This article appears in the October 24 edition of ESPN The Magazine.
Kevin Garnett has always been the crazy one, the one who looks as if he's hopped into the shower in full gear and sneakers. His workout sessions are legendary, causing trainers to marvel and onlookers to gawk. Rookies in Minnesota have been awed. Vets working out in Vegas this summer were humbled. The force of his focused glare has made arena attendants afraid of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. You know, stuff like "You okay?" or "Want some Gatorade?"
It's the kind of crazy that helped make the 31-year-old Garnett the biggest thing to hit the Celtics since Larry Legend himself. Which is why, when KG first stepped into the Celtics' training facility in Waltham, Mass., he came brandishing what was sure to be a fresh ethos: Prepare as intensely as you play.
Instead, KG was the one who got the lesson.
It was 8 a.m. in early September, and Garnett was … late? Usually the first one in the gym, he walked in and found Paul Pierce, who already had been there long enough to work up a thick sweat. Pierce was too busy doing sit-ups and pounding the treadmill to offer a drawn-out hug. When KG looked
through the window at the indoor court, he realized he wasn't even the second Celtic to have started his day. Ray Allen, also dripping, bolted around the floor, launching jumpers at a feverish pace.
Garnett looked back at Pierce, now grunting on the pull-up bar, then once again at Allen, now walking into the weight room to pick up some dumbbells. And that's when it hit the 12-year pro: He was with kindred spirits.
"When I'm in the gym, I see mugs looking at me like, What's wrong with him?" KG says, clenching his fists while his voice rises with each word. "I was looking at Ray and P the same way. But inside I was like, Yeah! This is what I'm talking about! That right there told me a lot about how we are going into this year."
Celtics Nation had its last real hurrah 21 years ago, when the C's won their 16th title. Since then, misery: Bird's back, Len Bias' overdose, Reggie Lewis' heart attack. Last season, the team finished 24-58, its second-worst record ever. Not only were the Celtics awful, they had become a symbol of futility, foiled twice -- almost comically -- by the pesky Ping-Pong balls, when first Tim Duncan and then Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were there for the taking.
But just when the whole mess seemed ready for the wrecking ball, oft-mocked GM Danny Ainge put a new twist on extreme makeovers, turning five young players, three first-round draft picks and two banged-up vets into Garnett and Allen. Suddenly, the phrase "Big Three," once reserved for immortals only -- Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish -- was being offered a second life. Suddenly, season ticket sales at the Garden were jumping 60%. Suddenly, the Celtics went from having no national TV appearances to having one nearly every other week. Suddenly, talk of a 17th banner wasn't just whacked-out gibberish. "Winning a championship," Ainge says, "is now a legitimate and realistic goal."
But one thing the NBA has learned over the past several years is that the magnetic quality
of stars doesn't necessarily attract riches. Sometimes it repels them. Shaq, Kobe, Karl Malone and Gary Payton couldn't claim a ring in 2004. Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen came up short in 1999. And Dream Team after Dream Team struggled in international play before the U.S. found the right mix this summer. No one knows the bumpy history better than Garnett, Allen and Pierce, who have 22 All-Star appearances among them but 0-1 marks each in conference finals. They aim to fix the latter by coming together now.
Only those who haven't spent any time around the Big Three during the past three months could think they won't get along. First of all, they've known each other for years. Heck, their moms know each other. In the summer of 1994, Garnett flew from his home in South Carolina to California to stay with Pierce's family in Inglewood for a week, before the duo led a cast of LA locals to victory at a national AAU shootout in Las Vegas. Garnett had met Allen three years before that, joining him in
a star-studded youth game in Columbia, S.C. "Ray played like Jordan," Garnett recalls.
It's the first week of October, and the guys are recounting their pasts as they lounge in a plush dining room at the Exedra hotel in Rome, where the Celtics are holding training camp as members of the NBA Europe Live Tour. Large plates of salad, spaghetti and roast beef sit in front of them, hours before they'll head off for a team-only visit to the Vatican. The three have already spent the afternoon together, sipping cappuccino in front of the hotel while filming a segment for NBA Access With Ahmad Rashad. Hanging as a clique has been the norm since Pierce introduced his new 'mates at a press conference in Boston on July 31. They've shot TV commercials for ABC and ESPN to promote the upcoming season, sat for photo shoots with several publications, posed for pictures in front of the Colosseum and appeared in The Boston Globe sports section wearing one another's
uniforms. "I love it," KG says, twirling his pasta. "I told everybody, 'I'm not doing anything by myself. If I do anything, it's going to be with these two.'"
Developing the on-court chemistry necessary to make an '80s-like run at the title may take more time, but there's no reason to think it can't happen. The three vets play different positions, which should enable them to avoid the clashes that might arise if they were all, say, perimeter-oriented. They also have distinct yet complementary styles, with Garnett playing off the block and the elbows, Pierce slashing from the wing and Allen spreading defenses as one of the best outside shooters in the game.
They readily admit it might not have worked so well if they'd joined forces a few years back, when they were all in their mid-20s and still chasing star status and the money that goes with it. But maturity and shoulders weary from carrying their respective squads for so long have gotten them to a place where individual glory no longer moves them. "If those two make the All-Star team and I don't, I'll feel like I had a part in their making it," says Pierce, a five-time All-Star who, at age 30, is the baby of the group -- and still the team's lone captain. "If I were younger, I might be upset, but that's not even in my blood anymore."
Allen leans back in his chair at the Exedra and looks up briefly at the sky, as if in deep thought. Garnett and Pierce chuckle as they wait for him to drop another analytical jewel. "Here comes the philosopher," Pierce says, nudging KG. Leave it to Allen, the 32-year-old elder statesman of the trio, to sum up why it's all about the ring now, what it means to wear the hallowed green uni while playing beneath the banners of ultimate achievement, and how 25 points in a loss means nothing when the franchise has cranked out so many Hall of Famers with rings. "We have this ongoing conversation: 'Our generation is better than your generation, our athletes are better than your athletes,'" Allen says, leaning into the table for emphasis. "We can get into that conversation because the three of us feel like we can roll with some of those cats from back in the day. But from a team perspective, we can't talk yet. None of us. Not until we win a championship. Then we can be like, 'Well, we would've got y'all in '84.'
"Until then, we can't say nothing."
"Ubuntu!" the Celtics shout as they break their huddle after practice. Coach Doc Rivers says he chose the chant over the typical "1, 2, 3, Celtics!" after reading about Bishop Desmond Tutu over the
summer. "Ubuntu," from the African Bantu language, stresses collective success over individual achievement. And maybe it's already having an effect. Boston's starting five all sported shaved heads in Rome, and Garnett bought each rookie three custom-made suits. The players hung out together nearly every night, cracking on one another for hours one evening on the Spanish Steps. And it doesn't seem to be just a "When in Rome … " thing. Aware of all the attention their celebrity brings, Garnett, Pierce and Allen have gone out of their way to make sure the Celtics don't split into factions -- or the Big Three and the Little 12.
Garnett and Pierce organized a team outing to the early-season Patriots-Chargers game. "Those guys are stars, and they could have easily taken their own limos," says rookie guard Gabe Pruitt. "But they rode over with the rest of us in a bus." As NFL highlights played on a TV inside the ride, Allen sat in back, schooling pups like second-year point guard Rajon Rondo on the importance of staying out of trouble off the floor. Garnett held court in the front, with Pruitt and a few others clinging to every word.
Although Boston now sports the most talented trio in the East, if not the league, the other 29 teams aren't exactly quaking in fear just yet. Gilbert Arenas says his Wizards will try to run the "older" Celtics off the floor, and one successful executive boldly proclaims, "There's no way they'll win the East." But while naysayers point to Boston's lack of defense and depth, the new Big Three believe the club's deficiencies in both areas are wildly overblown. KG, Rondo and reserves James Posey and Tony Allen are all proven defenders. And with less of a load to bear on the offensive end, and with
KG's infectious energy spurring them on the defensive side, Pierce and Allen -- never known as stoppers -- seem committed to giving the little things a try.
One example of that came on Oct. 6, when the Celtics beat the Raptors, 89-85, in their preseason opener in Rome. Midway through the third, Garnett's smothering defense caused Toronto's Chris Bosh to lose the ball near midcourt. A scramble ensued, and both Allen and Pierce, along with Garnett, dove for the rock like second-round draft picks playing for a guaranteed contract. Four days later, in London against KG's old Timberwolves, they all hit the deck again, this time on separate occasions, to fight for a loose ball. Three maximum-salaried All-Stars hurling themselves to the hardwood in the preseason?
Kindred spirits, for sure.
Chris Broussard covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.