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January 9 - Working on the Chain Gang

I caught the second half of the Wolves-Spurs game on Friday night to see how
Kevin Garnett, one of my all-time favorite NBA players, was faring against the
second best No. 4 in the league, Tim Duncan. But no "Battle of the Big Men" took
place. After the way Minnesota's 2004-05 season went, I'm not sure there was any
such hype.

Everybody's All-American, Duncan, was limited to 13 points, with 14 rebounds --
decent numbers, sure, but he never looked like he was challenged or even
concerned that he wasn't having a more productive night on offense. As has
become de rigueur for this team, the two Fab Fleas of San Antonio's backcourt,
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, jumped in and drove the game to a fairly
straightforward 83-77 Spurs win.

KG scored his usual double-double (18 points, 17 boards), but there was nothing inspired in his play.
He ducked out on fouls with 20 seconds left, hacking as if he were more eager to get out of the game
than to fight on until the clock ran out.

I expected to see that same flash-point intensity and wicked humor and other-worldly talent in Garnett
that I've grown so fond of over the ten years he's been in the league. Instead, at 29, in what should be
the prime of his career, Garnett looks like a broken man.

Of course he does. What, with a decade of perennially underachieving Minnesota lineups?
Teammates that are either talented and troubled (Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassells, Eddie Griffin) or
decent enough guys who are in completely over their heads (Wally "Cleaver" Szczerbiak, Michael
Olowankandi)? That stuff starts to get to a guy. And then those well-scrubbed and earnest
Minneapolis fans giving him grief because he's the fourth highest paid player in the league (making
$18M this season), yet this eight-time All-Star, one-time NBA MVP and certain Hall of Famer hasn't
given them their money's worth in terms of the postseason.

Is he traded for not getting his team over the hump? No, regardless of all the
rumors flying around since the start of the 2004 season. (Darn it.) Instead, the
only coach he's ever had in the pros is kicked to the curb (and now leading the
unstoppable 26-4 Detroit Pistons). Dwayne Casey is installed in Flip
Saunders' place in his debut as an NBA head coach, and promptly leads the
Wolves to a perfectly mediocre 15-15 record. And Garnett is left to lead a team
that's No. 1 in the Northwest, but rivals New Orleans/Oklahoma City in its futility,
limited talent and utter lack of cohesion.

How far away KG is from captaining Nike's Fun Police -- not just six or seven
years away. Light years away.

Watching him walk, head hanging, to the bench tonight in the fourth quarter, I couldn't help but think of
the scene in "Cool Hand Luke" when Paul Newman has been captured yet again and is lying
prostrate in the bunkhouse, beaten and exhausted, his spirit near-broken, and George Kennedy (as
Dragline) and the other prison inmates gather around to pester him about the photo he sent them
while on the lam in which he's got his arms around two saucy dames.

Luke finally abandons his characteristic cool and lashes out, "Come on! Stop beatin' it! Get out there
yourself. Stop feedin' off me! Get out of here. I can't breathe. Give me some air."

I know the Wolves management denies every single trade rumor. I know they want to keep him. If they
lost him, they'd be toast. He's their Big Ticket: Even if he doesn't get them to the promised land of the
NBA Finals, his otherworldly athleticism and fearsome tribal countenance and mesmerizing
charisma put butts in seats year after year after bleak, dispiriting year.

The recent Ron Artest flap in Indianapolis started the Garnett trade rumor mill spinning again, though
Minnesota insists it's not going there.

It's too bad, though. With every whisper of Garnett's possible escape, I keep hoping. I don't want to be
Dragline at the end of this sad movie, talking about Kevin Garnett's final minutes and how they came
too quick: "Old Luke, he was some boy! 'Cool Hand' Luke. Hell, he was a natural-born worldshaker."
Trying to convince myself that what he accomplished in that frozen northern wasteland can be enough
for a man with his gifts.

At some point, you think ol' Boss has gotta ease up. Let us have our illusions! Give KG a break! Don't
beat him down to the point where he's washed up. Don't break his spirit. Maybe let him get away this
time. It would do the rank-and-file NBA fan a heckuva lot of good morale-wise. There'd be no harm in
that, right, Boss?
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