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Garnett An Unpolished Gem Wolves’ Rookie Took Money, Now They’re Waiting For Him To Help Them Run With Big Boys

What’s so hard about going from rags to riches?

- Kevin Garnett, last spring

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. For sure, it’s the most expensive of times.

Kevin Garnett is no longer a teenager or an innocent, and he’s a long way from rags. Unlike his first two seasons, Minnesota Timberwolves’ fans now sometimes make cracks. Once they were delighted with anything their prodigy did. Now, anything under 20 points doesn’t count and he’s averaging 19.

Once, he was voted Minnesota’s most popular athlete, ahead of Kirby Puckett. Last summer, when Garnett turned down a $103.2 million deal, officials of the Minnesota State Fair removed a cardboard cutout of his likeness for fear fans might deface it.

On the other hand, he has $126 million to look forward to.

It’s the biggest contract in the history of sports, $6 million bigger than Shaquille O’Neal’s. Not that it has changed Garnett’s life. He may bet teammates $500 he can make a 3-pointer left-handed, but he did that before. And now, as before, he doesn’t pay off when he misses.

“I’m a very humble guy, man,” he says, amiably. “You know, I’m going to be me, with or without it.”

He’s still “without,” since his raise hasn’t kicked in. He remains at entry level for a No. 5 pick, earning $2,109,120 this season.

In a year, he’ll go to $14 million, rising to $28 million by the 2003-04 season, by which time the Timberwolves hope to have brought a title to the Twin Cities of Marbury-St. Kevin, er, Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The expectations have kicked in, though. For an average of $21 million a year, one is supposed to dominate, not merely contribute, but this is a new cage age, wherein hoopers may turn pro out of high school, as Garnett did, and become free agents at 22, as he would have.

Teams now must pay for potential. Because Garnett had more than anyone else due on next summer’s market, and since the Timberwolves’ very existence was bound up in his person, they prostrated themselves, offering $103.2 million over six seasons - and when he turned them down, bowed anew and went to $126 million.

Garnett took it, a concession even at that. He later uttered the usual disclaimer - “It’s not about the money” - and is still hearing about that, but it was true, kind of. They call it pro basketball because it’s always about money, but it wasn’t just about money.

Who in this day and age signs up for six years on the tundra when the Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns, who will be $20 million under the next salary cap, salivate at the mention of his name?

Who chills out his agent, who seems intent on taking him to brighter lights and more endorsement dollars - of which said agent gets 10 percent, compared to the union-mandated 4 percent for negotiating contracts?

Garnett is who. The tab might have been a tad high - almost four times the $32.5 million the franchise cost - but it leaves the Timberwolves viable and hopeful of signing their other young star, Stephon Marbury, next summer.

Indeed, as soon as Garnett signed, Marbury said he expected to follow suit.

“Hey,” coach-general manager Flip Saunders said, “we kept the guy that was going to be the premier free agent next year. He stayed in Minnesota. We’re not a big market so it does give us some confidence.”

A $126 million deal here, another $126 million there, the next thing you know, you might have a future in this league.

“The contract he signed would be tough on anybody,” Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh says. “I’d say L.A. could survive it and make money, New York could survive it and make money, maybe Chicago. But even in their world, with a big contract like that, they’d have to do well as a team… .

“It’s not easy to do, but I understand, you do get to the position where you say, ‘What are we doing here? Are we just getting players to prepare them to go somewhere else or are we trying to win this thing?”’

Summertime blues

Kevin Garnett will not re-sign with the (Minnesota) club after next season.

- Agent Eric Fleisher, Aug. 12, 1997

This was a vacation you wouldn’t wish on an in-law. When the Timberwolves began planning to re-sign Garnett, the highest annual salary for a non-legend - that is to say, anyone but Michael Jordan - was David Robinson’s $12 million.

Estimates of what it would take to keep Garnett ran even higher. An all-star at 20, he was a rare combination of talent and maturity. His worth to the Timberwolves, with their history of arrests, pouts and attempted franchise moves, was incalculable.

Small-market teams around the NBA saw it as a test case - Garnett’s draft class was the first under the new collective bargaining agreement, which frees rookies in three seasons - worrying Minnesota that it might have to pay $15 million a season, which seemed shocking.

It was only shocking for a few months. By summer, the Timberwolves swallowed hard, offered $17.2 million for six seasons, $103.2 million altogether … and were stunned when Garnett turned it down.

Owner Glen Taylor told the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Sid Hartman about the offer, presumably to quiet criticism if they lost their young star. Fleisher denounced that as a “breach of confidentiality,” vowing Garnett’s days in Minnesota were numbered.

However, behind the scenes, Garnett, who was supposedly incommunicado in his Mauldin, S.C., home, was striking a more conciliatory note.

He had always told Timberwolves’ officials he planned to stay, and sometime that nervous summer, he called Saunders, assuring him they would get past this.

“I always told Flip since Day 1 that we’re going to get this done,” Garnett says. ” … I mean, me, myself, personally, that was the only phone call I made, to let him know that I wanted to get this out of the way and that was it. But that was just at the beginning, when I told him what was up, you know, just, set the boundaries on some stuff.”

Convinced Garnett was bargaining in good faith, the Timberwolves regrouped and went to $126 million. Fleisher asked for an “out” clause, which would have freed Garnett again in three or four years, but Taylor said no. Garnett took the deal.

Of course, that set up Marbury for a similar offer. Team officials keep vowing they’ll re-sign Tom Gugliotta, who also will be a free agent next summer and might like something in eight figures, too.

So it was a happy band of Timberwolves that started the season 4-2 before Wednesday’s 118-93 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in their first West Coast game. Garnett was averaging 19.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.3 blocks, among the league’s top 40 in each.

Everyone expects him to be a fine player, the only question being whether he has the will to take over games, as do only the rare few … like Marbury.

“Marbury is a fourth quarter-type player,” Saunders says. “Kevin’s strength is that he is a very unselfish player… .

“Will he take over games? Yeah, if I give him the ball, he’ll do that. But one thing he won’t do, he won’t take a bad shot to win a game. If someone else is open, he’ll give the ball to whoever the open guy is. Now Steph’s got enough confidence, if you come and contest him, he’ll take a bad shot and he’ll make it. That’s how he is.”

The Timberwolves are not merely delighted with each, they’re giddier. In Minnesota, the score is one phenom down, one to go.