When you think of the greatest players in the history of the NBA, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson first come to mind. But amongst this list of greats, we shouldn’t overlook Kevin Garnett. No, he’s not the best player ever, but his talent and amount of time in the league shouldn’t be discounted. Or, as we’ve seen since Garnett joined the Boston Celtics, his ability to spout off insults at a moment’s notice at whatever player is in the immediate vicinity. As he starts his 16th season in the NBA, many are starting to wonder: is it time for Garnett and his volatile attitude to move on from basketball?
In July 2007, 12 years into an impressive NBA career, Garnett was traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, Boston’s 2009 first-round draft pick (top 3 protected), the 2009 first-round pick Minnesota had traded to Boston in the Ricky Davis-Wally Szczerbiak trade of 2006, and the ever-present ‘cash considerations’. This move marked the single biggest trade for a single player in NBA history.
Everyone remembers the anticipation for the new Boston Big Three when Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce on the Celtics. And they certainly didn’t disappoint. The Celtics won the championship, while Garnett surpassed 20,000 career points and was named Defensive Player of the Year.
And then everything came crashing down. Garnett fell during a game in February 2009 after a failed alley-oop attempt caused a strain in the tendon of his right knee. The injury took him out for the rest of the season and playoffs, and greatly debilitated his play in the 2009-2010 season. In 2009-2010, Garnett missed 13 games with knee and ankle problems, and posted up numbers — 30 minutes, 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and .8 blocks per game — well below his career averages.
In fact, Garnett’s numbers have decreased every year since joining the Celtics, with one exception: the number of bullying incidents in which Garnett has been involved, sparked by his incessant trash talking. Never a stranger to conflict and intimidation, Garnett’s aggression seems to have outpaced his talent and ability recent years.
There was the game in November 2008, when Garnett felt the need to taunt all 6 feet 2 inches of Jose Calderon of the Toronto Raptors by clapping and wagging his finger in Calderon’s face. Or how about the way he got on all fours and BARKED LIKE A DOG (yes, you read that correctly, barked like a dog!) at rookie point guard Jerryd Bayless of the Trailblazers in December 2008?
Or the time he elbowed the Miami Heat’s Quentin Richardson during the 2010 playoffs after fellow Celtic Paul Pierce got “injured”? And no one can forget when he made his own Celtics’ teammate, Glenn Davis, cry on national television. (Although in Garnett’s defense, Davis’ nickname IS Big Baby.)
And now, in the most recent example of his abrasive behavior, Garnett is being accused of calling Charlie Villanueva a “cancer patient” during the Celtics-Pistons game on Tuesday, November 2nd.
Following Boston’s commanding 109-86 win over the Detroit Pistons, Detroit forward Charlie Villanueva hopped on Twitter, reporting that Celtics’ Kevin Garnett called him a “cancer patient” during the game. Villanueva tweeted, “KG called me a cancer patient, I’m (mad) because, u know how many people died from cancer, and he’s tossing it like it’s a joke.” He went on to explain, “I wouldn’t even trip about that, but a cancer patient, I know way 2 many people who passed away from it, and I have a special place 4 those.”
Villanueva suffers from alopecia universalis, a condition that results in sudden and rapid loss of all hair, including eyelashes and eyebrows.
Garnett, on the other hand, insists that Villanueva misunderstood the insult. Instead, Garnett said in a statement issued on Thursday November 4th that “[his] comment to Charlie Villanueva was in fact: You are cancerous to your team and our league.” Doc Rivers, the Celtics’ head coach, defends Garnett, saying, “I actually heard what Kevin said. I was right there, what he really said is in the statement. I’m going to leave it at that.”
Reaction to the event within the NBA has been mixed. Let’s be honest, Garnett isn’t exactly the most lovable guy in the NBA. And he’s known for his trash talking, so it wouldn’t be inconceivable to imagine him spouting off without thinking. Does he really think that people believe he said “you are cancerous to your team and the league”? Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in the heat of the moment.
Denver Nuggets’ head coach George Karl, a cancer survivor himself, felt that Garnett was out of line with his comments. “Sometimes, responsibility comes from knowing when to argue when not to — when to cross the line and when not to cross the line,” Karl explains. And Robert Villanueva, Charlie’s older brother and manager, explained that Charlie has been teased for his whole life and “it’s one thing to hear negative, insulting comments from sports fans rooting against you, but to hear it from your peers, it’s just complete stupidity.”
But plenty of people have come down on Villanueva for his role in AlopeciaGate 2010. In response to Garnett’s statement, Rivers said, “I don’t like the whole tweeting thing. I’m going to state that as well. Guys talk on the court. It doesn’t mean they should or shouldn’t.” And Stan Van Gundy, head coach of the Orlando Magic, was strongly opposed to Villanueva’s Tweets, and said that the Pistons’ forward should act “like a grown man” and not complain about other NBA players on Twitter.
In the words of Doc Rivers, “we should be talking about basketball.” So let’s do that.
Garnett didn’t start out his basketball career as a bully. Drafted 5th overall in the 1995 by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Garnett became the first player to be drafted straight out of high school in 20 years. In his second year with Minnesota, Garnett led the Timberwolves to the playoffs, beginning an 8 year run of playoff appearances. He played in his first All Star game in 1997, and has remarkably been voted to every All Star game since. In addition to earning a gold medal with the 2000 Olympic team, Garnett put up the best stats of his career in the 2002-2003 season (23 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game) and was named the season’s MVP in 2004 after leading the Timberwolves to the Western Conference Finals.
Things quickly started to go downhill for Garnett in 2004. Though his play remained strong, the Timberwolves’ record began to fall along with the decreased talent of the team’s supporting cast. After two weak seasons, Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics, marking the beginning of his boorish behavior towards his peers.
Is it any coincidence that as his level of play declines, Garnett’s attitude and bullying have increased? In the prime of his career, Garnett was able to let his skills speak for themselves, without stooping to intimidation and humiliation tactics. It seems as if he’s desperately trying to cover up his rapidly decaying skills with an obnoxious, in-your-face attitude. If he keeps these antics up, he’ll be remembered as a trash-talking asshole who pounds his chest like a gorilla after every minor triumph, not as the great player he is.
And let’s be honest: at 34, Garnett isn’t getting any younger. As he, Allen, and Pierce approach the end of their contracts, the Celtics will be forced to rebuild and start over with younger players. At this point in his game, Garnett should be leading by example and mentoring younger players, not yelling, finger wagging, and hurling vindictive insults at players half his size.
Does this mean that Garnett’s career should be over? No, not necessarily. But as he continues to age, his skills and stats will no doubt continue to decline and his petulant behavior of late will only cause people to forget the brilliant player he once was. If he continues to let his actions speak louder than his play, it may be time to move on from the game before he tarnishes his basketball legacy forever.
Ashley Walker is a writer and editor living in Las Vegas. An avid sports fan, Ashley expresses her interest through her contributions to Prose Before Hos and on her personal sports blog, Skirt on the Sideline. Ashley is also a natural beauty writer for the Las Vegas Examiner.
See Also: Memories of the Past, Visions of the Future, A Letter to Bulls Center Joakim Noah, Re: Kevin Garnett, Can the Celtics Be An Elite Offensive Team?, The NBA’s Top 10 Power Forwards, Joakim Noah Calls Kevin Garnett Ugly, Back to the Meaning of Sports, and The NBA All-Decade Team by Position from 2000-2010.