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Goodbye to Kevin Garnett, a maddening and brilliant muse

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Kevin Garnett taught us all something, even if he didn’t necessarily do so with his words.

Kevin Garnett, basketball genius Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Kevin Garnett wouldn’t talk to me. That’s how we met. The reason KG wouldn’t talk to me is that I was working on a long feature for Boston magazine that served as both my introduction into the world of Garnett and also an entry point into covering the league. All of that was left to be played out, but in the moment, I really needed Garnett to talk to me and he had absolutely zero interest in engaging.

It was media day in 2008, the fall after KG delivered a title to the Celtics and finally made good on his own agonizing quest for championship validation. I was trailing behind him and a media relations person as he went from set-up to set-up, cutting promos and doing variations of the famous KG scream for various television and radio partners.

I had arrived with about 15 minutes worth of questions, pared down from 30, which was pared down from 60, and now I was left with just one, really. My whole story -- my first long feature for the magazine and the one that I assumed would define me as a writer forever -- hinged on this one question that KG had no interest in answering.

"This is Paul," the PR person said helpfully after about 20 minutes of silently following him around. "He’s been talking to a lot of people for a story."

KG’s response was cold.

"They tell you liiiiiiiiies, man."

Actually neither thing was true. I hadn’t talked to a lot of people who really knew KG because after reaching one -- that would be Ty Lue -- no one else would call me back. I suspect that wasn’t an accident. In order to write the story, I had to come up with another conceit. This being 2008, I went with the notion that Kevin Garnett was the most underrated player of his generation and in fact may be the best player of his generation, and I have the fancy new metrics to prove it.

The numbers people I did talk to agreed to a point. It was either him or Tim Duncan, and Duncan probably had the edge. So, nobody told me any lies and the story was fine for what it was, but what I later realized was that I had made a terrible miscalculation. In trying to understand the genius of KG, I missed the madness.

The madness was what I was trying to get at here. Someone had told me that after blowing a couple of free throws in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers that likely would have won the championship, KG decided upon landing back in Boston to send his family home and drive himself to the practice facility in suburban Waltham to shoot free throws by himself all night in an empty gym.

Finally, in desperation I placed myself in front of Garnett and asked him if that was true. He stopped, looked down at me, took in a quick breath and this is what he said:

"I can’t believe I missed those fucking free throws."

And that’s how I met Kevin Garnett.

Over the next few years, we developed something like a rapport, only I have no idea if he knew my name or who I wrote for or even what I wrote about him. I ripped him once (contextually, I thought) when his on-court histrionics went over the line (again). The entire Celtics organization was pissed, including Doc Rivers, who let me know that I was full of shit. I did what anyone should do in that situation and parked myself in front of him, making sure to ask a question so he could tell me himself that I was full of shit. Only he didn’t and that was basically that.

We had other moments, most of them fun. There was the time he started riffing on Beverly Cleary, livening what was an otherwise forgettable Saturday afternoon practice session. There were the tortured analogies that never really made sense, but in KG’s mind were absolutely perfect. There was the time in New York when I completely forgot my question while perched precariously on a folding chair in an ungodly hot and cramped locker room. Christ, I thought, he’s finally going to eviscerate me.

"That’s OK homey," KG said. "You think on it and get back to me."

There was also the completely surreal moment on a bus from San Francisco to Sacramento during the lockout season on the day of the trade deadline. Doc had graciously invited the writers to hop a ride on the coaches’ bus that was otherwise empty except for the coaches, a few writers, and one Kevin Garnett. We had a conference call with Danny Ainge going when we heard what sounded like singing. It was KG warbling slightly off-key to what I think was a Boyz II Men song. When we reached the hotel, Garnett was off the bus before any of us had even gathered our belongings.

I enjoyed writing about Garnett more than any other player because I genuinely admired his game and the work he put into developing his craft. This was always a big thing with him, that his talent was one thing but his work was another. And it showed in so many ways, not just on the stat sheet, but in the way he defended space and the way he moved the ball at exactly the right moment. There was genius at work here and it wasn’t mad. Rather, it was quite brilliant.

If you could get at that, you could start to understand all the other contradictory pieces that made Kevin Garnett such a compelling figure. He wasn’t perfect, all right? He did brutal things to opponents and even some teammates he didn’t like. If he didn’t think you were up for it — if you weren’t built for this, as he liked to say -- he’d make your life miserable. But if you were, if you followed his lead and put in the work, then he’d be with you for life.

Several years ago, a journeyman center named Greg Stiemsma found his way to the Celtics. He made the team and played a huge role in a win over the Wizards. Afterward, KG was glowing, saying, "I’m so happy for Greg and his family."

Stiemsma went on to play rotation minutes for the 2012 Celtics team that somehow made it to within a game of the NBA Finals and he later got a nice contract from the Timberwolves. That kind of thing made KG happy.

But writers? No. There wasn’t much love for the writers even when he filled our tape recorders and notebooks. He would regularly tell us to fuck off, literally, and then give great quotes filled with rambling insights. He couldn’t care less about what we thought, but then use something somebody had supposedly said to fuel whatever rage he had inside him. He was both incredibly charismatic and an impossible person to deal with on a regular basis. This was a mutually beneficial arrangement.

I’ve written thousands of words about Garnett over the years and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that without his presence in my life, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. He was the perfect muse: maddening, frustrating, brilliant, bizarre, and ultimately unknowable. In many ways he informs everything that I think about basketball and players.

The game moves on, father time is undefeated, all that bullshit. Kevin Garnett will be with me for the rest of my life and he never really did talk to me.