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'Basketball is my spine'

High school season in Chicago forged Celtic Garnett's game

Kevin Garnett found his basketball identity during his one season at Farragut Academy in Chicago, earning National Player of the Year honors in 1995. Kevin Garnett found his basketball identity during his one season at Farragut Academy in Chicago, earning National Player of the Year honors in 1995. (JUAN OSORIO/CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

Scanning the crowd of NBA representatives awaiting his predraft workout at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Kevin Garnett saw a group of men holding lottery picks for the 1995 draft with better places to be. Garnett leans back and feigns glassy-eyed boredom to reenact what he remembers most about the invited audience on that fateful June day. He stares blankly into the distance for more than a minute, making his dramatic point.

"I'll never forget they all came in and they were looking like this," said Garnett. "They were thinking, 'Man, we're coming in here to watch this [expletive], wasting our time.' When I saw that there, that irked me."

Minnesota vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale was among the group of skeptical NBA representatives gathered at UIC, wondering if Garnett would be the first high school player in two decades to go straight to the NBA. It took an hour to convince the gathering that Garnett was the future. In a gym McHale recalled as "beastly hot," a sweat-drenched Garnett did everything that was asked of him during the workout by NBA executives and coaches shouting instructions.

Let's see him dribble down the court righthanded. Lefthanded. Let's see him pull up for a jump shot at the elbow. Step farther back and shoot again. Let's see him jump and reach as high as he can on the backboard. Again. Again. Again.

"They were just yelling stuff out and I was going and going," said Garnett. "Man, what do you want? Let's see him chili sauce. Let's see him break dance. Let's see him do the salsa. That's how it was.

"Then, Bill Fitch [then coaching the LA Clippers] was like, 'You need a break? I felt he was looking at me like, 'Hey, boy, you need a break?' Even though he didn't say it like that, I took it like he was looking at me like, 'Are you tired? Are you tired?' I was like, 'Hell, no. I don't need no break.' But I was about to faint."

Garnett threw down a show-stopping dunk and released whatever aggression remained with an emphatic yell directed toward the duly impressed scouts, then walked off the court. The NBA crowd left wanting more from the high school kid. McHale left worrying Garnett would be gone before Minnesota exercised the No. 5 pick.

"That workout was one of those deals where you get a snippet of a guy and it ends up being who he is," said McHale.

The predraft workout also served as testament and tribute to the competitor Garnett became in Chicago, where he spent his senior season playing for Farragut Academy, frequented the city's toughest spots for pickup games, and earned National High School Player of the Year honors. All the lessons learned from that year were on display. The attitude. The relentless drive. The intensity.

While the 6-foot-11-inch body may have been underdeveloped and the jump shot a little loose when Garnett auditioned for the NBA, he was, in the most important respects, the same player who would carry the Minnesota Timberwolves for 12 seasons and give the Celtics legitimate hope for a 17th championship this year.

After all, the first big move Garnett made from Mauldin, South Carolina to Chicago showed the kind of transformation that can take place within one year with a change of scenery.

"Chicago embraced me when they didn't have to," said Garnett. "They embraced a young soldier. They embraced a person who embraced them. That's why I have a rubber band that says, 'Embrace change.'

"Chicago gave me a different flair. Chicago gave me attitude and swagger and confidence, like, 'This is how you have to be out here on the court. It's kill or be killed.' You learn that right away. Someone's always looking to embarrass you or say that they kicked your [butt] or something . . . Now that I look back on it, I was a young boy turning into a man. It was definitely a grow-up kind of year for me.

"[I told myself,] 'You know what? I've got to be different here. I've got to get them before they get me.' That was my mentality. My Chicago move was probably my point where I was at a crossroads, where I made a decision to be not just energetic, but to take it vs. sit there and wait on it."

Tired of waiting, Boston and the Celtics are counting on that attitude as much as the ability Garnett brings to the floor.

Farragut a factor

When William "Wolf" Nelson met Garnett for the first time, the Farragut Academy coach could not conceal his disappointment. Waiting for big men to complete his roster at the 1993 Nike Camp, Nelson first thought he was assigned Garnett as a joke. By Nelson's estimate, Garnett arrived at camp measuring 6 feet 10 and weighing 217 pounds. Garnett disputes the numbers, confessing he was closer to 200 pounds.

"I see Kevin and I'm like, 'Stop playing. How you all give me the little guy?' " said Nelson. "Kevin told me, 'C'mon man, quit tripping.' I said, 'Quit tripping? You skinny, man.' "

Undeterred with a roster led by Garnett and Antawn Jamison, Nelson told his players to run. They did and finished the week of tournament play atop the standings. During the camp, Garnett liked what he heard and saw from Nelson, appreciated his passion for the game. Garnett also clicked with Farragut Academy star Ronnie Fields. There was talk about Garnett transferring to Farragut.

"I heard it, but I didn't hear it," said Nelson. "I had trouble getting a transfer from across the city and Kevin lived in South Carolina."

But circumstances in South Carolina changed as Garnett neared the end of his junior year at Mauldin High School. When a white student was beaten by black assailants in a school hallway, Garnett found himself among those arrested. Garnett asserted his innocence in the matter that, according to some accounts, started when the white student hurled racist taunts at the black students. After pretrial intervention for first-time offenders, the charges were dropped, though expulsion from Mauldin High remained a distinct possibility. Chicago, Nelson, and Farragut Academy reentered the picture.

"I went to Wolf and was like, 'I'm trying to figure this out, help me out here,' " said Garnett. "He was like, 'We can make it work. It's going to be different, but man we can make it work.' I didn't even see Farragut. I didn't see no pictures, none of that. I didn't need to. I just knew Wolf.

"When I got to Wolf, he was all of [the fundamental instruction]. But you know what else? He said, 'If you can give 'em 40, give 'em 40. If you can give 'em 50, give 'em 50.' He gave me goosebumps. He said, 'When they see you, beat your chest. You let him know that you dunked on him.'. . . That was the first time I got that from a coach who was promoting me to go out here and be an animal. If you're a beast, be a beast. You're not like everybody else, go out here and prove it. I loved it."

During his senior season at Farragut, Garnett led his new team to a 28-2 record and its first city championship, averaging 26 points and 18 rebounds. At one point, he had more assists than all the Farragut guards combined. As stories of his dunking, dribbling, and passing ability strained credulity for a player his size, Farragut games became one of the toughest tickets in town.

Navigating the crowded halls of Farragut at the end of the school day, Nelson pauses before an impressive collection of Garnett memorabilia, documenting the forward's rise from precocious NBA prospect to 10-time All-Star to 2004 NBA MVP. Game-worn shoes, jerseys. A Wheaties box and autographed magazine covers. Inside the gym, a giant mural captures Garnett completing a reverse dunk wearing the Timberwolves uniform in which he amassed career averages of 20.5 points per game, 11.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists before the blockbuster trade that sent him to Boston in July.

"People still say today, 'I missed work to go see him play and I'd do it again. I had to see it. I couldn't believe it,' " said Nelson. "At the city championships, they were scalping $2 tickets for $50 and $60. I witnessed this. It was crazy. They were paying because they were like, 'I've got to see this.' The stuff he started to do in the NBA with numbers that are real ridiculous, all the triple-doubles, he was doing that to high school guys. It was a show all the time. My problem was coaching that team was like leading a three-ring circus."

When Nelson brought Garnett to the 'hood for further basketball education, it was a different kind of chaos.

Tough competition

More than a decade later, the 31-year-old Garnett vividly recalls the places and players in Chicago where he sought competition he could not find in high school games. He lists the places slowly, reverentially. Kennedy King College. Saturday mornings. Oooh, Lord. Franklin Park. Man, the midnight league. LeClair Courts. Some battles there. Malcolm X College. The Boys and Girls Club on Roosevelt. He lists the players with equal respect. Pros and college stars home for the summer like Antoine Walker, Juwan Howard, and Rashard Griffith. "Hood cats" like Big Hammer and Helicopter.

"All those places he named are basketball sites where they're going to be hacking," said the Celtics' Tony Allen, a Chicago product who followed the growing legend of Garnett around the city as a 12-year-old. "There are going to be Dennis Rodman-type fouls. He played through all that. That's what makes him who he is now. He got that heart from Chicago, playing through the grimiest places, the toughest places, where you think you might not come up out of there. But your game on the court makes everybody love you."

At the well-known 'hood spots on the west and south sides of Chicago, Garnett quickly made a name for himself, becoming an attraction the basketball community adopted as its own. Everyone wanted to see the "Big Fella." Anytime, anywhere, Garnett took on challengers. He learned respect and bragging rights were earned every day, every game. Nothing came easy in Chicago, and Garnett would have it no other way.

"I embraced it," said Garnett. "You know how they say dope fiends chase a high? I was chasing that. I wanted to see who was the best in the city. If you want to be the best, you have to play against the best. You have to experience that. I've always searched that out.

"Home wasn't a great place for me, and I found my sanctuary to be basketball to where I could disappear on the court. It's almost very similar to people who read. They take a good book and get lost in the book. I take my ball and I get lost on the court. I can be whoever I want to be at that time. It don't matter if it's 12 in the morning, 2 in the morning. That was my sanctuary."

Basketball offered Garnett an escape from the memories of his "trouble" in Mauldin and the betrayal by close friends that followed, from the strained household back in South Carolina where his mother went "through some difficulties" with his stepfather, from the "hustling and bustling" and "grind" of life in Chicago that left him longing for the freedom and familiarity of his small hometown. Basketball was the reassuring constant when questions about turning pro grew more insistent.

"At the end of the day, I'm a regular person like anybody else," said Garnett. "I just so happen to have a talent that I manage pretty well, and I love what I do, even without the glitz and the glamour parts of it. When I'm done in these next four or five years, I will still have my basketball. I will still have my court. I'll still go to it when I need to figure something out, or I'm going through a little something. I'll still go to the court and just get lost. It will always be my book. Basketball is my spine. It's my heart. It's my blood. It's my makeup."

As Garnett says this with typical self-awareness, conviction, and passion, his eyes open wider and wider, offering a look into the character of a player destined for the Hall of Fame. He gives expression to the qualities NBA scouts glimpsed in a skinny kid. He describes the kind of devotion and tough-mindedness required to be among the very best.

Going all-out

While other NBA executives filed out of the UIC gym after the predraft workout, McHale made his way down to the court to talk with Garnett. McHale offered a few tips on shooting form, squaring the shoulders, tightening the mechanics, avoiding the tendency to drift. Garnett was touched and impressed by the gesture, though McHale didn't think much of it at the time. McHale was more focused on the talent before him.

"I just wanted to share a couple of thoughts and thank him," said McHale. "He put on a hell of a show."

When all the NBA representatives left the gym, Garnett fell asleep for three hours on the court. He was emotionally and physically drained. He does nothing in half measures, whether playing or pursuing a better future.

"What they loved about me in Chicago was that I'm loyal," said Garnett. "I don't make friends easy. I don't trust easy. But once I do trust, once I do commit, it's a commitment for life. It's blood in. It's blood out. It's not anything watered down. That's just who I am. Chicago was a whole other level.

"So, when they were talking about, 'Could he survive in the league? How's this kid going to deal with it, living with grown men?' They didn't even know. They had no idea what the hell I was coming from. They had no earthly idea what they were getting into, who they were drafting and what was coming into the league."

Boston knows exactly what it is getting into, embracing Garnett in much the same way as Chicago. Now, with the regular season starting, the city can hardly wait to see what he does with his next big move.

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