First it was Kobe Bryant. Then it was Tim Duncan. And now, it’s Kevin Garnett. The NBA’s stars of yesteryear, the players we all grew up idolizing, are all retiring. One after another, Father Time is welcoming them with open arms as they leave the game with their influence firmly intact upon all of those who followed after them.
That’s especially true for Kevin Garnett, one of the most unique players the NBA has ever seen and a man who is most responsible for shaping the NBA as we all know it today. Sure, his career speaks for itself. NBA champion, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, 15 All-Star appearances. You name it, KG did it. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer on his career accomplishments alone. But to use his career as the biggest crutch to support his all-world legacy would be an incomplete narrative of the full Kevin Garnett experience.
His overall contributions to the NBA are bigger—much bigger—than we all know and it all started even before he played his first NBA game. Go back to 1995 and that time, no high school player had been chosen in the draft since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby were picked in the 1975 draft. Bucking a 20-year trend, Garnett threw his hat in the 1995 draft where he was chosen as the 5th overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves. It seems trivial to think about it now, but Garnett blew open the door for other high school players to forego college and go straight to the NBA, paving the way for a slew of future stars, including two men you might be familiar with: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Just as important to Garnett’s legacy is the fact that he is singularly responsible for instituting a salary cap and a maximum contract in the NBA. That’s what happened he signed a six-year, $126 million contract in 1996, the most lucrative contract in all of sports at that time. Not only was it one of the biggest reasons of the 1999 lockout, but it also shaped the way NBA teams doled out salaries to their players, which remains in effect to this day.
Beyond the history lessons, Garnett was as unique as they come. He was a 6-11, do-it-everything forward that was as versatile on the offensive end as he was on the defensive end. He could literally do anything on the court and no more was that on full display than his 2004 MVP season when he posted 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.5 steals per game for the entire season. It’s a line that has yet to be duplicated since.
Then there’s the intangibles, a word that will accompany Garnett ad nauseum all the way to his eventual induction to the 2021 Hall of Fame. Doc Rivers calls him “the most incredible leader I’ve ever seen.” It’s a quality that Garnett is often characterized, even though the methods of his leadership sometimes bordered on the unconventional and, dare I say, the mean-spirited. He was ferocious to the point of psychotic, intense to the point of mental instability. He once called Charlie Villanueva a “cancer patient.” He was known for going down on all fours on defense, often accompanying the posture by barking at the opponent. His pre-game routine of banging his head on the basketball stanchion is as vivid an image of KG’s unique intensity for the game as anything we’ll ever see in our collective lifetimes.
It seems fitting that in a year we saw Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Yao Ming get inducted in the Hall of Fame, we’re starting a new five-year course for the eventual inductions of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and now, Kevin Garnett. The Black Mamba may be remembered as the global superstar while The Big Fundamental will be remembered for his unassuming greatness. But for all of their accomplishments, neither of those two men has influenced the NBA, inside and out, the way The Big Ticket did.