Garnett firing up his new team, makes himself at home in Rome

10/10/2007 - Boston Celtics

ROME -- The fierce intensity is still all too obvious in the three-squad, take-no-prisoners scrimmages that have ended every Boston Celtics practice here at the Palafonte practice facility on the outskirts of Rome all week.

But make no mistake, it was not only the uniform that Kevin Garnett changed when he made his blockbuster move from the Minnesota Timberwolves this summer.

Meet the new KG: media-friendly, jovial, Euro-centric and ... committed soccer fan.

Garnett, 31, has found himself at the center of much of the Celtics' promotional activity in this, the first part of their ten-day NBA Europe Live training camp and exhibition tour that features games against the Toronto Raptors in Rome Saturday and the Minnesota Timberwolves at London's O2 Arena next Wednesday.

The players themselves may insist on focusing upon the "Big Three" of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen but, for the majority of the 30-40 media members who have been flocking to the Palafonte daily this week, Garnett stands above his two new teammates, literally and figuratively.

And Garnett, to the surprise of many veteran KG watchers, has taken such responsibility in stride. No question has gone unanswered, no photo request turned down. The Italian journalist who arrived resplendent in Celtics retro warm-up jacket was complimented on his dress-sense by the Celtics' new forward before Garnett declared Rome the fashion capital of the world.

And then there is Garnett's newfound sporting love. If there is one thing guaranteed to instantly worm you into an Italian's affections, it is sharing his love of "Il Calcio" -- "football" to the Brits who host Boston next week, "soccer" to you North Americans.

Monday, the Celtics welcomed Italian soccer legend Alessandro del Piero, an NBA fanatic who had made an 875-mile round trip from Turin where he plays for the storied Juventus team, just to spend a few minutes with Garnett and company.

An inevitable, media-pleasing game of "keepy-uppy" ensued in which players stood in a circle juggling the ball between one another without allowing it to hit the floor.

Garnett, for somebody standing nearly seven feet, showed a surprisingly subtle touch, star-struck Uruguayan Esteban Batista, not surprisingly, showed great footwork, as did Allen, who spent several years playing soccer when he was growing up in Europe.

But the keepie-uppies broke down spectacularly when Pierce, to the general amusement of everybody, tried to become involved and succeeded only in booting the ball hard into Garnett's body, inches from his face.

Try explaining that one away to the Celtics Nation: Kevin Garnett will miss the start of the season after having his nose broken by Paul Pierce in a soccer keepy-uppy contest.

In short, if a lack of depth, particularly at the point guard position, or the potential for chemistry issues surrounding the assimilation of three such high-profile players is a concern among this new-look Boston organization, then everybody is doing a good job of concealing it.

"I just like the camaraderie that those guys are trying to bring," said guard Tony Allen. "The togetherness they bring, I like that, how they're trying to get us all as one. Our stars are coming together so now we role players have to work to support them.

"That's why it's just great being here in Europe, getting everyone together as a team. I look up to those three guys. I'm here for the team and I know they are, too. They're the face of the team and the rest of us just have to follow their example."

If this sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Every training camp across the US will echo such comments this week but it is doubtful that anywhere else will match the sheer buzz and anticipation that hangs around Boston's.

The Celtics may not be able to match Manchester United, Juventus, Real Madrid or any of the other soccer clubs that KG can now talk about so expertly in terms of their global reach and the "brand awareness" they carry with them across the planet.

But bearing in mind that for many parts of Europe -- including Italy and Britain -- the first NBA games that were ever televised were the classic Celtics-Lakers finals of the mid-1980's, the Boston name still carries plenty of weight in the Old World. (Although Del Piero did confess in a whisper that watching those games as a kid has led to his life-long love for the Lakers).

"It actually hit me for the first time in the hotel last night. I came into the lobby and there was a sign saying 'Boston Celtics team room,'" said Ray Allen. "I looked up and said, 'Wow! Boston Celtics!' That name carries a lot of weight, it's carried a lot of weight for a long time.

"I played with the Milwaukee Bucks and people in America didn't know the Milwaukee Bucks or where Milwaukee is! People all over have a great awareness of the Boston Celtics and that gives you a little bit more swagger."

That point is not lost on Garnett. The Big Three -- the "Three-Headed Monster" as KG christened them this week -- may have gobbled up column inches as readily as the superb Italian cuisine that has been consumed this week, but he is fully aware that the club is far more important than its constituent parts.

"Because of the history, I anticipate that people know the Boston Celtics more than individual names and that's fine," said Garnett. "They have been around a long time, they are one of the backbones of the NBA since its foundation, how it has been able to grow, the championships, the total history. When you have a new jersey, you have to learn the history, right?"

Not that the 2007 vintage Celtics are happy to rest on the laurels of former glories which ended, to all intents and purposes, with their last finals appearance two decades ago.

The intensity which Garnett brought to the end-of-practice scrimmages was impressive, to say the least. "Let's go ... get your gas on!" he screamed at the top of his lungs during Sunday's games which came at the end of a 3 1/2 hour session which coach Doc Rivers put his team through, starting just six hours after they had completed their Trans Atlantic flight by touching down at Rome's Fiumicino airport.

"Between me, Kevin, Paul, James [Posey], guys who have been in the league for a certain amount of time, we have an intensity about us," said Ray Allen. "He [Garnett] is very outward with his, he'll fire up guys. But we all move in a lot of different ways, that's how we complement each other."

Garnett, himself, had a more colorful explanation for his in-your-face school of motivation. "I enjoy competing, I enjoy playing the game," he said. "As you guys go through your everyday lives, you guys probably go to the gym and hit the punch bag, the ladies probably do Tae Bo and get to scream about their boyfriends, or vice versa. I get to come and practice, that's where I release some of my stress, some of my energy. That's what you see out there."

The head-to-heads between Garnett and Kendrick Perkins were particularly entertaining, especially given the "history" between the pair. The two exchanged heated words when they faced off during a Boston-Minnesota game in February. KG explained that one of his first acts upon joining the Celts had been to seek out his new teammate and clear the air.

And for Rivers, the sight of players challenging each other, mentally as well as physically, in the opening week of practice was particularly welcome, not least because it may have indicated that the chronic lack of depth from which Boston are expected to suffer once you get past their starting ... well ... starting three, may not be as bad as feared.

"The scrimmages between our first and second units have been very close, very competitive," he said. "There has been a lot of barking at each other. Before, if you said something, the young guys would back up. These guys are going nowhere. The five [second unit] guys looked the starters in the eye and told them to bring it on. That's nice."

However, the fact remains that talk is all well and good but will count for nothing once the season rolls around. "Paper champions" is a phrase heard a lot around these Celtics, with a great degree of cynicism: As in, being paper champions doesn't mean anything.

To underline that fact, any Celtic, young or old, need only glance across the locker room towards Posey, the only player on this squad to have appeared in an NBA Finals, winning the 2006 title with the Miami Heat.

"Guys have asked a little bit about it," said Posey of his Finals experience. "How does it feel, this and that, and I've tried to give them a little inside scoop about my experience which was a good one.

"I've been on both sides, having been a champion and, also, being on the opposite side, trying to repeat the next year [2007] and getting swept in the first round. That was tough. There is no such thing as 'paper champions.' You look at our team, look at our roster, we have great players on this team but we have to go out and play the games. If we take care of the regular season then we can put ourselves in a good situation for the playoffs. That's all we're trying to do."

Ian Whittell covers the NBA for the London Times.