Kevin Garnett Is Still Breathing Fire

“The Midwest is known for pimps. I don’t know if you know this, but, you know what I’m saying: Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, there’s pimpin’ going on,” he tells me. “And I saw this big long-ass limo. I’m young. I’m like, ‘DAMN, LOOK AT THE LIMO! THIS SHIT BIG AS SHIT!’ So then B.I.G. got out the joint, and I just remember it was two chicks under the fucking coat! He had this big-ass mink on, and I was like, ‘Damn, is this pimpin’ going on? What the fuck?’ And he was… [Garnett suddenly inhales deeply, as if he can’t breathe] I was like, Oh, this n-gga got asthma or something.”

He never went up to the room (unlike Allen Iverson), but part of him now wishes he did: Biggie was murdered exactly one month later. Garnett tells at least 10 stories like that while I’m in his presence, not including several that were off the record. In each one, he turns the English language into his own amusement park; everyone within earshot was granted a VIP pass.

Garnett also changed the NBA’s business when he signed a six-year, $126 million contract at the age of 21 that contributed to a lockout and, a season later, the departure of presumptively jealous costar Stephon Marbury. Owners thought salaries were spiraling out of control, while players suddenly caught a glimpse of exactly how much money their employers were making off their sweat. Understandably, they wanted more, although what they got after the lockout were longer rookie-scale deals and max contract protections for the owners. When I ask Garnett about the labor strife that was amplified by his historic deal, and everything that’s happened since, he’s simultaneously proud and bitter.

The latter feelings come from the bull’s-eye that contract put on his back. From his point of view, jealousy sprouted around the league. “Everybody I played after that felt—mmmm, it felt personal,” he says. “People that I thought were cool, when it crossed the lines, that coolness kinda went away and it became a real battle. It became real intense.”

But as someone who simply leveraged his pending free agency to make as much money as he could, Garnett believes his record-setting contract eventually helped push players into understanding their power as a collective body, even if that process at times felt glacial.

“A lot of motherfuckers went with owners in secret deals and dumb shit like that,” he says. “I never gave in to the higher society. I called the higher society out and really put owners on the fucking forefront with the real issues. I didn’t believe in the partnership with the league. I believe that the partnership worked if the league actually respected and wanted to hear what the players had to say, and what the players were actually bringing to the table… My generation actually was a little more together on the topics.”

Not even a decade later, Garnett threw the weight of his looming free agency around again, narrowing his desired destinations with full recognition that the Timberwolves had two options: trade him where he wanted to go, or lose him for nothing. It was a subtle prelude to LeBron’s “Decision,” player empowerment, and the superteam era.

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