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Garnett, James lead along different paths

By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2010

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Greatness leaves its mark, and Leon Powe can prove it. As a member of the 2008 NBA champion Celtics, he immersed himself in the fiercely competitive, emotionally charged environment fueled by Kevin Garnett, and he flourished as a player because of it. KG’s impact on the Boston franchise was immediate and profound — and intermittently uncomfortable for those who didn’t buy into the new level of intensity.

This season, Powe also bore witness to the influence of LeBron James, who, like Garnett, was a high school basketball savant who leaped directly to the pros and instantly altered the culture of his team. The King implemented enthusiasm and inclusion as his galvanizing forces on the Cavaliers, cementing a reputation as a kinder, gentler leader.

King James and KG will step onto the TD Garden parquet tonight for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, with their signature pregame rituals accenting their different approaches: Garnett, head bowed, eyes burning, will thump his head into the basket support. James, gazing upward, will grab a fistful of resin and playfully toss it toward the rafters.

Until 48 hours ago, the argument could be made that both strategies were successful. But with heavily favored Cleveland down, three games to two, and on the brink of elimination, there are questions anew about how James leads — or doesn’t lead — his team. The two-time MVP is suddenly under siege following his lackluster Game 5 performance for failing to demonstrate the urgency, intensity, and edge that are required of elite performers.

Which is more effective: a KG shove or a LeBron embrace? Powe, who reveres both superstars, believes there is a place in the game for both.

According to Powe, James feels compelled to foster relationships that extend beyond the court. Garnett limits his trust to the space between the lines.

Asked how many times he went to Garnett’s home during their two seasons together, Powe answered, “Once. He told me to come over and gave me the directions. I’m driving around the middle of nowhere and I call him and say, ‘Where am I going?’ He says, ‘I’ll pick you up.’ So he comes and takes me to his house. I could never find it again — and that’s exactly what he wanted.’’

Powe has been with the Cavaliers less than one year, yet he already has been to James’s home “too many times to count.’’

“He needs to be around people,’’ Powe said. “He likes the attention, the activity. He’s got a chef at his house and we sit around and eat and laugh. It brings us together.

“LeBron doesn’t care if anyone knows where he lives. He’s got police at the front door 24 hours day.’’

KG is a low-profile superstar rarely seen in public. His quest for privacy has not prevented him from securing high-level endorsements or becoming wildly popular among consumers. The latest NBA data lists Garnett’s jersey as the No. 3 seller in the league, trailing only Kobe Bryant and LeBron.

The decision to let his play speak for itself was made by the Big Ticket long ago.

“You have to understand, KG keeps to himself,’’ Powe said. “He don’t trust nobody.’’

Not true, counters Garnett. He has a circle of friends, but the group is small, shrouded, airtight. The reason for that traces back nearly two decades.

Defining moments
In May 1994, after his high school team from Mauldin, S.C., won the state championship and Garnett was named Mr. Basketball, a fight broke out between a white student and group of black students. Garnett was there, and when police descended, lights flashing, they surveyed the landscape and slapped the handcuffs on the 6-foot-11-inch kid and nearly every other African-American in the vicinity. There were conflicting reports on what transpired; some say Garnett was an innocent bystander, others claim he was involved.

In any case, his pristine reputation was shredded. The polite, outgoing, well-respected boy had become the lightning rod of a racial maelstrom, and when he turned to members of the community for support, he was stunned as some of them looked the other way.

“I’m big on personal trust and loyalty,’’ Garnett explained. “Once you damage that, it’s pretty much over.’’

The incident in Mauldin changed everything. He moved to Chicago and enrolled at Farragut Academy for his final year of high school. He put the incident behind him, but never forgot it.

“When you are young, you take everything at face value,’’ Garnett said. “Then you find out there are plastic people, these people you thought you knew, that when the lights come on, and it’s a high-volume light, all of a sudden they start to melt. I learned that the hard way.

“It was a crossroad for me. It made me who I am. From then on I made people gain my trust, instead of just giving it to them.

“I’m human. I’m no saint. But when someone puts the cuffs on you and throws you behind bars, it does something to you. You see the world differently.’’

LeBron’s world centered on a single mother who raised him alone and a band of basketball brothers who quickly became the siblings he never had. His coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, Dru Joyce, became his confidant and surrogate father.

“I was an only child,’’ James said. “I liked to have people around me all the time. And I was surrounded by people who looked out for me.

“What happened to KG would change anybody. I’ve never experienced anything like that, but I can understand why he’d take a step back.’’

James endured his own travails as a high school senior. By then he had graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and won multiple state championships.

“There was jealousy,’’ said Joyce. “There was this sense of, ‘Who do you think you are?’ There were people who wanted to take him down.’’

James provided them with the opportunity when he accepted a pair of throwback jerseys from a local merchant that was in direct violation of the Ohio Athletic Association regulations. Suddenly James was in danger of forfeiting the remainder of his high school career.

“The day it happened, he sat in the bleachers and cried,’’ Joyce said. “He knew basketball wasn’t over for him. He was going to the NBA. But at that moment, that didn’t matter. He had let down his friends, his teammates.’’

James returned the jerseys, challenged the Ohio Athletic Association in court and had his suspension reduced to two games. He was bewildered by the number of sudden detractors, who looked vaguely like those who had clamored for his autograph just days earlier.

“But he dealt with it,’’ said Joyce. “He wasn’t bitter. It didn’t define him. Even at that age, he already understood how ‘celebrity’ worked.

“I’ve always said if anyone was built for this life, it’s him.’’

A matter of balance
James and Garnett have avoided the kind of damning publicity that has dogged Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant. They have grown accustomed to being scrutinized, analyzed, and dissected, navigating the increasingly invasive media world practically unscathed — at least to this point.

Yet every day brings a new cautionary tale, the latest a video of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones making disparaging remarks about Bill Parcells and Tim Tebow in a bar without realizing a bystander was recording every word.

“When I heard about that incident, KG was the first person I thought of,’’ said Ray Allen. “He’s very paranoid.’’

LeBron professed to know nothing of the Jones story, but acknowledged, “You have to be aware. Everyone has a phone. Every phone has a camera. Nothing is private.

“But I still kind of live my life. I can’t shy away from stardom. I like people too much.’’

It is too simplistic to suggest that James’s good nature prevents him from challenging the Cavaliers.

“He strikes a good balance,’’ teammate Jamario Moon said.

It is a mistake, also, to characterize Garnett as a hard-line NBA loner. Cavs center Shaquille O’Neal maintains that KG is one of the funniest players in the league — in the proper setting.

“I enjoy life,’’ Garnett said. “I love hearing about journeys. I fall into stories so deep I can see them. If I had to paint a picture of myself, it would be me on the porch with my boys, talking junk, enjoying the day.’’

He does not apologize for challenging Rajon Rondo to be more professional, to make smarter decisions, to respect the game and his coaches. Rondo has been the Boston headliner in this series, but he will be the first to concede that he has thrived in the system KG created, even if the two have clashed on occasion.

LeBron feels no pressure to tone down his exuberance. It is how he has always approached winning.

“I hate it when people say he doesn’t respect the game because he’s laughing and smiling on the bench,’’ Joyce said. “That’s just Bron.’’

Moon insists LeBron’s willingness to draw everyone in has resulted in a unified team.

“He’s going out of his way to make everyone feel comfortable,’’ said Moon. “Here’s one of the biggest icons in sports, and he trusts us. And by trusting us in his home, that carries over onto the court.’’

The greatness of LeBron James has given Powe hope that he’ll wear another championship ring.

The greatness of Kevin Garnett has already delivered.

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