Chicago streets give Garnett an edge
Almost every day before heading off to school at Farragut Academy in Chicago, Kevin Garnett would make sure to take one last glance at the mirror.
Garnett had come a long way from the playgrounds of Mauldin, S.C, where he had become the only underclassman to be named Mr. Basketball in state history and had risen to join the elite in the high school ranks before shipping up to Chicago for his senior season. But next to his reflection stood a constant reminder of the challenges that still awaited him.
A photo, taken from the pages of USA Today, showed Garnett and the other top prep players from around the country. And after each game he played against one of the faces depicted, Garnett, as competitive at the age of 19 as he is now at 34, would draw a big X over that player's face.
"He had a hit list," said Farragut head coach William "Wolf" Nelson. "Whether it was playing with me, playing in summer league, it didn't matter. When it was clear that he was on top, he would strike them out one by one. He wanted to be the No. 1 guy."
After his senior year at Farragut, few would argue otherwise.
In just one season with the Admirals after transferring from Mauldin, Garnett averaged 25.2 points, 17.9 rebounds and 6.5 blocks per game while leading Farragut to a 28-2 record and a city championship.
Garnett, who at one point also had more assists than all the guards on his team combined, would also be named Illinois' Mr. Basketball, USA Today's national player of the year and the most outstanding player of the McDonald's All-America game, in which he recorded a double-double.
"He was one of the most skilled players I've ever seen," Nelson said.
But when the coach was first introduced to Garnett at a Nike camp in 1993, Nelson was first struck by Garnett's skinny physique, not his jump shot
Although Garnett stood 6-foot-10, he weighed about only 200 pounds. And while other players such as Rasheed Wallace carried over the edge of the streets to their games, the coach could tell almost instantly that his new protégé was from the South.
"His game was off the chain," Nelson said, "but he was too nice."
That began to change toward the end of his junior year at Mauldin.
Garnett and several black friends were charged with assaulting a white student and faced up to 20 years in prison. Charges were dropped and his record was cleared after a pretrial intervention for first-time offenders, but Garnett, -- who, according to reports, maintained he was merely a witness to the fight -- was ready for a change of scenery.
Without as much as seeing a picture of Farragut, Garnett packed up and moved to Chicago.
"He always had that dog in him. We just had to remind him that it was OK to play aggressive.” -- Former Farragut Academy (Ill.) assistant coach Ron Eskridge
"He felt that they had singled him out because in a crowd, he stands out above everyone," said former Farragut assistant coach Ron Eskridge. "He had a little chip on his shoulder after and something to prove."
The competition would be stiffer up north, but Garnett was always willing to test himself. And his new coach was looking for any way he could to toughen Garnett's skin for the physical Chicago style.
Nelson began taking him to Kennedy King Community College for pickup games -- "That's where the best of the best get out," Nelson said -- and brought adults and former players to practice, but even that wasn't enough.
"We'd walk in the gym and everyone would rather get his autograph than play against him," Nelson said.
So Nelson began diverting the weekend and after-school trips to the roughest neighborhoods he could think of.
"We went to some places that were hard-core," Nelson said. "I took him to some jungles, everywhere I knew that they didn't care about your reputation. They'd either make you or break you."
Garnett was up for the challenge.
Although Nelson said Garnett was always laid-back and often too willing to defer and play the "team player" role, he was someone who not only desired greatness for himself, but demanded it.
He was also a harsh self-critic, wearing rubber bands around his wrists and snapping them to scold himself for mistakes.
"He always realized that he may be the best player to start with, but there's always going to be someone who was willing to outwork you," Nelson said. "And he wasn't going to let someone outwork him. These are the things I've heard him say and the things that drove him."
As Garnett put in his time in the streets, where he was engulfed by the Chicago swagger, his now-trademark bark began to catch up to his bite.
Garnett became more vocal and would often take over in the huddle. Although he always screamed out on forceful dunks, it wasn't an uncommon sight to now see him run back down the court talking trash with his arms spread out like a bird.
"He always had that dog in him," Eskridge said. "We just had to remind him that it was OK to play aggressive."
Although Eskridge said Garnett wanted to attend college, he couldn't reach the minimum test scores required. The NBA was one of the few options he had left.
But Eskridge was confident, even then, that Garnett could make the transition from strolling down the halls of Farragut to driving the lanes of the NBA. His all-around game was just too good, his defense so fundamentally sound for a 19-year-old prep player.
After watching Garnett's pre-draft workout, the Timberwolves and then-GM Kevin McHale agreed, helping Garnett become the first player in 20 years and just the fourth American-born player to make the jump to the pros directly from high school by selecting him with the fifth pick of the 1995 draft.
"I think we figured if [signing a high school kid] went bad, we'd just say, 'Hey, it was our first draft. We didn't know what we were doing,'" McHale told Sports Illustrated in 1999.
Excuses, however, weren't needed.
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor at ESPN.com. E-mail him at Justin.R.Verrier@ESPN.com or follow him on Twitter.