Pat Tillman's father made the following comment in reference to his son: "A man only has a few times in life when he's called on to step up and do something, and sometimes you may only have a few seconds to do it. If you don't do it, you regret it, and I believe that eats away at a man for the rest of his life."
Game Seven of the 2004 Western Conference Semi-finals is Kevin Garnett's moment to step up. When the Timberwolves and Kings walk onto the floor of the Target Center on Wednesday night, they will not simply be playing for the right to engage the Lakers in another series. They will be determining the legacy of Kevin Garnett. Forget the game of basketball for a moment. Forget the Western Conference Finals. Tomorrow's game is about so much more than that. In that span of forty-eight minutes, the spotlight will focus solely on Kevin Garnett. During those moments, a nation will unjustly put it's finest athlete on trial. Throughout his career they have so unreasonably scorned him for his team's failures. Yet his undeniable will and dominating performance have forced the masses to take notice and even crown him this season's "Most Valuable Player". They have been required to grudgingly admit that this once lanky teenager destined for failure has blossomed into the most skilled athlete since Michael Jordan strolled the courts of the NBA. But Americans hate to be wrong. And as a result, the masses have mercilessly looked for a chink in the armor that would send Garnett tumbling back down to where he came from.
Anthony Peeler's elbow to his jaw provided just that opportunity. Forgotten in that moment, as KG's head flew back from that blow, was his courageous performance in Game Three. Instead, the headlines screamed that Garnett was too soft for success, too mild to win. Apparently Garnett would have shown better leadership by grabbing Peeler by the throat than by restraining himself and ensuring that he would be on the floor in Game Seven. If only they would take a moment and look at what he has accomplished. His point guard has a bad back. His small forward has a broken one. His spark-plug guard is out for the season. His best center is having a mental breakdown. And still, he has managed to bring his team to a decisive game on his home floor against the most cohesive team in the league. Name one player in the league who would have even carried his team this far? But none of that matters to them. They don't care about the journey, they want to see the end. And more importantly, they want to see the ending where Garnett fails.
And so for Kevin Garnett, it all comes down to tomorrow night. Never mind the fact that he will most likely face double and triple-teams every time he touches the ball. Forget that the outcome will primarily rest on ex-Bulls players' ability to step up and make big plays. Tomorrow night the pressure to win is all on Kevin. And as unfair as those expectations may be, he has no other choice but to meet them. To lose this game would be to lose everything he's spent the last nine years working for. The media is quick to forget the successes of the past in the face of present failures. To them, getting out of the first round means nothing if you can't get out of the second. Hard work, character, and dedication are quickly eclipsed by a losing score. An MVP trophy sits on a shelf only to mock a player who couldn't get it done when his team needed him the most.
This could arguably be the biggest game in Kevin Garnett's life. With the exception of a Game Seven of the Finals, no other situation he would ever face will have the ramifications of this one. Win this one, and he secures his spot among the basketball legends. A loss, would be devastating. It would place a nearly unremovable stamp on Garnett. In the eyes of the media, and thus NBA fans, he would become, as Bill Simmons so ignorantly labeled him, "The best second banana in NBA history". Even if he were to win a championship in future years, that stigma would likely still remain with him throughout his career.
The "problem" with Garnett is that there is almost nothing bad that you can say about the man. And so as a result, the media, who need a story, are forced to fabricate these negative concepts about him. If Garnett could be more selfish like Kobe, more arrogant like MJ, more outspoken like Shaq, or even more boring like Duncan, there would be an interesting angle to approach Kevin at. I think deep down, everyone knows that they should stand behind the guy. The only problem is that you can only talk about how wonderful somebody is for so long until it becomes dull. And the media hates a dull story, which translates into the media hating Kevin Garnett. He's everything an athlete should be, but as a result, nothing that they want him to be.
The ironic part about all of this, is that I'm certain Kevin Garnett could care less that this is the game that will decide his legacy. He will not go out there to prove to the press, the fans, or ESPN wrong. Kevin Garnett will go out onto the floor of the Target Center with only one goal in mind - to win. And if along the line his fame dissipates like the cloud of chalk he'll create before the game, then so be it. At the end of the day, all that matters to Kevin is that he can hold his head high and respect the person he has become. And let it be known that his family, his teammates, and the Minnesota fans all share that same respect with him. Win or Lose, first round exit or NBA Finals, there's no person I'd rather go into battle with than Kevin Garnett.
Kevin has been in this place before. His team has been on the brink of elimination seven times before, and every time they've fallen. Perhaps this time won't be any different. But if there was ever a time for Garnett to make that leap to the next level, this is it. The pressure has never been greater. The stakes have never been higher. This is the single most important moment in Kevin Garnett's career, and he can not afford to fail. No matter what it takes, he needs to lead his team to victory. Whether it takes a blow to the face from a friend to fuel him, or the anniversary of a teammate's death to inspire him, Kevin Garnett must reach deep within himself and find the champion that has been hidden for too long. Because, this time, there will be no redemption. There are no second chances. For Kevin Garnett, it's all or nothing.