The NBA Finals ended 10 days ago. By all accounts, including my own, they were a disaster—the lowest rated Finals in the history of the world. Bucking my normal holier-than-thou attitude, I tried to watch the games. I should have stuck with aloofness; my strategy of combating boredom with lines of cocaine probably won’t aid me in finding a basketball job for the coming season.
Fortunately for the emotional health of the general public—and for the nasal health of me—more important events have come to pass since the Spurs won the title. It has been reported that Kobe Bryant (arguably the league’s most marketable player) and Kevin Garnett (arguably its most talented) might … in theory … possibly … be traded … if about 573 variables line up correctly. And now, “league sources” are saying that both guys could end up on the Lakers. In the wake of the Finals debacle, all of this has been sufficient to ignite the requisite sports media firestorm.
I have something of a unique viewpoint on all of this. In the fall of 2001, I lasted three weeks in training camp with Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers before being released and told that I probably ought to go play in Europe. In 2006, I repeated the experience with Garnett’s employer, the Minnesota Timberwolves, before being cut so the team could concentrate its financial resources on an alcoholic, a guy who dances like Elaine Benes, and a man who had only that year crashed his SUV while masturbating.
Having spent a similar amount of time in the semi-intimate company of both men, I can say confidently that two people couldn’t be more different. Kevin Garnett is one of the most impressive humans I’ve ever been around.
Kobe Bryant isn’t.
As a strict contrarian, I wish it weren’t so. But in this case, there have been no mischaracterizations. Garnett is noble, loyal, and larger-than-life. And, again, Bryant isn’t.
Of course, Kevin Garnett is no teddy bear. When I arrived in Minnesota for camp, I spent my first two days playing pickup games with the team. Upon finding me—a person he had never met before—on the court, Garnett quickly had me replaced by someone from the sideline. Which I certainly didn’t appreciate. But after a few weeks around the man, I decided that he had the right to tell me what to do—the court we were playing on was his court. The team playing on it: his team.
As for personal encounters with Bryant, suffice it to say that his replica jersey is not hanging in my bedroom. I related a few details of our brief time together in my book—the multiple bodyguards he employed in training camp, his insecurity, his general surliness toward most of humanity. Feel free to jog down to the local Barnes & Noble and skim the first 30 pages as supplementary reading. (I wouldn’t sink so low as to tell you to buy it. That would be despicable.)
Garnett is a throwback superstar, a Bill Russell for the modern age. When some people conjure up Russell they visualize the consummate winner, a man who led his teams to 11 NBA championships. But I link the two men by personality. By all reports, Russell shares Garnett’s intelligence, grace, and intensity. And, in his defense, Garnett has never had a Cousy or a Havlicek.
Unfortunately, it could be that the modern age has no use for Bill Russell. One of Garnett’s greatest strengths—his loyalty—is laughably out of place in the superstar-focused NBA. Compared, for example, to the Kobe Bryant school of leadership. Bryant has publicly questioned the ability of his teammates; Garnett has never complained about the mediocre supporting casts he’s been given. Bryant refused to play for the team that drafted him (the Charlotte Hornets); Garnett has embraced the state of Minnesota like a taller, darker version of Prince. Even this year, with his team in a tailspin and his own game under scrutiny, Garnett did nothing to shift the blame. Meanwhile, Bryant was preparing for a summer of trade demands and pro-wrestler-style pronouncements.
As for the rumors of a Bryant/Garnett combination in purple and gold: The scenario might be plausible if everyone who’s not on the Lakers payroll lost his mind at the exact same moment. Then again, Kevin McHale has long been considered a rather ineffectual GM. It is possible that he would be dumb enough to help create the most unstoppable pairing since He-Man and Battle Cat. But I’ve gathered that his IQ hovers above the level needed to button a polo shirt in the morning, so I’d wager that he’s smart enough to avoid bringing about the basketball apocalypse in his own conference.
Should McHale’s neurons stop firing and the trade get made, the resulting cauldron of intensity would be impressive to behold. For all their differences, Garnett and Bryant do share one trait. They might be the two most focused human beings I’ve been around. In fact, if they were on the same team, they’d probably each reach new heights as a result of their efforts to outdo the other. The Lakers would cease to exist as a team, per se. Instead the “team” would be two dudes screaming at each other while three others ran around trying to avoid their wrath. Should the trade happen, the Lakers’ front office would immediately begin a search for players with only one trait: “enjoys being subjected to extreme levels of verbal abuse.”
Of course, the most likely outcome of the Garnett/Bryant brouhaha is the most boring one. In all probability, neither player will be traded. Bryant’s Lakers will be unwilling to part with a proven cash cow, and Garnett’s Timberwolves will struggle to find a partner in a trade. In the NBA, the salaries of the players involved in a trade have to match up, more or less. Garnett is scheduled to make $22 million next year. Last year, the Charlotte Bobcats’ team payroll was $41 million. It would take a bunch of Bobcats to buy one Timberwolf.
Even so, all of this trade talk is good for the NBA. David Stern loves when the NBA knocks baseball off the front pages in the off-season. It gives basketball fans something to talk about. And it gives them hope after an awful, boring season. And sports is nothing without hope. Hope that the Cubs will win a World Series. Hope that a two-lap lead will be enough. Hope that the starting outside linebacker will stop impregnating 17-year-olds. And, this summer, hope that a very tall, very athletic man—good or bad, noble or not, hero or archenemy—will come to town to save the day.