HOUSTON — His Airness turned 50 Sunday, an occasion that prompted a slew of appreciative videos and stories looking back on the career of Michael Jordan.
Celtics forward Kevin Garnett spoke of his first NBA encounter with Jordan, a Feb. 16, 1996, game during Garnett’s rookie season. Garnett was 19, fresh out of high school in the Windy City. The Bulls were 45-5, on their way to a record 72 wins and an NBA title.
The Bulls won, 103-100, and Jordan, who won MVP that season, scored 35 points and added 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Garnett had 16 points and 15 rebounds.
“Exciting,” Garnett said of his emotions heading into that game. “Believe it or not, you find yourself watching him doing something versus doing what you’re supposed to be doing. That’s part of it. That was his influence on his game.”
Garnett said on-court fandom among players doesn’t happen all the time; it’s reserved for a select few.
“Jordan, his influence was so big and so bold on the game that everybody that was part of that era . . . at some point was so into what Jordan was, trying to copy, trying to duplicate,” Garnett said.
“That was probably similar to when Dr. J [Julius Erving] played or Larry Bird came out. When you look up to somebody like that, you’re a fan, and you catch yourself kind of forgetting, ‘Yo, we’ve got him in a game.’ It’s part of it. It happens.”
There have been many comparisons made between Jordan and Miami Heat star LeBron James, but Garnett disagreed with them.
“Apples and oranges,” Garnett said. “Both dominant, past and present, but two totally different eras.”
Garnett is known as an icy character on the court, but All-Star Weekend provides an interesting break for him in that regard. He uses the time to catch up with friends in a not-so-competitive atmosphere. But once Garnett steps on the court, he returns to his old self.
“I have personal friends in this league, but when I’m competing, it’s competing,” he said. “I’m not out here trying to get you to like me. I’m not trying to be likeable like that, and neither are they. That’s the heart of the competition.
“Somewhere, it gets lost in translation that it’s supposed to be some kind of friendly affair, and I’ve never engaged in anything like that during competition. I’ve never had that.
“A lot of these guys are friends. And they know each other. Maybe that’s the difference. I didn’t enter the league with a lot of my friends.”
Several All-Stars talked about what it is like facing Garnett.
“I know sometimes he gets a bad rap for being a tough guy on the court, for talking a lot,” said Golden State forward David Lee, “but I think you put him at the head of that category of guys that, if he’s on your team, you love him, and if you’re playing against him, you hate him.
“I think that’s not necessarily seen as a bad thing. That’s a thing that should be respected in the league.”
Said Chicago center Joakim Noah, “KG is probably the guy I looked up to the most growing up as a kid. I used to have his jersey, his poster. He’s somebody that it’s easy for me to get up for in a game because I really respect him as a player.”
Garnett said he was unaware that Noah, who is considered one of Garnett’s fiercest rivals, idolized him.
Bulls forward Luol Deng said there aren’t many big men in the NBA who have a high basketball IQ like Garnett.
“KG is not the same as the old KG, but his basketball IQ is still there: his positioning on the floor, his post-up, his movement with screens, his help-side defense,” Deng said.
Garnett draws a hard line between his professional and personal lives, often not commenting on his family at all. Garnett toted his young daughter Capri to several events this weekend. She sat on his lap during the dunk contest, on his shoulders after an All-Star Game practice . . . Chris Paul became the first Clippers player to be NBA All-Star game MVP, scoring 20 points and handing out 15 assists in the West’s 143-138 win over the East. Paul is the third player to have at least 20 points and 15 assists in the showcase, joining Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas.