WALTHAM, Mass. — One after another, they fall through the net like hailstones.
It’s 1:45 p.m. on a Thursday; do you know where Kevin Garnett is?
Practice may be over, but he’s here, unleashing a storm of jump shots.
With eyes as bright as the polished parquet floor, he’s sweating out the pain of the previous night’s loss to Toronto by sinking 20-footer after 20-footer.
Oscar Neely, one of Garnett’s high school coaches, says the 6-foot-11, 220-pound forward has “Michael Jordan syndrome.” He’s so focused, so committed, and so intense, it’s scary.
“He’s a level above everybody,” Neely says.
A half-season into Garnett’s Celtics career, Neely’s statement is ringing true. “The Big Ticket” has pulled a sinking franchise out of the dirt, brushed it off, and restored its sparkle.
“He definitely charges me up. He’s so intense,” Celtics captain Paul Pierce says. “It’s hard to get to the level he gets to. He wants to rip off his own jersey sometimes. But we love him.”
The All-Star starter, who has led Boston (34-7) to the best record in the NBA, is averaging 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.
It’s no surprise to Neely, a former assistant coach at Mauldin (S.C.) High, where Garnett spent the first three years of his high school career.
“He’s an animated character,” Neely says. “What you see today, that’s how he was as a kid.”
Even before he became a schoolboy legend in Chicago, Garnett was a lanky teenager in Greenville County, S.C. Before he could impress NBA scouts, he had to impress Neely and Duke Fisher, Mauldin’s head coach.
“In ninth grade, the light switch really hadn’t come on yet,” Neely says. “But you could just see him, getting ready to explode. Young kids, sometimes, they don’t realize what they have.”
Still, Fisher saw the potential for greatness.
So during Garnett’s freshman season, he called University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith, advising him to come take a look at the 6-foot-6 freshman.
“Send some film,” Smith told Fisher.
“I ain’t sending no damn film,” replied Fisher, who played on UNC’s freshman team in the early 1960s. “My word’s good enough.”
Soon, the Garnett gospel spread across South Carolina. Garnett was a monster.
Gyms were filled to the rafters three hours before 7 p.m. games. Mauldin’s junior varsity team, used to sparse crowds, began playing to big crowds as a warm-up act.
“We’ve finally got people we can play in front of!” the JV kids gushed to Neely.
As a junior, Garnett averaged 28.5 points, 18.5 rebounds and 7 blocks. He led the Mavericks to the state semifinals and was named South Carolina’s Mr. Basketball.
By then, Neely had become the head coach at rival J.L. Mann High School. Trying to stop Garnett, he says, was futile.
Twice, Neely coached against him. Each time, he gave his players simple directions: Grab him, hold him, even go to the bathroom with him if that’s what it takes. Just do something!
Garnett, who during one of the matchups scored 15 fourth-quarter points to give Mauldin a victory, never lost focus.
“Coach,” he told Neely, “that’s not going to work. You better change your strategy.”
That fire, Fisher says, burned long after games ended. After Garnett’s sophomore year at Mauldin, Fisher passed by the future NBA fifth overall draft pick in the hallway.
“I saw him one day in June,” Fisher says. “I asked him where he was going. He kind of shocked me.”
Replied Garnett, before heading to a nearby park, “To work on my game coach.”
Hoops, Fisher said, had become Garnett’s No. 1 priority.
“He made basketball a focal point of his life,” Fisher says. “He worked so hard at it. He can’t walk into a gym without picking up a basketball. You have to enjoy doing it. He loves it.”
Garnett, however, hit a road block. At the end of his junior year at Mauldin, he was arrested in connection with the beating of a white student. He maintained his innocence as a bystander, and the charges were eventually dropped, but it was time to go.
He moved to Chicago with his mother, Shirley Irby, and his younger sister Ashley in 1994. There, he hooked up with Farragut Academy’s William “Wolf” Nelson, who had coached Garnett at Nike Camp a year earlier.
Teaming with Antawn Jamison and Ronnie Fields, Garnett led Farragut to a 28-2 record and a city title. Along the way, the senior averaged 25.2 points, 17.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 6.5 blocks.
“He did things better than anybody else,” Fisher says of Garnett, who USA Today named its National High School Player of the Year in 1995. “God just gave him a gift.”
On June 26, 1995, Sports Illustrated released the first of six issues with Garnett on the cover. The headline, “Ready or Not ...” was perfect.
Two days later, the Minnesota Timberwolves selected the 19-year-old with the fifth pick in the NBA Draft. Garnett proved himself more prepared than many thought. He put together a respectable rookie season, averaging 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Then, in 1996-97, his second season, Garnett broke out. He averaged 17.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists and was named to the All-Star team for the first time.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers vividly remembers facing Garnett. The on-court intensity impressed Rivers, but he wondered if it was, well, contrived.
“You didn’t know if it was for real,” Rivers says. “You saw the intensity. You saw his affection to his teammates. But from the other side, you tend to say, ‘That’s (expletive). There’s no way.’”
After Minnesota traded Garnett to Boston last July, Rivers received two phone calls. One from former Wolves coach Flip Saunders and one from current Wolves coach Randy Wittman. You’re going to love Garnett, both told him.
“You start thinking, ‘Well maybe this is for real,’” Rivers says. “Within two weeks, you’re blown away by it. It’s real.”
Garnett takes everything personally, Rivers adds. And he owns up to mistakes.
“Stars rarely do,” Rivers says. “When he does that, then it puts everybody on notice.”
During a recent film session, Garnett scolded himself for a defensive lapse. It set an example for the team’s young players, Rivers says.
“He asked a question about it and he turned around and said, ‘(Expletive), that’s my fault,’” Rivers says. “Then what can (Celtics rookie) Glen Davis say? Everyone falls in line.”
That sense of responsibility has always been a staple of Garnett’s game.
Neely agrees. He remembers Garnett returning to Mauldin the summer after his third year in the NBA. As he casually practiced jumpers, a friend, who Neely referred to as “Joe,” tried to block a shot.
“Like a lightning bolt, Kevin elevated and dunked the ball,” says Neely, who had become the head coach at Mauldin by that time. “He knocked Joe against the wall. It sounded like a cannon went off in the gym.”
“Joe, man,” Garnett told him, “You gave me a flashback. I thought I was in the league. Don’t even jump at me like that.”
It was as if Garnett owed it to his friend. Garnett doesn’t take it easy on anybody. If he’s challenged, look out.
“I always knew it was real,” Pierce says. “I had a chance to play with him in high school. He was like that in high school, if not nuttier, so this is something Kevin has always been like. Why change now? Look how successful he’s been.
“That’s who he is. I have friends that I grew up with in the neighborhood. You take them out to a nice restaurant and they ask for a burger and fries, and they don’t sell that. That’s just who they are. Accept it.”
Garnett is his usual straightforward self to reporters this afternoon. He refuses to bite when asked about facing the Timberwolves the following night, his former team. It’s just another game, he says.
“I’m so locked in with what we’re trying to do here that I haven’t even thought about the small things,” he says.
It’s hard not to believe him. That singular focus, Rivers admits, is scary.
“I’m worried about it every day,” Rivers says. “Half the time we don’t have practice is because we want Kevin to get rest. Because we know if we do practice, he’s going to play with that intensity in practice. That’s why we’ve had more off days. And he doesn’t like off days.”
Neely often wonders how Garnett plays so many meaningful minutes. How does he keep his energy level up?
“I know the team needs me,” Garnett tells Neely.
During timeouts, Neely says, Garnett puts a towel over his head and asks the lord for strength.
“It’s just amazing,” Neely says. “That’s how this cat is. He’s really deep.”
In other words, Garnett is exactly how Boston likes its superstar athletes — intense, focused and a bit too obsessed with being the best.
Alan Siegel is a sportswriter at the Eagle-Tribune. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
KG by the numbers
Kevin Garnett, the leading vote-getter for this season’s All-Star game, has put up some impressive numbers over the years
1 MVP award (2003-04), Olympic gold medal (2000), All-Star Game MVP (2003)
3 Time All-NBA first team selection
8 Time All-Defensive team selection
11 All-Star appearances, including this season
12 Number of seasons spent in Minnesota
16 Career triple-doubles
20.5 Career scoring average
2,533 Career high school points
WALTHAM, Mass. — One after another, they fall through the net like hailstones.