The loudest Timberwolves-inspired roar to hit Target Center this season came early in the Wolves’ victory over Phoenix Friday night, when the announcer told the gathered faithful that Kevin Garnett would be in a Minnesota uniform for the first time since 2007, for Wednesday’s home game against the Washington Wizards.
Until then, I’d been semi-shrugging along with the rest of the basketball world at the news that the original teen wolf will conclude his career back here where it all started, but the volume and gusto of the cheer itself surprised me, indeed it stirred something deep in my cold, dead, jaded loser Minnesota sports fan’s heart and made me realize that I’ve got a lot more in common with the woman who was holding the “Welcome Home Big Ticket” sign in the section across from me Friday night than I realized.
Now I’m getting ready to howl, because like music and love, basketball is all about chemistry and connection and Kevin Garnett’s scowl-smile alone is enough to warm this frigid February. Combine it with the similar ear-to-ear expressions of joy that regularly sunburst across the faces of Garnett’s fellow basketball passionistas and new teammates Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins, and, well, from this longtime Minnesota basketball lover’s perch, it looks as if the Wolves are about to flick the switch on an unprecedentedly exciting chemistry set, a future-is-now work-in-progress that should be positively thrilling to behold.
But the semi-shrug is warranted, as always: For sure we are a nation of homers, cheerleaders and life-passing-us-by observers who spend far too much time rooting for uniforms, watching too many games, staring at too many screens, living vicariously through and investing too much time in lives not of our own making. Sports worship and talk radio is insane, the opiate of the masses. But part of the fun of being a sports fan is that our attachments to our teams can be as real as any other relationship in our lives, and in the playing of and going to games we become part of each other’s stories.
In the process, total strangers running around with numbers on their backs can become enmeshed in the fabric of our lives. Which is why the first thing that came to mind when the news broke that Garnett was headed back to Minnesota was an indelible image I have of him from 2001, standing next to my then 5-year-old son, Henry, both of them pushing painting rollers on a wall at the opening of the Malik Sealy Gym Of Dreams in Gethsemane Episcopal Church in downtown Minneapolis.
It was a time before smart phone photos, but the sight of this giant of a man moving in methodical up-and-down tandem with my little boy is one I’ll always cherish, not for its celebrity sighting but for its roots, the kind most often associated with farmers markets and local band showcases, not professional sports. I’d read about the gym’s opening in the paper that morning, and we ran down there because we, too, had loved Sealy and wanted to help. Garnett was somber and heartbroken that afternoon, his friend and mentor gone far too soon, and there was real purpose in his slow stroke as he lacquered on a coat of paint in honor of his fallen buddy.
I stood back and watched the two of them for a good five minutes as they worked, and that’s the kind of fan-player grist that sticks. Garnett may have won an NBA title with the Boston Celtics, but Minnesotans have myriad memories of him like mine, small but important interactions that have almost nothing to do with wins or losses on the court. He and this state have been through good and bad times together, and the bond that was created during his run here in the ’90s was born of all sorts of things he did, that we did together, that don’t, as they say, show up in the box score.
Organic community relations are a much sought-after but elusive bit of marketing in the world of corporate sports, but in Garnett the Wolves have a prince, an ambassador, a player of perpetually palpable intensity. For that reason alone, I like the decision by coach Flip Saunders (talk about wizards) to bring back Garnett, whose mission is obviously to deliver a championship to Minnesota. Basketball is an emotional team game and it was an emotional decision to bring back an aging superstar whose ferocious competitive streak will be instructive to the Wolves’ young guns, but that part of KG’s Second Coming has been overblown.
What Garnett brings to this team and to Target Center can’t be manufactured: grace, elegance, fire and that all-too-rare intangible, a human touch that translates to the upper deck. Me, I’m checking my pulse, lighting candles, dusting off my KG bobblehead doll, and looking forward to the games.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org