This is it. This is Kevin Garnett's night.
He's got to do it tonight.
He's on his home floor for Game 7, with a league MVP trophy in his hip pocket and a boatload of game in his body and soul, and everybody's impressed with him and everybody loves him, but if it doesn't go well tonight, truth is, he's nowhere, with nothing.
If he doesn't bring home a win tonight, and I mean bring it home, on his back, in his clutches, and by the sheer force of his will, he'll be that guy ...
The one who doesn't know how to win.
The one, talented as he is, who's missing that championship something.
The one who's too complimentary, too in-the-flow, and too unselfish to be truly great.
The one, fierce as he is, who isn't quite fierce enough.
The one whose numbers don't add up.
The one who's been paid much money to lead his team ... to what? To yet another playoff disappointment?
The one who got thwacked by Anthony Peeler and was never the same.
The one who heard the voices and felt the pressure.
The one who forced it.
The one whose tough-guy riff on guns made him look na´ve.
And the one who coulda, shoulda, woulda been a title contender.
* * * * *
This is it. This is Chris Webber's night.
He's back from injury, back in the flow with his teammates, and back on the brink of a rematch for the Western crown with the hated Lakers. It's all right there for him. But if it doesn't go well tonight, man, he's just back to the same old story, the one where ...
Chris disappears at crunch time.
Chris is smart, but he gets in his head and lets other guys in there too.
Chris is tough, but he gets pushed around and settles for jumpers on the perimeter.
Chris has all kinds of game, but he's a tweener too in love with his own handle, lost somewhere between being a low-post presence and an all-court menace.
Chris is a guy the Kings can do without.
Chris called the timeout.
Chris took the cash.
Chris only cares about Chris.
Chris is a cancer who bucks authority.
And Chris just never quite worked out.
* * * * *
All Game 7s are loaded, but this one's heaped high like a twice-baked potato.
Garnett and Webber are playing to bury themselves. They're playing to become themselves.
Every shot, every board, every bounce of the ball and twist of fate makes one and breaks the other.
When Jim McKay talked about the "human drama of athletic competition," he was talking about nights like tonight.
The labels on each player are just labels, just easy ways to classify and judge. But that doesn't mean they aren't real. They're out there, hanging in the air, coloring everyone's vision, dancing on the tip of everyone's tongue. And KG and C-Webb know it. And we know they know it. And all that knowing makes the game supercharged with meaning.
Garnett misses a short jumper. Is he tight?
Webber fumbles an entry pass. Is he fighting demons?
And who will rise up and how?
Will KG demand the ball and work a baseline spin move as the clock winds down? Will Chris play through the pain in his knee, get to the spot, and stop that shot?
* * * * *
Both guys would tell you they're only in it tonight to win and move on to the next round. Don't believe 'em.
Reputation and redemption are on the floor. Legacy is at stake.
If the Wolves win, Garnett is The Man and Peeler ain't nothing but a pipsqueekin', cheapshottin', Bruce-Lee-wannabe footnote to history. If he comes up big and they win, the first seven years of his playoff record are written in invisible ink. He's the guy, like Michael was once upon a time, who we get to watch become the game's dominant player.
If the Kings lose, Webber's the guy who mucked up the works this year. His team is getting old. If he struggles and they lose tonight, you'll be able to hear the window slamming shut. He'll be Fonzi on a bike, with a fake fin floating in the pool beneath him. He'll likely be out of Sacramento and headed for who-knows-where.
* * * * *
I like both players a lot.
I could write songs about the spring in KG's step, and I'll wear you out talking about him as the prototype for a whole other order of basketball, as the ur-species of the new thing, as a man who does for the stat sheet what Coltrane did for the scale -- namely, wears it out, makes it beside the point.
And the syncopated pop in Webber's game never ceases to amaze and delight me. He works inside the other guy's rhythm the way Ali slipped jabs in the gaps, quick, and slightly, just-rightly off-balance.
I love the way Garnett has never, not even when he was a skinny kid fresh from Farragut, shrunk from the responsibility of being the Wolves' leader.
And I love the way Webber pushed himself to get back for the playoffs.
They have the two best game faces in the league, and they come hard every night.
I like them both.
But this is a Game 7, and when it comes to a Game 7, you've got to side up. I don't care if you're neither a Wolves nor a Kings fan. I don't care if you don't like basketball at all.
A seventh game isn't sport. It's two guys wearing chain-mail undies riding at each other with lances. It's Jesse down to the last rose. It's the stuff of catharsis and projection, it's the stuff of empathy and scorn. It's all that we are, for godssakes.
You can't just watch a Game 7, you need to pick a team (and in this case, a player) pray to win, risk losing, and feel the keen, anxious edge of every play from start to finish.
* * * * *
Garnett's the obvious choice. Even after his M-16 flub-up the other day, we all think he's a good kid full of passion. He plays for a team that's never been here, which is always appealing. And more to the point, I think we all want to see his tremendous talent translate into a championship, because it'd just be too weird and sad if it never worked out.
So when he laces up under the pressure of expectations and past failures tonight, it'll be easy to be right there with him.
But much as I like KG, I'm siding with C-Webb tonight. There's something more human and hard-won about his case. He's a little older and his road's been a little more twisted. He's had glorious moments and sad moments. He's been brilliant, on and off the court, and he's been an immature fool, on and off the court. He's like a character in a Walter Mosley novel, wounded and mistake-prone, sharp and resilient. Far from perfect, but somehow basically appealing.
KG wins tonight and its an anointing, an arrival. Webber wins and it's more of a survival, with the possibility (God willing and the Lakers don't rise ...) of deliverance.
KG wins and he makes it to the Promised Land, no matter what happens in the next round. Webber loses and he's wandering in bolivian.
I'll take Webber. I'll take him because I figure you'll take KG. I'll take him because maybe you've forgotten about him in all the Garnett hubbub.
And last, and most simply, I'll take him because I'm a sucker for the underdog, even in a fight between two longtime losers. And in the end, I can't quite bring myself to root for KG to win tonight because I'm rooting harder for Webber not to lose.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. His "On Baseball" column will appear weekly during the baseball season.