Last weekend, after the Celtics beat the Bulls, this clip of Kevin Garnett intimating retirement made the rounds online. It didn’t get nearly as much traction as I thought it might have, but that’s probably appropriate. It was an offhanded comment, and a non-committal one at that; the once-wunderkind kid, amongst the best players of his generation, who was made so painfully aware of his athletic mortality last year, taking stock of the teammates around him, his return to good health and appreciating it while it’s all still there.
With so many things unclear in Garnett’s world right now, including his chance to be part of a second championship parade in June, the possible departure of Doc Rivers this summer, the likelihood we’ll lose some or all of the 2011-12 season to a lockout, and the ongoing questions about the health of this powerful, but eminently breakable Boston Celtics team, it’s tempting to afford Garnett’s words more weight than they deserve.
But they’ve been lingering in my mind.
Because of how Larry Bird’s career ended.
Bird had the good fortune to win titles early in his career, as well as individual accolades. His dominance on the court wasn’t tempered by years of first-round playoff exits and sabotaged by the arrival and departure of a ‘franchise point guard’ whose career would turn out to be a massive disappointment. Nor did Bird’s front office commit the unpardonable sin of forfeiting years of first-round draft picks in the interest of making a backroom deal with a journeyman forward. Right off the top – Bird took the Celtics to the top of the league, and with the help of a series of all-star compliments, he kept them there for over a decade, winning three titles along the way.
What’s underrepresented in discussions of Bird’s career is the extent to which injuries cost him a chance at an even greater legacy. Towards the end of the 1980s, Bird was battling heel problems, which cost him a full season, and back problems, which eventually cost him his career.
Bird’s numbers in those final years were astonishing, given his health. In 1991-92, his final year, he put up 20.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 6.8 assists, while battling severe back problems that limited him to 45 games.
How many of today’s NBA all-stars, at full health, could put up those numbers?
Bird was as elite as elite gets and Garnett, I would argue, falls into very similar company. That anyone would debate this (and many probably would) says less to me about Garnett’s career and more about the almost pathological focus on career championships that has come to dominate discussions of legacy (that and the relative lack of argumentative weight given to defensive performance).
Like any other lion in winter, Garnett must be aware his resume could be more impressive. He must wonder if Kevin McHale’s and Glen Taylor’s failings at team-building cost him a spot in the pantheon within shouting distance of Bird or Bill Russell. Like anyone else, he’s not above asking ‘what if’. Remember his advice to Lebron James after the Celtics vanquished the Cavaliers from the playoffs last spring?
“Loyalty is something that hurts you at times, because you can’t get youth back,” Garnett said…. “I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I’d have done it a little sooner…”
On the Dale & Holley show on WEEI on November 18, Garnett reflected on the struggles of last year, as he played his way back from the knee injury that wiped out the end of his 2008-09 season.
“A lot of times last year, I was playing subpar guys and they were getting by me, and doing different things to where I knew that if I was one hundred per cent, no way some of those things [would be] happening. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it tested me.”
We are likely watching the final stretch of Garnett’s career where he can put together an elite three months of play; the kind that can propel a team to a championship. Some would argue even that time has passed. Given his continuing defensive contributions, his renewal as a rebounder and leaper, an offensive game heavily dependent on a jumpshot rather than interior play, and with no decline in his legendary intensity and focus, I would argue that Garnett has a run or two left in him. It seems as though we could get the springs of 2011 and 2012 at that championship level, especially given all the scheduled off-days during the playoffs.
But Garnett’s reflections make me wonder if he believes he can keep performing at that level beyond this year. Or if he even wants to continue playing if he can’t. If Garnett is wearing green beyond the end of his contract (which expires after the 2011-12 season, when he’ll be 36), Garnett will almost certainly have to refashion himself as the kind of player he rarely had around him during his Minnesota years: a superior complimentary player, the kind that supports the chase for championships, rather than spearheads them.
Is he willing to do that? Is he willing to be that?
Larry Bird retired on August 18,1992, without any previous in-season notice or a farewell tour or any of the exhausting hoopla that no one would have begrudged him. Watch the clip below, from his last game in the Boston Garden. Tell me Bird couldn’t have played another year at a high level.
Of course he could have.
But not at the level he required of himself. Not at the Larry Bird level.
One great gift that the NBA gives the long term observer is the opportunity to witness the entire trajectory of a brilliant player’s career, from the intriguing promise and ‘what-might-be’ of a player’s first season (John Wall and Blake Griffin) to the glorious peaks of prime years (our own Rajon Rondo) and the inevitably elegiac final days, where certain shots or movements remind us of all that’s come before. All that’s been lost. Much of the resonance of following the league, and this Celtics team, is wrapped up in that last notion.
It’s not just that Garnett’s window for another title is closing.
It’s that our window to watch him shrinks with every passing game.
Keep that in mind while you watch Kevin Garnett play tonight, and for the rest of the season.