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Doc Rivers wanted to coach Kevin Garnett and knew what Garnett would bring to Boston Celtics with his production.
But that fiery intensity and high-octane energy? Rivers, who didn't know Garnett that well before their Celtics days, wasn’t so sure about that.
“It was funny,” Rivers said. “I really wanted him, obviously, but my first thought bringing him in the door was there’s no way that that energy and that intensity is real. Danny (Ainge, Celtics president of basketball operations) and I were laughing, there’s just no way.”
Within the first two days in training camp ahead of the 2007-08 season – Garnett’s first with Celtics after the mega-trade with Minnesota – Rivers said, “We both realized, no, it’s absolutely who he is.”
That style and talent propelled the 6-11 Garnett into one of the best big men of his generation, a versatile scorer, rebounder, passer and defender who averaged 17.8 points, 10 rebounds and 3.7 assists in a 22-year career with Minnesota, Boston and Brooklyn.
He won a championship in 2008 with the Celtics and was a 15-time All-Star, nine-time All-NBA selection, 12-time All-NBA defense performer, 2007-08 defensive player of the year and 2003-04 MVP.
Those credentials earned Garnett a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he will be inducted on Saturday with a group that is one of the all-time great Hall of Fame classes: Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Tamika Catchings, Rudy Tomjanovich, Kim Mulkey, Barbara Stevens, Eddie Sutton and Patrick Baumann.
Hall of Famer and Detroit Pistons great Isiah Thomas will present Garnett during Saturday’s ceremony. Thomas, who was born in Chicago, and Garnett, who finished his senior year of high school at Chicago’s Farragut Career Academy, share a bond deeper than a city connection.
Thomas encouraged teen-aged Garnett to enter the 1995 NBA Draft after watching him in a pickup game with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Thomas told Garnett he could play in the league without going to college.
“Maybe if it had been someone other than Zeke (Thomas’ nickname) saying those words they would have had less impact,” Garnett wrote in his ‘KG: A to Z: An Uncensored Encyclopedia of Life, Basketball, and Everything in Between’ published earlier this year. “But coming from Zeke, his words took the form of not only a prophecy but a blessing. A benediction.”
The NBA opened up the 1995 draft to high school players for the first time since Daryl Dawkins was selected out of high school in 1975. Team executives were skittish about drafting players straight from high school, but Minnesota took Garnett with the No. 5 pick.
With the Timberwolves, Garnett emerged as a star under Coach Flip Saunders, earning first-team All-NBA and first-team All-Defensive team in his fifth season at 22.9 points, 11.8 rebounds, five assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.4 steals per game.
Garnett and Saunders meshed, and the Timberwolves – an expansion team starting in 1989-90 – had its best seasons with Garnett and Saunders. Minnesota registered four 50-win seasons and reached the playoffs eight consecutive times. But Minnesota advanced beyond the first round only once – a Western Conference finals appearance in 2004.
Garnett lasted three more seasons with Minnesota – all without a playoff appearance. He was ready for a change. The Celtics acquired him a trade, and in his book, Garnett wrote, “I was stoked.”
He helped usher in a new era of the NBA: stars, one way or another, joining forces. Garnett and Ray Allen linked up with Paul Pierce. Under Rivers, the Celtics flourished from the start, winning their first eight games on their way to a 29-3 start and 66-16 finish.
“He’s the most focused, dedicated player I’ve been around for his craft and brings a culture with him – not intentionally. He just does,” Rivers said. “I’ve often said that every coach should have the opportunity to coach a Kevin Garnett because he takes his job very serious. He forces everyone else in the locker room to take it as serious.”
Garnett was also a known trash-talker. In the preface to his book, he wrote, “He who angers you, owns you.”
Garnett credits his mom, Shirley, for his mouth. “She taught me how vocab, used wisely, can work to your everlasting advantage.”
He said he had three rules for trash-talking: Never talk about a player’s mom or significant other, back up what you say and once you start talking, don’t stop. There might be an opponent or two who believe Garnett didn’t always follow his rules.
“One thing most people don’t understand about trash talk is that as much as I was talking to other players, I was talking even more to myself,” Garnett wrote. “Self-criticizing or self-motivating or self-correcting. The entire game I’d be having a conversation with myself. They key is making sure those conversations are instructive as opposed to destructive. It’s about pumping yourself up, not tearing yourself down.”
Rivers said sometimes he had to get Garnett to tone it down.
“I would have to bring him in my office and just sit him down, don’t say anything to him, just literally ‘Calm the F down’ because he was so jacked up. Just settle him down some games,” Rivers said. “But I wish everybody attacked life like that. Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
After needing seven games each series to eliminate Atlanta and then Cleveland in the first two rounds, Boston beat Detroit in six, advancing to the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, renewing one of the NBA’s classic Finals rivalries in 2008.
The Celtics won the series in six games, giving Garnett, Allen and Pierce their first NBA titles. Garnett was a force in the postseason, leading the Celtics in scoring and anchoring the defense with his team-best 99 points allowed per 100 possessions when he was on the floor.
After Boston won the title, Garnett was elated, “I just want to say, other than my kid being born, this has got to be the happiest day of my life right now.”
In his book, Garnett wrote, “Without Doc, I’d never made it to that mountaintop.”
Garnett and the Celtics lost to the Lakers in the 2010 Finals, and LeBron James’ decision to leave Cleveland for Miami and team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh altered the balance of power in the East. The Celtics made it to the conference semifinals and conference finals in 2011 and 2012, losing to the Heat both seasons.
Boston traded Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn in 2014 for four first-round picks that helped Boston and destroyed Brooklyn’s cap flexibility and short-term future and increased their luxury tax bill.
Garnett finished his career back Minnesota, trying to mentor a young team.
“Behind the scenes what you didn’t see was his leadership, his love to his teammates, his orientation to the rookies – from making them give speeches about certain issues to buying them each suits and making them wear suits to games early in their careers and telling them, this is your work,” Rivers said. “He’s the best you can have in your locker room.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kevin Garnett's fiery intensity fueled career that led into Hall of Fame