattered so deeply to Garnett, because he always did the things that made it possible. He was the hardest worker, the model citizen, one of the most gifted 7-footers the sport's ever seen. Still, his career carried a stigma, a label, a series of one-and-done performances in the Western Conference playoffs. To win at the ultimate level, well, the doubts that he could do that dogged him for most of his 13 years. They always wondered whether he contracted in tough times, whether he was wound so tight that he would implode over and over.
"You ever go to school and you had that bully mess with you every day?" Garnett asked late Tuesday night. "It's like I knocked that bully's ass out. I knocked his ass clean out. That's what it feels like."
So, Kevin Garnett grabbed that golden basketball and started his way back down the corridor of the Garden, down back toward the champagne celebration that washed him in validation. He could still hear that Russell cackle, smell that stale cigar smoke and Kevin Garnett marched down the corridor with a trophy and his own words still lingering in the air.
"I'll be forever linked to this city," said Garnett, a Celtics champion now and forever.
He got his own. Yes, he got his own.
Beneath those dusty 16 championship banners, K.G. dropped to his knees and kissed that parquet floor. Finally, Kevin Garnett belonged.
- Kevin Garnett