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Hero is welcome

Garnett returns to Minneapolis - and city can't wait to see him

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / November 21, 2008
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MINNEAPOLIS - Connected to the Target Center is the NBA City Restaurant, where you can order the Courtside Burger, put your hand inside an imprint of Kobe Bryant's palm in a bronzed basketball, see Yao Ming's game-worn size 18 sneakers, and walk out the back door to a Minnesota Timberwolves game. And if by chance you're a Kevin Garnett fan, as most still are in this town, you can find more of his Celtics gear here than even the hometown Timberwolves' stuff.

The restaurant's gift shop includes six racks of Celtics No. 5 jerseys, Garnett wristbands, Celtics carry sacks, green women's tank tops with "Celtics" written in crystals, and a larger collection of Celtics T-shirts than those of the Wolves, including one with Garnett's picture. The Wolves' all-time leader in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals is long gone, but he is still revered here while his old team is struggling.

"Garnett jerseys sell more than what the Timberwolves have," said Mike Bruce, manager of NBA City Restaurant. "The Al Jefferson and Kevin Love [jersey sales] are doing very well. But Garnett is still the big sell. I don't think we have any of his old Timberwolves jerseys for sale. We sold out of those.

"We actually had to reorder [Garnett Celtics jerseys] for this season. The only thing that we are sold out of now is the Garnett T-shirts."

When told his Celtics jersey was still a hot seller in Minneapolis, Garnett chuckled before saying, "I can't even comment on that. I guess it's a compliment."

Reunion arena

Tonight Garnett will return to the Target Center for his first game in Minneapolis since he was dealt to Boston July 31, 2007. He didn't play when the Celtics visited here last season because of an abdominal strain. A Timberwolves source said Garnett has asked for 30 tickets for the homecoming. Commemorative Garnett posters will be given to fans.

"It's always good to go back to Minnesota," Garnett said. "It's always good to see friends. It's good to interact with people. They've always treated me with open arms. But as far as the game, it will be no different than me going to Milwaukee or Chicago or Oklahoma City or whatever. It's another game that you focus on.

"But when you get to the court and you see [the late Malik Sealy's] banner, it brings back a whole lot of memories and stuff. But other than that, it's another game."

His former Wolves coach, Flip Saunders, begs to differ.

"I'm contemplating going," Saunders said. "He's going to get a great reception. I'm sure he'll be emotional."

Garnett was dealt for forwards Jefferson and Ryan Gomes, guards Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair, and center Theo Ratliff, along with two first-round picks. While Garnett joined forces with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to give Boston its first NBA title in 22 years, the Timberwolves' 22-win total was their lowest in 13 years.

Tonight's game gives Minneapolis a chance to not only pat Garnett on the back for winning a title, but also say thank you for his legendary imprint on the Wolves during his 12 seasons with them.

Forward Mark Madsen, who played with Garnett, said, "Everyone knows Kevin left a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in this city, so there is a lot of love for him."

While the A-listers rarely stop by Wolves games now, everyone from Prince to Jimmy Jam to members of the Vikings and the Twins came to watch Garnett. UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar is expected tonight because of Garnett.

He gave it his all

Minnesotans appreciated how hard the 6-foot-11-inch, 253-pound Garnett played every night. Although the Timberwolves never won a title during Garnett's tenure, they made it to the playoffs every year from 1997-2004 and advanced to the Western Conference finals four years ago. The 2004 NBA MVP also gave the Wolves star power by being named an All-Star 10 times.

"He was always the face of the franchise," said Saunders, who lives in Minneapolis. "If you look at the records before he was there, his rookie year, and after he left, those are probably the worst records in the NBA. He rejuvenated the organization, gave them hope. He changed it from one of the worst to one of the best."

Said Wolves superfan Bill Beise, "Kevin filled the building with energy. He transferred the energy to those people that were here at the games. As far as what he meant to us when he played here and what it's like without him, there's definitely a different kind of energy that's not here anymore."

Garnett also became beloved in Minneapolis for his charity work. While with the Wolves, the NBA's 2006 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award winner gave $1.2 million to Hurricane Katrina victims, $100,000 for tsunami relief, supported WolfCare events for ill children, and once hosted youngsters from the Simpson Housing Services for a holiday celebration at the Minnesota Zoo.

"All the things Kevin did on the court, off the court, the countless hours in the community over the course of [12] years compounded; his presence here was something special for Minneapolis, St. Paul, the state," said Madsen. "To this day, people ask me a lot about Kevin Garnett."

Ex-Wolves assistant coach Vince Taylor, now an assistant at the University of Minnesota, added that Garnett always found time to say something motivating to kids like Taylor's 11-year-old son, Brendan.

"I'd tell my son he wasn't working hard [on the court]," Taylor said. "But as soon as Kevin comes in and says, 'Pick it up,' [Brendan] was like the Roadrunner out there. [Garnett] was a good person. Loyal to a fault.

"He was part of Minnesota. He was a Minnesota kid who grew up here [after going pro directly from high school as the fifth pick in the 1995 draft]. People here have a special bond with him. They felt like they were a part of history with him. There wasn't a person here that wasn't grateful he won [a title]."

When the Celtics won the championship, there wasn't a player who showed more emotion than Garnett. He shed tears, he kissed the Celtics logo on the floor, and he screamed, "Anything is possible."

After years of frustration in Minnesota, Saunders understood every bit of the emotion Garnett displayed.

"He went through a lot," Saunders said. "But it was nice to see him win. He's always been criticized."

When asked how he felt about Garnett winning a title, Celtics great Kevin McHale, now vice president of basketball operations for the Wolves, said, "I felt good for Kevin, I felt good for [ex-teammate] Danny Ainge, I felt good for everybody. I was pulling for them to win and they played well.

"I felt good for Kevin, of course, from another level because I know him so well. But I felt good for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. They all needed each other at that time. None of them alone could get that accomplished."

A struggle in his wake

There isn't any title talk in Minnesota right now. Just hope for victories.

While competitive, the young Wolves are only 2-8 and earned their first victory in November by beating Philadelphia Wednesday. This season's motto is, "See What They Can Do," and Jefferson and rookie Love are projected as the new faces of the franchise. Minnesota also has a talented group of young players, including Mike Miller, Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, and Gomes, but no one on the roster has played in an All-Star Game. While the Target Center is expected to be filled to the rafters tonight, such isn't the norm here.

"I hear [Garnett's name] a lot," Love said. "We changed our court. We changed our jerseys. You can't change the city, but we've done as much as we can, not to get his name out of here, because he deserves to be praised, but we're trying. When you have a [losing] record, you can't do much about it."

Said Jefferson, "We just got to get over this little hump. There is no question about us playing hard. We put ourselves in a position to win every game. We just have to finish out. I like how things are going."

McHale recalled when the Celtics had lean years just before Larry Bird arrived and after he departed. He believes success comes and goes in cycles and the same will happen with the Wolves. He also said the Wolves will be aided in the future by "multiple first-round picks, a lot of salary cap space."

"I know [the fans] want to win," McHale said. "I don't care where you're at. You asked what our long-term plan was; that's what it is. The short-term plan is you got to win some games. It all sounds good and stuff, but you have to win basketball games."

Bruce closed the book on tonight's reservations for the NBA City Restaurant Tuesday morning. So unless you have a reservation, are a part-owner or a high-level Wolves executive, or a walk-in with lots of patience, you won't be eating the Courtside Burger before the long-awaited return of Garnett.

"They still talk about him," Bruce said. "They miss him. This is probably the biggest game the Timberwolves are going to have all [season] unless they make it to the playoffs."

Said Love, "He's a perennial All-Star, sure-shot Hall of Fame guy. Yeah, he was the face of the franchise for [so long]. If people look back and say, 'Minnesota Timberwolves,' they are going to say, 'Kevin Garnett.' "

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com.

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