The only star the Minnesota Timberwolves have ever had is gone.
For 12 seasons, Kevin Garnett wasn't just the face of the franchise, he WAS the franchise. The only player worth paying those high ticket prices to see on a nightly basis, Garnett thrilled the fans here from the time he stepped on the floor as a scrawny 18-year-old out of Farragut Academy High School.
Through it all, Garnett delivered an MVP season and an appearance in the Western Conference finals in 2004, and almost single-handedly removed Minnesota's label as one of the worst franchises in professional sports.
But the money that he commanded for that Herculian task &
more than $200 million when all was said and done &
ultimately handcuffed owner Glen Taylor in his efforts to build around Garnett.
So as he takes his game to Boston in pursuit of that elusive title, Garnett leaves behind in the Twin Cities a legacy of a high-priced, charismatic superstar who came up just short of his championship aspirations.
"I think his legacy here is still going to be written," Wolves coach Randy Wittman said. "You just don't forget about a player like Kevin. He was great for this organization, he was great for this community, he still loves this community. I think he's going to be a face you're going to see around here for a long time coming."
The Timberwolves had an unprecedented four-straight 60-loss seasons before Garnett arrived in 1995. One year later, he had them started on a string of eight straight playoff appearances.
Despite growing up in the South and finishing his high school career in Chicago, Garnett embraced the Twin Cities like few star athletes have before him, and the Twin Cities embraced him right back.
This was Garnett's beloved "Sota," a place where he befriended Kirby Puckett and dreamed of spending his entire career, just like Puck. He was active in the community, donating computers to urban schools, taking disadvantaged kids to the mall for Christmas shopping sprees and myriad other good works.
That kind of Minnesota Nice &
coupled with an undying loyalty to the franchise &
endeared him to the area's practical, blue-collar fans nearly as much as that bright smile and never-ending work ethic.
Former coach Dwane Casey, who spent almost two years in Minneapolis, said the people of Minnesota viewed Garnett as a little brother. They saw him grow up from "Da Kid" to the "Big Ticket," from skinny rookie to mature MVP.
"They watched a young man come in as a boy," Casey said. "And now he's leaving as a man."
In the days following Garnett's trade to the Celtics, which ended the longest running tenure of any current player with one team in the league, local fans seemed to express a deep sadness to see their favorite player leave, but also a hope that Garnett may finally be in a position to really win.
"He's been the face of pro sports in the area for 12 years," Casey said. "He's the biggest star to be there since Kirby Puckett. Listening to people, they're happy to see him really, really find a good place for him to get that opportunity."
Like watching a family member leave the nest to go to college and get a degree, Minnesotans are going to be rooting for KG to make the most of it.
And Garnett is similarly conflicted as he packs his bags. He never wanted this. He didn't want to leave his 'Sota and the Timberwolves. He actually rejected the move at first, finally relenting when the Celtics acquired Ray Allen in a draft-day trade with Seattle and Taylor made it clear the Wolves were going another direction.
"It's going to be weird to see him not in a Timberwolves uniform, but it's tough for one player to stay with one team, especially when they're trying to rebuild," said Twins center fielder Torii Hunter, a good friend of Garnett's and a candidate to leave the area soon as well. "He would never be the Kevin Garnett that he wants to be, as long as he stayed with the Timberwolves. He moved on, and hopefully he can get that title he's looking for."
At his introductory press conference in Boston, the smile on Garnett's face seemed forced as he spoke about playing with Allen and Paul Pierce on the revamped Celtics. He called the days leading up to the trade "the hardest 72 hours I've dealt with since I've been in the NBA."
"I'd like to thank Minnesota for 12 years of greatness, having fun there," Garnett said. "(Minneapolis) is a beautiful city. I'll always have a home there, I'll always have a special place in my heart. But I think at this point in my career, I can't do young and I think that you need veterans to win."
With Garnett's enormous contract preventing Taylor from surrounding his star with the supporting cast necessary to compete in the powerful Western Conference, the owner finally made the agonizing decision to ship Garnett east.
He got five players and two draft picks in return and has decided to rebuild around a young core of talented, but unproven, players.
In that way, Garnett's legacy in Minnesota is ongoing. The last three years have been miserable at Target Center &
three head coaches, two major trades, zero playoff appearances &
and Taylor and Kevin McHale felt something drastic had to be done.
So the team is moving on without No. 21, hoping that the unheard of 7-for-1 trade will lay the groundwork for a future of success.
"As with any superstar, whether it's through retirement or in this case through a trade," Wittman said, "the torch has to be passed along."
Wolves move on without Garnett