A human can be many different things. A murderer can slash the throats of many, but also be more honest than a priest. A professional wrestler can use his character to play to the lowest common denominator, but also hold a PHD. And so on and so forth.
I mention that because there’s a true disconnect with how we go about viewing athletes and coaches. Great athletes are generally awarded some sort of “good person” award despite there being little evidence s/he deserves it. Really, we allow large media outlets to paint pictures of athletes we barely know, while said athlete only bestows certain attributes for the world to see, and fans will use the large voids of context to fill them in with a little mythologizing.
It is why, as we honestly know very little about most superstars, there’s a sense of general shock when we find out “Good Guy X” is actually a person who hunts down unicorns, kills them, then eats them with their smile-bones.
However, there are a few athletes who allow us to see them — warts and all. The number of them who are like that is little, but there’s usually two different types of open-as-a-book athletes.
1 – So wrapped up inside their own deifying that they believe it themselves and think very little of us. Self-awareness isn’t a part of the characteristics provided to these people. A good example being Greg Hardy.
2 – A player who simply doesn’t give a fudge — which, oddly enough, usually results in fans and media finding the athlete even more endearing.
With the latter, enter: Kevin Garnett.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Kevin Garnett is a great basketball player, an all-timer and a slew of other positive adjectives when it comes to his on-the-court abilities.
He’s also a jerk. A wretched person. A bully. A plethora of other things which aren’t suitable for publication because they may border on going too far in the negative description direction. Like, he’s not committing crimes against the law. Crimes against other humans from a moral perspective — well, that’s another story.
Recently, one of basketball’s best sportswriters, Jackie MacMullan, published a wonderfully insightful, in-depth and honest piece on Kevin Garnett. It featured not only his tremendous skills and sometimes great leadership abilities, but it also touched on how horrible of a person Garnett can be.
Given today’s anti-bullying, let’s be better to other people climate, the reaction to KG as a person in the piece was naturally positive…Wait — what?
Thing is, even before Jackie Mac published that piece, everyone already knew the deal with Garnett. Running jokes about certain characteristics of his have long been spread throughout the Interwebs. Whether it’s his possible (definitely) fake tough guy routine, which generally sees him ready to throw down with a skinny (white Euro) and smaller player but not guys of equal size, or the fact that he can often be more condescending than a manager at a book store to a new employee — we all kind of knew the deal. Kevin Garnett isn’t the best of humans.
Yet we’ve continued to treat him as some sort of fun topic. I’m not talking about his basketball skills, either. We’ve used his not only insensitive, but borderline hateful comments to Charlie Villanueva regarding his appearance as a way to build Garnett’s legacy for him.
Not take it down a notch. But further his brand. Not to mention the fact that even though what Garnett said could’ve simply been explained away as being horrible taste in smack-talk, he double-downed on it! He refused to apologize for what actually happened and instead went the route of acting as if his jawing were some spoken word poetry or whatever.
Some of that would normally be fine, because complete context and nuance is important. Except we’re using that as a positive characteristic for Garnett. Not taking it as part of the complete Garnett package. Simply inserting it into all the “good” of KG. That’s something most other athletes would come under pressure to apologize for, and even to a degree tarnish their image.
Not Kevin Garnett, though. Not when much of the NBA community is like-minded when it comes to deciding who’s good people, bad people and doing so while balancing the thin line of a guy being eccentric or downright wretched. Magically, Garnett’s behavior — while clearly not eccentric and rooted in something else — continues to get a free pass for being an abomination of a human on many, many levels.
Please don’t get me wrong. Sports need villains. Especially guys who are so willing to play those roles. Garnett’s misgivings as a person aren’t entirely disgusting on levels which should require some sort of intervention, either. He’s not breaking the law. He’s merely an a******. A real-life bully from an 1980s movie where the starting QB befriends the “nerd,” but the starting wideout is an actual, legit Turdface MacGoo.
Kevin Garnett is essentially every character in Lucas except Charlie Sheen and that girl I used to have a massive childhood crush on…
No matter. No one views him as the villain he’s portrayed for us to embrace. The only comparable thing to him is when the WWE had a wrestler named Stone Cold Steve Austin. He was supposed to be evil. A bad guy. And he was. Except he was so bad that he was cool.
There’s a rather huge difference between Austin and Garnett, though. Much of the former’s appeal, despite being evil in every way, was that he was anti-establishment. People can relate to wanting to hurl your boss through a window, pouring beer on them or Stone Cold Stunning their rears in front of a national audience. Garnett is pro-establishment. More honestly, he’s a combination of the old guy who yells at kids for having their football hit his lawn and a dude who truly believes in the “establishment” of it all.
Essentially, for the last two decades we’ve been embracing the uncle no one invites to holiday dinners your family has. No one likes him, yet we do. The puzzling of it all continues…
Tenacity and passion alone usually doesn’t make for a lovable bedfellow, either. This is where I — and I fully admit there’s possibly something here I’m missing — fail to find the connect between Garnett and his rabid fan base, loyal defenders and those who simply push away his disgusting human qualities as some sort of minor flaw instead of him more likely being a guy we should genuinely hate — while not condoning his antics to the point of endorsing them.
There’s obviously an understanding of appreciating his passion for the sport, but to allow it to overshadow all of the other things seems rather strange, if not counterproductive while trying to provide as much context when telling Garnett’s story as possible.
Simply go read that MacMullan article to see example after example of Garnett bullying certain guys. Those with little power, or players most have either forgotten about or weren’t good enough to be remembered. Is it that Garnett’s atrocities against other humans were done almost exclusively to those types of people that we don’t care? Shouldn’t his belittling and torturing of the “little people” be something which makes us hate him more?
Some of the stories alluded to in the piece were ones of Garnett alienating players because he didn’t like them. Even though it could have a possible larger alteration to team chemistry, many viewed his judgmental ways as another form of leadership. His outcasting of those who didn’t fit in to his prerequisite of whatever the hell Garnett views as positives in a player, was a good thing.
At some point during time, people began to realize that even Michael Jordan wasn’t a good teammate. That his excellence didn’t automatically qualify him as some sort of brother in arms on the hardwood. He simply happened to be the very best at what he did, while also bullying teammates in the process, and for a long stretch that overshadowed whatever flaws he had as a colleague. It wasn’t until only after his career was over that fans and media were able to come to the collective realization that the man portrayed in Nike ads, glorified by the media and a person that ambassadors of the sport would make excuses for no matter the bad deed or iffy behavior was probably not someone you’d actually want to hang out or work with.
All of which is, honestly, okay. Great athletes do NOT have to be great people. Or even good people. Hell, they can be downright bad people. It’s fine to acknowledge it.
Maybe that is where we are with Kevin Garnett. He’s spent two decades in front of our eyes doing and saying horrible things to people at his workplace, with god-awful stories concerning his bullying being published on the regular, and we’ve done nothing but celebrate him. Not only as a basketball player, but as some sort of leader of men, mentor and legendary motivator…when we should’ve as likely been embarrassed for him for his antics, calling him out for his his bullying the same way we’ve done for nearly every other athlete of his ilk and merely mentioned that he’s most certainly one of the best power forwards of all time, and also happens to be an a******.
All of that can be true, you know? A person can excel in their profession and be a bad human. Just as murderers can — ugh — murder with great skill, but also be good people in every other aspect of life, Kevin Garnett can be a tremendous basketball player and be a failure in many other aspects of his life.
No, Kevin Garnett shouldn’t be so directly compared to a murderer. A more reasonable comparison would’ve been to the kid who beat us up for our lunch money as a kid, but never once dared to attempt to take it from another kid his size. But who cares about the semantics of being reasonable with Garnett’s legacy — obviously no one who’s ignored his condescending, pretentious and crappy ways over the last two decades.
Condoning it for that long is endorsing those sorts of behaviors. So please excuse me while I don’t value your hot take on Boogie Cousins’s personality. All credibility has been lost.