AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - I love watching Kevin Garnett play basketball. Bet you do, too. But I feel like I don't know a thing about the guy. Never will. And neither will you. That's just the way it is now.
I thought about this while reading a couple of great articles this past week. One was a piece titled, "Josh Beckett Won't Return My Phone Calls," written by Pat Jordan, which appeared on the website Slate.com. The other was a column by the estimable Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press.
Jordan wrote about the insular lives led by today's athletes - how they are shielded by publicists, agents, and lawyers. He remembered the old days when he'd play pickup basketball with Tom Seaver while researching a piece on the Mets ace. Albom's column described a walk with Joe Dumars through the North End of Boston when Dumars was playing guard for the Pistons in a spring series against the Celtics 20 years ago.
That stuff doesn't happen anymore and you, the reader, are poorer for it. Today's players are protected from the media by team publicists. There are too many people with media passes. Players don't need us. We are a nuisance - tolerated at best. Interview access is parsed out like a high school hall pass.
"Kevin Garnett will be available after the game."
To everyone. At the same time. At the podium. And Garnett will be polite and classy as always. But we won't be able to tell you what Garnett is really like. We'll never see him away from the court, away from the postgame interview room.
And it's not just the superstars. The Globe's intrepid Marc J. Spears tells me that he sometimes has to go through Rajon Rondo's publicist to get a quote from the Celtic guard.
Rajon Rondo has a publicist. Think about that for a second. I'm pretty sure Greg Kite never had a publicist. I know this because Kite was my neighbor when I covered the Celtics and we used to share rides to Logan. We both knew that Monday was trash day in West Newton.
"With me, it was Rick Robey," says colleague Bob Ryan. "Robey lived in Hingham and he'd pick up myself and Mike Fine [Patriot Ledger] on the way to the airport."
We were able to tell you a lot about those Celtics because we traveled with them. On commercial aircraft. On buses. In hotel lobbies and hotel bars.
We knew that Scott Wedman carried a half-gallon jug of spring water at all times (love to see him get that through security now) and that Rick Carlisle could play classical piano without sheet music. We knew that K.C. Jones and Jimmy Rodgers loved to argue about the best ribs in Kansas City - Gates or Bryant's?
Chris Ford was "Doc," Robey was "Footer," and Carlisle was "Flip." Jones could never remember Carlisle's first name, or his nickname, so he just called him "Carlisle."
We knew that Kevin McHale's bust-out Minnesota friends would be parked in a Winnebago outside the Milwaukee Hyatt any time the Celtics played the Bucks. We knew that Larry Bird drove only American cars and wouldn't drink beer out of green bottles (something about cigarette butts in a Molson bottle at a college party). Johnny Most was addicted to cigarettes, but Larry wouldn't let Johnny smoke on the team bus.
We knew that Cedric Maxwell would always have Dolph Schayes paged over the terminal intercom when the Celtics were waiting for baggage. Anywhere in America. Every trip. For years.
"Would Mr. Dolph Schayes please meet his party at carousel seven?"
One day in Salt Lake City, Dolph Schayes just happened to be at the airport and appeared at the carousel asking who was looking for him. Max loved that one.
We knew that Robert Parish liked to buy new shoes in Atlanta. We knew that teammates teased Quinn Buckner because he was the only NBA player with a larger waist measurement than inseam. We knew that Danny Ainge liked to play cards with his teammates even though Mormons aren't supposed to gamble.
"It isn't gambling against these guys," Danny would say. "It's a sure thing."
Our guy Spears comes closest to covering today's NBA the way we did in the old days. He has the advantage of being young (which I define as anybody not old enough to be P.J. Brown's dad), experienced (nine years covering the league), and 6 feet 7 inches. He's also a former college player, which separates him from the pack.
But he'll never know what we knew because he doesn't travel with the Celtics and he works in an age when players are conditioned to distrust and dismiss media members.
It's nobody's fault. And it's not a complaint. It's just the way things have evolved, and ultimately it erodes the connection between sports fans and their heroes.