CHICAGO – So why are so many people applauding a guy who makes fun of cancer patients, calls other men’s wives sluts and punches opponents in the groin?
Well, there aren’t that many people applauding Kevin Garnett, who has been accused of those crimes and misdemeanors, most recently by the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, who after Garnett’s latest alleged outrage was suspended by the NBA for trying to get into the Celtics locker room to confront Garnett after the game in which Garnett made the alleged offensive remarks to defend his wife’s honor.
And, by the way, fans voted Garnett a starter for the Eastern All-Star team for the 12th time and Garnett has now been an All -Star 15 times in his 18-year-NBA career, which will lead to a certain first ballot Basketball Hall of Fame admission.
How could someone so good be so bad, at least toward some others, yet be so celebrated?
Have you heard the saying someone has a face only a mother can love?
Well, Garnett is perhaps the most salient example of the guy you love to hate, except if he’s on your team.
At least among players, anyway.
Just last Friday night, the Bulls played another classic, physical battle with Boston with Joakim Noah, whom Garnett labeled a “nobody” a few years ago after Noah said Garnett was a dirty player, had yet another imbroglio with technical fouls after yet another Garnett subtle cheap shot. At least according to Noah.
“He’s always trying some [expletive], just trying to throw elbows, cheap shots, trying to get you off your game,” explained Noah. “He’s been doing this a long time.”
There is perhaps no greater contradiction in the game. Yet, you cannot dismiss Garnett because he truly is a great competitor. Even at 36 he’s an amazing competitor and defender, constantly moving, talking, covering for teammates, demanding, cajoling and in the middle of everything.
He probably saved Paul Pierce’s career and made him a Hall of Famer.
Before Garnett came to Boston in 2007 — and make no mistake the Celtics won the 2008 title because of Garnett — Pierce was known as a high scoring, indifferent diva who was about himself and couldn’t care less about the losses, playing for a 24-58 team at one point.
So it’s one of the first Boston practices after Garnett is with the Celtics following the trade from Minnesota and Pierce is waltzing through a drill. “Hey!” Garnett screamed at him, “are you going to run with us or be a bum?”
From that day forward, said one Celtics assistant coach, Pierce was a different player as Garnett continued with his demands and Pierce became a winner.
“He gets everyone to work,” says one Celtic official. “He demands accountability. He’s a great leader. He’s a winner and works hard, but you generally hate him unless he’s on your team.”
Oh, yes, there’s the other Garnett, which no one has truly a great explanation about.
The Detroit Pistons’ Charlie Villanueva has alopecia universalis, an autoimmune skin disease that results in hair loss on the scalp. Garnett has taunted him as looking like a cancer patient.
Villanueva went after Garnett in a game. Garnett isn’t generally known as a physical player. Actually, he’s developed an excellent 6-meter jump shot, opponents have said, because he never liked physical contact on the inside as an offensive player.
Garnett is said to have had more faceoffs with smaller and less physical players, often Europeans, while rarely, if ever, challenging the physical, tough guys like Shaquille O’Neal or Kendrick Perkins, a former teammate.
Garnett once punched Channing Frye, a slightly built 7-footer (213-cm center) who mostly shoots jump shots, in the groin as Frye extended for a shot. It was so obvious Garnett was ejected from the game.
So what kind of sportsmanship is that?
What sort of behavior is that for a future Hall of Famer?
Yes, it generally is accepted in pro sports these days that it is acceptable for so-called “trash talking,” an odd form of personal challenges. Though Garnett takes it to a level basically pursued by no one else.
Yet, Garnett also has been known to be so attached to teammates, even low level ones, that when Minnesota got rid of a journeyman named Dean Garrett, Garnett was virtually inconsolable and almost unable to play in his misery and crying about the departure of a teammate.
Garnett can be articulate and engaging with media, though often difficult.
He’s come up with an odd explanation of how he’s had to resort to such behavior after playing his senior year in high school in Chicago, where the game is tough. Though that hardly explains Chicago players like Derrick Rose and even his coach, Doc Rivers, one of the great gentlemen of the game.
It’s probably what’s meant about a love/hate relationship, even if no one can quite figure it out.
Maybe Kevin Garnett just represents life better than the rest of us who don’t believe we have that ugly side.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”