Throwing a basketball at Kevin Garnett's head requires an almost inhuman level of fearlessness. It might explain why Tom Hammonds, a man nicknamed "The Terminator," did exactly that 10 years ago.
"He had muscles coming out of his earlobes," former teammate Bill Curley said.
One early spring afternoon in 1998, The Terminator was ready to bring the pain. Garnett had just thrown down a huge dunk, practically leaving a Spalding imprint on Hammonds' forehead.
They quickly started jawing at each other. Then Hammonds unloaded his bazooka.
"All of a sudden," Curley said, "they were tangled up."
The day the Minnesota Timberwolves were scheduled to fly west to face the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the playoffs, Hammonds and Garnett were going at it at practice.¬�
"Crap," Curley thought. "We can't have these two fighting."
The scuffle was quickly broken up, but not before Garnett let every single person inside University of Minnesota's Williams Arena know that The Terminator didn't scare him.
"I'm not afraid of your kung fu (expletive)," Garnett screamed.
But a few minutes later, they were buddies again. It was like the whole thing never happened.
"That's just the type of competitor he is," Hammonds said from his office in Florida. "Him and I, we were a couple of best friends. We respected each other."
A decade later, nothing's changed. Hammonds, 41, may have retired from the NBA seven years ago, but he's still a huge Garnett fan. In addition to Bernard King, Hammonds said, KG was the most influential superstar he ever played with.
"He's a high energy player and a high energy person," said the 6-foot-9 Hammonds, who's moved on to the drag racing world — he's the only African-American owner/driver in the National Hot Rod Association. "That's just the way he plays the game. He wouldn't be the same player otherwise."
Having Garnett join your team is like walking directly from Death Valley at high noon on a July day into a meat locker. It's an exhilarating, jarring rush to the head that takes a while to really sink in.
For the Celtics, the crystallization was finally complete on June 17, 2008. That night, Boston captured its 17th championship, its first since 1986. He didn't deliver the title alone, but Garnett's effect was immeasurable.
"KG just brings an energy to life that has an impact on everybody, day in and day out," Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said. "I'm not sure there's an awakening. I think it's more of a long-term consistency. Anybody can have that energy at times, but he has it every day.
"His presence has changed our culture in that way. It had a great deal to do with our success."
Every day people
As Garnett shot free throws Monday, Glen "Big Baby" Davis sat with a towel over his head. Entering his second year in the league, the 6-9 forward is still in awe. Practice was over, but Garnett's afternoon was still raging. At 32, he hasn't slowed his pace.
"The way he works, it's the same every day," Davis said. "Now I understand why he's one of the best players to play in the league."
Garnett is an eager molder of young basketball minds.
"I'm always asking questions," Davis said. "What to do? What to think? How to think?"
By all accounts, Garnett's shtick is not shtick at all. The act, Dennis Scott said, is real. Scott, who spent part of the 1998-99 season with Minnesota, was already 30 when he joined the Timberwolves.
"It's kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," said Scott, a noted long-range shooter who spent seven of his 10 NBA seasons with the Orlando Magic. "Off the court, he's very laid back, jovial if you will. As soon as he steps onto the floor, he turns into the Energizer Bunny."
He remembers watching Garnett's energy level rise like a Waimea Bay wave.
"Look young fella," Scott said at his first practice in Minnesota. "I loosen up a little differently. I'll be ready to play when I'm ready."
Then he realized what many of Garnett's teammates already had. "This guy," Scott thought, "brings it like this every day."
Scott, now a radio analyst for the Atlanta Hawks, only played 21 games for the T-Wolves. But he left knowing what Garnett was capable of.
"If he stays like that," Scott said, "it's just a matter of time before he gets to the Promised Land."
Curley, the former Boston College star who played two seasons in Minnesota, saw the same thing. Beyond the maniacal practice manner was something more, something special.
"With all his yelling you think, 'This kid's crazy,'" said Curley, now the head basketball coach at Thayer Academy in Braintree. "But if you really look into his game and how hard he plays, he's an old-school player."
'I don't see myself changing'
Garnett may be old school, but he does have a sense of humor. He used to practice fancy moves on the 6-9 Curley, who at the time, wasn't in peak physical condition.
"Kevin, just turn around and shoot." Curley used to tell him. "I can't block the shot. Stop playing with me."
The first words Garnett uttered to Hammonds, after he signed a free-agent contract with Minnesota in 1997, were, "You look taller on TV."
On team bus rides, KG provided the entertainment.
"He could do any type of impression of anybody," Hammonds said. "Bernie Mac, God rest his soul, (Garnett's) a Bernie Mac expert."
But when basketball begins, the joking ends. For teammates, the shift can be seismic.
"If you're not used to a type of player who's always hyped up, who's always giving 110 percent, at every moment." Hammonds said. "A lot of guys are not used to that. They've never seen it."
Ask Rick Rickert. At a summer workout in 2004, after the second-round pick out of Minnesota repeatedly scored, Garnett reportedly decked him. Rickert's chin required seven stitches. In November 2000, Garnett reportedly punched teammate Wally Szczerbiak in the head after practice.
The line between passion and volatility is thin. Still, Garnett's temper, Hammonds said, rarely caused problems when they played together.
"He channels that energy in the right direction," he said. "On the court, it's like a light switch comes on. A lot of people can't do that."
There are still critics. They say he settles for jump shots, that he doesn't show up in big games.
"It's a bunch of bull," Hammonds said. "If the shot is there, he'll take it. If it's not the best option, he'll find the open man. I think Kevin's a very, very unselfish person and player."
These days, Garnett has no plans to make over his personality.
"I don't see myself changing any time soon," he said at practice Friday.
Somehow, Celtics captain Paul Pierce claims, Garnett is even more intense than last year.
And, "I didn't think he could go up to another level," Pierce said.
Whether he's practicing his jumper or battling The Terminator, Garnett goes all out.
"Game 75, morning shootaround, four games in five nights," Ainge said. "He still has it. That's what makes him special."