Essay: The Cognitive Dissonance of Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett is a dick, right? I write that knowing full well he’s played the bad guy for the last five years in Boston, and was similarly antagonistic in Minnesota, except no one watched Minnesota for the last four seasons he was in town. Opposing fans refer to him like Romney supporters refer to Obama: he’s crazy, and not in a good way. Garnett doesn’t do much to dissuade them of this view either, seeming to revel in their antipathy.
He barks a lot on the court, with veins overtly announcing themselves on his sweat-drenched face; he bangs his head against the foam base of his basket’s risers before every game; he’s not against throwing an elbow or two or taking—borderline—cheap shots when he thinks the refs aren’t looking; he says inappropriate and demeaning things on the court to opposing players and teammates; he is so intense during games, even regular season games (the temerity!), it’s not a stretch to say that if an entrenched cubicle worker were to mimic his intensity, employment would be untenable and the worker might even risk institutionalization.
But Kevin Garnett cares about winning, and doesn’t mind sacrificing geniality in order to achieve that goal. He also might be one of the world’s best teammates and a genuinely nice guy, so long as it’s not in the time between an hour before tip-off, and when he leaves the arena.
All the positives in KG’s personality don’t matter to the average fan that only watches him for 48 minutes every other night over an NBA season. In today’s NBA where a player’s personal life—accentuated most poignantly by their twitter personalities—has become almost as important as what they do on the court. Garnett’s case presents a vexing problem when trying to determine who to root for when you’re not rooting for your own team. He seems like a jerk, so lets respond in kind…except, there’s a cognitive dissonance in this premise.
Kevin Garnett isn’t really a dick, he just wants to win more than your average NBA player, and he’s willing to do whatever he can to attain that goal, even if it means going over the line and offending large swathes of people in the process. Recently, Garnett was mentioned a couple times over at ESPN’s Grantland. In Amos Barshad’s piece about Jason Terry arriving in Boston, Terry explained Garnett’s wooing tactics. Garnett was the first Celtic to call him when he was considering their three-year, $15 million contract offer, and this is what he said:
“I heard from KG first. His phone call was simple. It was, ‘You love green, you’re from the Emerald City [Terry grew up in Seattle], and green is your favorite color. So why not be a Celtic?’”
How does that not crack you up? Garnett used Terry’s hometown of Seattle, and the old Supersonics (RIP) uniform colors to try and entice the Jet to join the Celtics. It might sound insane (continuing the often malevolent Garnett trope), but it was funny/zany enough it stick out in Terry’s mind, and in the end may go down as the most microscopic free agency woo of all time.
That’s not the only time Garnett’s humorous side has slipped out for public consumption. He performed a nice a cappella version of the Superman theme song in a post game after Paul Pierce’s heroics in Toronto during the 2009 season. Unfortunately, a lot of these glimpses of the real Garnett are just that: a peak behind the growling curtain that is Garnett’s on-court personality. During Brian Scalabrine’s recent interview with Bill Simmons, he related two anecdotes about Garnett that were particularly edifying in that they again showed a side of Garnett that’s remained largely hidden from the public at large; this time explaining what makes Garnett such a great teammate (fast forward to 41:30):
“In Rome, first time we’re there [this was the summer after Ray Allen and Garnett joined the Celtics and they went over to Europe for some team "Ubuntu" bonding]. Guy comes by selling suits. KG buys every rookie—guys that weren’t even going to make the team—three suits. Every coach, three suits. KG, you know, has like helped out, I don’t want to give names or amounts, but guys in tough situations financially. Former teammates etc.
One night in Phoenix, and this is a personal story, but me and him walk outside the hotel and he’s sitting there in a dark area all by himself. So I’m like, Imma walk over there and see what’s up. So I walk over there, and we talk for like an hour and a half about basketball and what he feels and what he wants to leave the game, and how he wants to leave his legacy.
All he wants people to understand is that it’s not [just] a game, it’s a lifetime passion. And then you see the guys getting in the car and going out and he’s sitting there like ‘these guys have to know the sacrifices they’ll have to make [in order] to make it.’ This guy is…incredibly locked in during the season. He has fun: back of the bus talking, talk, talk, talk [Simmons interrupts and says Garnett's a big time ball-buster] Yeah, big time, but he’s also so locked in.
It’s hard not to like a guy like that if you like basketball. That’s why I have a hard time with the NBA fans and even players…even if you hate Garnett and he talks about your mom, if you watch him and you just don’t like him, I don’t know how you can love the game of basketball. You have to like him; you have to. If you love the game, how can you hate this guy?”
This is revealing for a multitude of reasons. Scalabrine has played with and against some of the best players in the game: Derrick Rose, Jason Kidd, Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce have all been his teammates, while Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant etc, have been foes, so he knows what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the NBA more so than say, the average NBA fan. And he’s heaping praise on Garnett and how Garnett changed the culture of the Celtics when he arrived.
When you just get a soupcon of the “real” Garnett, how are fans supposed to identify with him on a personal level? A more important question: does that even matter?
Earlier this year I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a big basketball fan. We were discussing Robert Parish with a third friend that was lionizing the 1980′s Celtics teams. When I brought up the uncomfortable story that Parish may have been involved in a case of domestic violence against his ex-wife towards the end of his career in 1993, both of them jumped on me and said the story was overblown and Parish wasn’t really a wife-beater.
Even though it was written about in Sports Illustrated, and ESPN, they didn’t want to hear it. Parish was the Chief, and his presence on those glorious 80′s teams was enough to excuse a bitter divorce and subsequent allegations of domestic violence. My friend said he doesn’t really care about a player’s personal life; he only judges players by what they do on the court. This is commendable, but nearly impossible in today’s media fishbowl.
Except, Garnett continues to do an excellent job holding back his true personality, one of kindness and empathy—one where helping a teammate doesn’t find its way into the papers or onto the blogs because helping a teammate is just part of who Kevin Garnett is, and it doesn’t need to be extolled publicly.
My friend’s comment about ignoring off-the-court stuff is fine, really. Kevin Garnett doesn’t have a Twitter account where he can tweet non-sequitur nonsense to enraptured NBA bloggers (ahem, JaVale McGee), but the distance between the on-court Garnett and the amazing teammate that showers teammates and coaches with gifts and helps out those who have been unlucky with their finances—not to mention his droll humor—shouldn’t be overlooked. Just like Robert Parish’s domestic violence shouldn’t be glossed over when talking about his legacy off the court.
Kevin Garnett can be a mean, callous player on the court, just like Parish was usually cool, calm and collected on the hardwood (unless Bill Laimbeer was involved). But Garnett’s a much gentler and generous man in real life, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that as fans. Perhaps Kevin Garnett’s hyper-competitive drive for excellence exceeds the bounds of proper inter-personal decorum, but sometimes that’s what it takes to reach the top of the mountain. Just ask the GOAT.