In the November issue of Boston magazine, I wrote about Kevin Garnett and how his career fits within the burgeoning basketball sabermetric community. The central premise of the piece is that Garnett’s career has been unfairly judged by a jury not of his peers who take the central accomplishment of winning a championship as the end-all and be-all of determining the worth of star players.
Seeing Garnett through that prism also connects the dots on how he “changed the culture,” as Paul Pierce so memorably put it last year—his unselfishness on the court directly translates to the way he is in the locker room. You can’t separate the player from the man, in other words.
In reporting the story, however, I talked to several people whose insights didn’t make it into the final piece. One of those was Sonny Vaccaro, the sneaker-impresario who played a behind-the-scenes role in helping a young KG make the decision to jump straight from high school to the pros.
Garnett has been around so long, 1001 games and counting, that it’s easy to gloss over the momentous impact of his decision. Directly related to that decision was the mega contract he signed in 1998 that “shook up the whole of the NBA,” as Vaccaro tells it. It’s taken as an article of faith that Garnett changed the game, but it’s worth going back in time to reexamine the effect Garnett has had on professional basketball.
In the summer of 1995, Sonny Vaccaro was in Detroit, hosting his annual Roundball Classic. As the principal mover and shaker on the summer basketball scene, Sonny’s game was one of the must-see hoops events. Vaccaro, who first gained notoriety by convincing Nike executives to cast their lot with Michael Jordan, was working for adidas at the time, and as such he didn’t expect Kevin Garnett to attend. (Garnett was hooked up with Nike at the time).
Nevertheless, Vaccaro extended the invitation to the young man whom he had counseled long into the night about his future. The night before the game at the banquet, Dick Vitale was delivering the keynote address when a kid walked into the back of the room. A hush fell over the crowd and even Dickie V. stopped talking. Even then, Kevin Garnett had presence.
“My wife (Pam) grabs my arm and says to me, ‘Oh my God. I think that’s Kevin Garnett.’ He came from Chicago with two of his friends,” Vaccaro said. “There was no debt here. He didn’t come to my camp. He didn’t wear my shoes.”
Indeed, before that moment, the two had never actually met, Vaccaro said. “He simply made a decision, for the second time, that was completely contrary to the one people thought he would make.”
The first decision, of course, had come earlier when Garnett elected to forego college and enter the NBA Draft. The last player to have done so was a player named Bill Willoughby 20 years earlier. Before that there was Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins, but as the NCAA grew into such a huge force, as March Madness came to dominate the world and coaches became stars with multi-million dollar shoe contracts signed by Vaccaro himself, no teenager had the audacity to circumvent the traditional process.
As has been well-chronicled, Garnett spent his senior year in Chicago attending Farragut Academy after an incident in his native South Carolina. In the era just before the Internet took hold, he was nothing more that a stud high school player with an odd backstory. As he was preparing to make his bold move, Garnett struck up a telephone friendship with Vaccaro.
“He was so misunderstood in those days,” Vaccaro said. “Living in South Carolina was a hardship on him. People drew their own conclusions. I came to understand that this was a very powerful, single-minded young man who was going to make his own decision. The unique thing is this was the most difficult decision he would ever make. This was precedent-setting and he had no one else to go back on. Kobe and Tracy and LeBron and all the other kids had this to go on. There was always the guy who did it last year. There was no last year. Kevin was determined to learn everything about it.”
Night after night, Vaccaro and Garnett would talk about his future. What he could expect, the potential pitfalls and the negativity that would surround the decision. Sonny knew that the first thought in most people’s minds was that the kid didn’t have the grades to go to college and that would be a stigma that would follow him. Dumb, in so many words. As anyone who’s ever been around Garnett for more than three seconds knows, dumb he most certainly is not.
“Kevin always believed he would have been eligible,” Vaccaro said. “He made this decision not because of (people) like Jay Bilas who think that kids don’t go to college because they don’t have the grades, but because this is what he wanted to do.”
From the beginning, Garnett saw through the hypocrisy of the NCAA system and the cattle-call draft process. And, even at a young age, he grasped immediately the challenges that would be placed in front of him if he made this decision. Forget All-Star teams and MVP votes, if Garnett didn’t succeed he would always be the one, the cautionary tale.
I asked Vaccaro, what if? What if Garnett had been a bust?
“If he had failed all the people who tell the story of failure would have something to hang their hat on,” Vaccaro said. “If he had failed, I don’t know what would have happened.”
Garnett didn’t fail, of course, and the following year Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal entered the draft. Then Tracy McGrady. Over the next decade 28 prep stars were drafted in the first round, and in 2004 eight of the first 19 picks were high school kids. Some were superstars, some were busts, others became starters or useful reserves. They came from all walks of life, rural and urban, street and country, but Garnett came first.
“Kobe was different,” Vaccaro said. “Kobe’s mom and dad went to college. Kobe’s dad, Jellybean, was a hell of a player. Kobe went to Lower Merion (located in the tony suburbs of Philadelphia). But KG? In 1995? Are you nuts? There weren’t a lot of people rooting for KG back then.”
By his third year in the NBA, Garnett was a star, not just on the court where he had already taken the Timberwolves to the playoffs, but off the court as well. He was already the face of the franchise: a charming, effusive, gregarious S-T-A-R. His rookie deal was about to expire and his next contract would be big, that much was certain.
When the news broke, 6-years, $126 million, the NBA gasped. The draft class of 1996 was about to be up for new deals—a class that included Bryant, Allen Iverson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Marcus Camby, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury and Antoine Walker. The league blinked.
Before the start of the 1998-99 season, the NBA locked its players out in an effort to install “cost certainty,” and for the first time, the league placed a cap on player salaries, not just teams.
“That shook up the whole of the NBA,” Vaccaro said. “The lockout, the mind-set of David (Stern). Everything. That was the lockout! Kevin did that.”
I asked a handful of NBA executives about it and none would go on the record, the wounds from the lockout are still raw, it would seem. Additionally, none would comment on Brandon Jennings, the Arizona recruit who signed with a pro team in Europe rather than attend college. In 2006 the NBA amended the draft-eligibility rules mandating that players had to be 19 years of age and at least one year removed from high school. Thirteen years after the fact, the impact of a young man’s decision is still being felt.
“If you ask me the signature thing I’ve done in my life, I would say it was getting these kids to the pros, because they have a right to make a living,” Vaccaro said. “Without KG, I don’t think it gets there. In my mind, in my heart and in my soul, no one was more important than Kevin.”
Paul Flannery covers the Celtics for WEEI.com.