This is bigger than Minnesota, even when I went back to Minnesota. Minnesota wasn’t like this.
-Kevin Garnett on his reception returning to Boston.
Earlier this season at the Target Center, Kevin Garnett received a tribute video from the Timberwolves — a nice little montage of moments documenting his career. The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and Garnett stood and waived his thanks. It was a nice moment, but it didn’t feel quite right — like an old boxer returning to his gym years later when fans no longer remember him. KG is respected, mostly from the old-timers who remember what it was like when he prowled the Target Center floors. The younger fans weren’t totally sure why this man who hacked Kevin Love hard enough to draw a flagrant foul later in the contest was being lauded. “That’s Kevin Garnett,” the man sitting behind me said to his son. “He’s the greatest player in Timberwolves history.”
“Then why isn’t he a Timberwolf anymore?” the kid asked.
The first quote you see above was from Sunday night, which contrasted almost directly to Garnett’s Minnesota welcome. Garnett had just received a tribute video, a raucous welcome and a heartfelt, noisy thank you from the Boston crowd in the first visit Brooklyn paid to the Celtics since Garnett and Paul Pierce were traded. No one in Boston’s crowd was there to see Jared Sullinger or Jeff Green on Sunday. Everybody was there to say thank you to their departed heroes.
The contrast was blatant, and a large part of it can certainly be explained away by the time between Garnett’s tenures in Minnesota and Boston. The departure was fresh for Celtics fans, six years old for Minnesotans. There is no love lost for Wolves fans, just significantly more time passed.
But there’s more than that at play here. Timberwolves fans will be the first to tell you that the front office was a mess during the David Kahn years, and that turmoil extended back to Garnett’s final seasons with Kevin McHale. The Wolves failed to surround Garnett with satisfactory pieces, and he asked to be traded. Minnesota obliged, but there was still some bad blood between Garnett and the front office — after he left, Glen Taylor accused Garnett of shutting it down and “tanking it” for the end of the season, and Garnett in turn suggested that although he loved Minnesota’s fans, he still had issues with how the front office operated. “This is for everyone in ‘Sota!” he screamed after winning the 2008 championship, but it’s a fair guess to say “everyone in ‘Sota” didn’t include Glen Taylor and posse.
Sports fans tend to place a lot of value on, well, sports fans, because what else do we have? We can’t reject Blake Griffin’s dunk, but we can waive our hands around and try to mess with DeAndre Jordan’s free throws. Fans can scream loudly for their favorite players and express approval and adoration for their play. They can, in short, make a player feel welcome — like the place they work is also a place they can call home. Timberwolves fans inarguably did that for Garnett, but the front office clearly didn’t. Thus, “Minnesota wasn’t like this.” Garnett is extremely intelligent. He recognized and appreciated the distinction, that there’s only so much fans can do.
Unless your Twitter and Facebook accounts have been suspended, you probably saw the fervor surrounding Richard Sherman after the NFC championship game Sunday. The national media jumped down Sherman’s throat after his now-famous outburst in which he called Michael Crabtree “a sorry receiver,” but then the media as a whole — to its credit — seemed to gain some perspective and realize the underlying racial issues at the heart of its criticism.
Kevin Garnett, like Richard Sherman, was coming off one of the most emotional games of his life. The highs (the tribute, the introductions, the steal and dunk to win the game) were so high, and the underlying lows (the undeniable onset of age, the failing of his professional abilities) were so low, he would be excused for saying something he didn’t mean, especially in such a throwaway line such as this one. Garnett wanted Celtics fans and reporters to take note: He loved Boston. The phrasing, especially out of context, may sound negative, but it sounded more like he meant to praise Boston than rip on the Timberwolves. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty clear indicator that something was wrong with the front office when Garnett was here, and it’s something he still carries with him.
That’s the challenge Minnesota faces with Love as his contract winds down. The front office needs to make Love, and any other star free agent they try to employ, feel like he is welcome, that this is a place he can call home.
After all, as fans, there’s only so much we can do.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.