Kevin Garnett recalls the pickup game with Scottie Pippen that proved he could jump to the NBA
Isiah Thomas watched the 18-year-old hold his own against the Chicago Bulls star
Kevin Garnett will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this week. In this excerpt from his new autobiography, KG: A to Z: An Uncensored Encyclopedia of Life, Basketball, and Everything in Between, he recalls a fateful period in 1995 that convinced him he could be the first player in 20 years to go directly from high school to the NBA.
When I got my SAT and ACT scores, I was crushed. I’d tried my hardest and still failed to make the mark. Michigan wasn’t gonna let me in. Neither was North Carolina.
But count on my high school coach, William “Wolf” Nelson, to adjust my attitude. Wolf was always Mr. Positive.
“Keep studying,” he said. “You’ll take ’em again, and next time you’ll make it.”
I always followed Wolf’s advice, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever pass those goddamn tests. No matter, I hit the books and went back to work. Every once in a while I’d look up and see that familiar dark cloud over my head.
That same day the scores came back, a friend drops over with an invitation I’d usually never turn down.
“Let’s go hoop,” he says.
“Not today, bro.”
“K. I know you. You need to take your mind off negative s—. I know you. Once you start hooping, you’ll feel better.”
No arguing with that. So I jump out the crib and we go looking for a game.
“The real dope,” he says, “is to go sneak into the Bulls practice. Maybe we’ll get a peek at MJ.”
MJ had quit basketball to play minor league baseball. He’d been gone for twenty-one months and later returned to the Bulls in March 1995, a month before the McDonald’s All-American Game.
“You know where they’re practicing?” I ask.
Brotha just smiles at me. Brotha knows everything there is to know about who’s hooping where.
“Let’s go down to the Hilton where they got the really nice gym, K.”
When we get in through a side door, Mike Jordan is in there. Scottie Pippen is in there. We watch them play a couple of practice games. I’m just looking at them. I’m just studying them. I’m focused like a muthaf—a.
An hour goes by and a security guy yells at me. Looks like he’s waving me down to the court.
“Hey, you!” he screams.
“Yeah, you, big fella. Get down there.”
“Throw me my shoes,” I tell my man. I tie up my joints and hurry down to the court.
Pippen says, “You too young to be out here. You just a high school kid.”
Jordan says, “Let’s just go.” Then he points to me and says, “You guard Scottie.”
I’m thinking, Damn, I’m playing against my idol. I’m playing against a guy who’s coming off one of the best years of his career.
Right off, Pippen calls for the ball and does a stutter move before launching a big-ass three.
I’m like, That’s crazy, no way he could have made that shot.
But then my natural reflexes kick in. Boom! I dunk. Boom!
Scottie and I have a word. That just fires me up more. I’m thinking, I’m holding my own against one of the greats. As the game goes on, I’m gaining confidence. Ain’t backing down. No one’s making a fool of me. I’m competitive with these muthaf—as. I’m playing Scottie close, hard and tough. I’m in his face. I’m acting like every moment of my life has led me to this. Scottie may be Scottie, but right now he’s just a hooper I gotta beat to the ball. I’m on fire.
Looking back, I wonder how it all happened. Was the security guard thinking he’d get in good with Jordan and Pippen by tossing them what he figured was some young and tender red meat to feast on? Or maybe the security guard gave me the invitation out of kindness and was putting his job on the line to give me a chance to live out a dream. Either way, I got one thing to say to that security guard:
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here I am. Send me!’ ”
This is from the Book of Isaiah in the Bible. Isaiah was a great prophet. It amazes me to think that on this same day that I played a pickup game against Jordan and Pippen, I met another Isaiah, who spelled his named differently but who prophesized on my life.
During a break in the game with me, Scottie, and Jordan, here comes Isiah “Zeke” Thomas, who’d been watching the whole thing. Ain’t crazy enough to be playing with two of my heroes. Zeke is up in that b—- too. I was trippin’.
Understand this: To me, Isiah was the real president of Chicago. He was a hood politician. Loved by everyone. Zeke knew the hard streets. He knew the hard history. He never flinched, fled, or faded. Brotha came up outta concrete. He was a West Sider but wasn’t no place in the Go where he couldn’t hoop. He knew the grit and grime. The baddest boys in the Go gave Zeke maximum cred. Surviving the Go ain’t like surviving nowhere else. And when you do survive — and thrive — the way Zeke did, you don’t go around talking about it. You keep that knowledge to yourself. Or if you do share that knowledge, it’s only with other brothas who came up in Chicago before or after you.
Because Zeke came before me, he had stories I’d never heard. At the same time, we knew a slew of street brothas in common. Hood tales. How some brothas made it out and others didn’t. Zeke always had some jewels. We could chop it up for hours. Another fact: When I saw him in the gym that night in 1995, he was recently retired. A year earlier, he had torn his Achilles tendon. That was the end of his playing career. He was thirty-four. I was eighteen.
I never asked him why he was there that day. He never asked me why I was there that day. We just were. One of those cosmic coincidences.
He came up to me and said something. There wasn’t a hint of hype in his voice. It was just a matter-of-fact, kind statement.
“Kevin,” he said to me, “you just took on Scottie Pippen. Scottie’s the best player in the league. Boy, you could play in the league right now.”
When those words came out of his mouth, the world stopped turning. Time stopped ticking.
But maybe I was hearing him wrong.
“What’d you say?” I asked.
“Boy,” he repeated, this time his eyes getting bigger, “you could play in the league right now.”
Maybe if it had been someone other than Zeke saying those words, they would have had less impact. But coming from Zeke, his words took the form of not only a prophecy but a blessing. A benediction.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked. “You ready to go to the league?”
Everything in my brain, body, heart, and soul said, “Yes!”
And after those yeses came . . .
I didn’t have to f— with the ACTs and SATs anymore. That s— was driving me crazy. Besides, not attending college wouldn’t stop my education. I’m a curious dude. I’m always gonna be learning, always gonna be educating myself. College isn’t the only place where learning flourishes. To an open-minded person, learning flourishes anywhere and everywhere.
I didn’t have to follow a twenty-year-old template.
I wasn’t obligated to conform to old-school thinking that, after I reexamined that thinking, made no sense.
I didn’t have to wait. I could run over and see Wolf right now and tell him that, when it came to college, all bets were off.
Wolf was a little skeptical. “You sure?” he asked. “What about North Carolina? What about Michigan? What about your dream of playing college ball?”
Wolf was right. That dream had lived in my heart ever since those games in Billy’s driveway in Mauldin, S.C. when I would pretend to be C-Webb to his Laettner.
“Dreams change,” I told Wolf. “This new dream is something I can grab onto. Right now.”
Wolf was a talker, but Wolf was also a thinker. I could see him pondering everything I said. I could hear him thinking. And then came the smile. The smile said everything.
“Well,” he said, “maybe you’re not wrong.”
I had to smile too. Wolf was coming round in a hurry.
As I was trying to make up my mind about skipping college and entering the draft, I felt a deep sense of isolation. Basketball is full of terms that describe the human condition: “rebound,” “assist,” “guard,” “possession,” “transition,” “trap.” These terms are part of what makes the game a great metaphor for life. In basketball terms, “isolation” is when you’ve got the ball and the rest of your team gets out of the way to let you challenge your man one-on-one. It’s seen in heroic terms. American cowboy mythology. A gunfight duel. Two men facing each other down in a dusty street, tumbleweeds blowing by, only one of them walking away. But I didn’t go for that myth. I saw it as more selfish than heroic. I much preferred relying on my teammates. And it was the same in my regular life. I didn’t like to be isolated. I liked surrounding myself with people. I liked leaning on them for advice. But whose advice could I trust about what was about to be the biggest decision of my life?
Before talking to anyone I did some serious research. Back in the late Sixties, Spencer Haywood fought the prohibition that said you couldn’t join the NBA before graduating with your college class. Went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Haywood won.
Then in 1974, Moses Malone jumped directly from high school to the American Basketball Association. A year later, in 1975, Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins and Bill Willoughby followed suit, going from high school to the NBA. And then that was it for two decades. Nobody tried it again.
I did my due diligence. I read all about Spencer, Darryl, and Bill. I went to the library, worked that microfilm machine, and studied the old magazine stories. I read long interviews with them. I wanted to know how their decision had impacted them. The thing that solidified my thinking, though, was reaching out to Bill Willoughby himself.
Before I tracked down his phone number, I reviewed his story. Willoughby never put up stats like Dawkins and didn’t have Chocolate Thunder’s gift for gab. But Bill Willoughby was no scrub, despite what people said. People would use him as an example of why you shouldn’t go to the pros straight out of high school. They’d say if he’d gone to college and gotten more polish he’d have been more successful. But these people may have had racist inclinations and were just looking to deprive young Black men of their autonomy. What if it was a white kid who’d skipped college? What if Larry Bird did it? What if he’d bypassed Indiana State and got himself paid? Guarantee they wouldn’t be saying the same thing. Guarantee they’d be praising him for making a smart business decision.
True, Bill Willoughby never averaged more than seven points a season, but he played eight seasons, and you ain’t no chump if you stick around the league for that long. And real basketball geeks like me know he’s one of only a handful of players to ever block a Kareem skyhook. Dude was 6’8″ to Kareem’s 7’2″.
So I decided to call up Bill Willoughby. The man didn’t know me from a can of paint. He was thirty-eight and living in Teaneck, New Jersey. At the time, I thought thirty-eight was ancient. Now I realize how young that still is.
Bill spoke to me like I was his son. Couldn’t have been more patient and considerate. He had my back. He didn’t try to talk me out of it, but he wanted me to know it wouldn’t be easy.
“When you get in the league,” he said, “everything changes. When people look you in the eye, they see dollar signs. No one goes around asking how you’re feeling or how you’re doing. It’s all about how many points you can score. And whether you can get them tickets for the game. For someone who’s only eighteen, it isn’t going to be easy, Kevin. It’s rough. It’s lonely. You don’t have a wife. You won’t have your family. You won’t get a lot of playing time. You gotta be extra strong.”
“I am strong,” I told him.
“Then go for it,” he said. Bill also understood that, aside from the emotional challenges, there were athletic challenges. I wasn’t that strong or that fast. I had the height of a center, but I’d be playing Scottie Pippen’s position — a three. Scottie’s a slasher. I’d have to learn how to slash. Use my inner guard. Face the basket. I’d be up against supersmart players with their curls and pop-backs. I’d have to deal with all that.
A year in the Go had taught me toughness. A year in the Go had me facing literally hundreds of different players under street rough-and-ready circumstances. Thank God for my year in the Go.
But the NBA was another world. To enter that world and, as many were saying, to enter it prematurely was bound to be the biggest risk of my life.
Adapted from KG: A to Z: An Uncensored Encyclopedia of Life, Basketball, and Everything in Between, by Kevin Garnett and David Ritz, published by Simon & Schuster.