Whenever I hear somebody call Kevin Garnett an ideal mentor, as many people believe he will be for JaJuan Johnson, just as many people believed (believe?) he would (will?) be for Jeff Green, I think about Earl Woods.
Woods sculpted the perfect golfer from scratch. If a child’s on-course success was the only category, even the biggest Jack Nicklaus fans would consider Earl Woods one of the two or three most successful golf fathers ever. He mentored, trained and watered Tiger Woods until Tiger blossomed into the most dominant golfer of his era, and perhaps the best golfer ever to whack a dimpled ball. Tiger transcended racial barriers, hit the ball long, putted well, and possessed a cutthroat competitive nature that made him almost impossible to catch from behind. Largely because of his father’s tutelage, Tiger soared to number one in the world rankings, vaulted miles above and beyond each of his competitors, and gained an aura of invincibility that made other golfers wilt in Tiger’s overwhelming shadow.
But Earl’s methods would not have worked for everybody. He never forced Tiger to play golf, but if Earl’s only son chose to play 18 holes, he would play to improve, to control, to master, and not merely to have fun. Earl would play alongside his son, his pride, his joy, and his lessons would not relent. The 13-year old Tiger would take a backswing, and Earl would drop his bag of clubs with a fierce “thump.” Tiger would begin his putt, and suddenly Earl’s ball would roll across his line of vision. Tiger would line up a wedge shot, and Earl’s keys would jiggle as loudly as he could make them. Tiger would begin his downswing, and just before impact he would hear his father’s golf cart beep.
Earl’s motives were pure; he was not interrupting Tiger’s swings just to be an ass.
“I wanted to make sure,” Earl told Rick Reilly in 1995, “he’d never run into anybody who was tougher mentally than he was.”
Despite the proper intentions, Earl’s methods could have caused a tidal wive to form between he and his young son. If my father had thrown his bag of clubs during my backswing, I would have wiffed the shot, bawled for the next 45 minutes, cursed my father under my breath, run off the course and finally quit the game of golf forever. I played sports to enjoy them, mostly, and while I wanted to improve and become the best player I could, the antics Earl Woods pulled would have been enough to suck the fun out of golf. Maybe that makes me normal. Maybe it means I didn’t have the right attitude. Probably, both.
But Tiger wanted exactly what Earl wanted for him, even if it meant dealing with random (and loud) noises during the middle of his backswing.
“I mean, yeah,” Tiger said in 1995, “I’d get angry sometimes. But I knew it was for the betterment of me. That’s what learning is all about, right?”
I could learn as a child, too, but I learned my best in different ways than Tiger did. At least in my youth (and maybe even now), I would not have had the vision to understand why Earl’s methods made sense. I would have revolted, become frustrated, lashed back, given up. Though I cannot say for certain, I suspect many people would have reacted in a similar fashion. Certain people don’t have whatever made Tiger so mature at such a young age, whatever made him so able to withstand his father’s barrage of obstacles designed to harden Tiger against outside influences. I would have been pissed off and stopped working hard. Tiger understood and worked even harder.
There is a fundamental difference between Tiger Woods’s mentality and my own, just like there is a fundamental difference between Tiger’s mentality and that of almost every other PGA golfer, just like there is a fundamental difference between Kevin Garnett’s mentality and that of almost every other NBA player. For whatever reason (my theory: he grew up eating sandwiches made with steel bread), Garnett is wired differently than most. He screams obscenities directed at nobody in particular. He crawls on the floor on all fours and claims not to remember afterwards. He beats his chest, he intimidates opponents, he throws the occasional ball-tap or well-placed elbow, and once in a while he even pretends to bite Dwight Howard.
Like Earl Woods, Garnett fashions himself as a mentor, as a leader, but does so in his own hard-edged way. Garnett does not take kindly to underachievers or young teammates who will not listen to his advice. According to Doc Rivers, Garnett doesn’t just get upset with teammates who choose not to listen to him—he ignores them altogether, acting as if they simply aren’t there. Garnett assumes that anybody who won’t heed his advice does not want to improve, and he will not waste any time pretending to condone such behavior.
And if a young player does accept KG’s criticism, which is designed only to help but can be sharper than a steak knife? The young player will be held to the highest standards. He will be screamed at, often on national television, sometimes harsh enough to make a grown man cry. He will hear an earful every time he misses a defensive rotation. He will hear an earful every time he does not pass to the open man. Garnett will not quite interrupt a teammate’s free throws with a flying golf bag, but he will maintain a constant stream of communication that can be meaner than Professor Snape.
If the young player can handle all that, he will become better, tougher, smarter, more equipped to handle the rigors of an NBA schedule and NBA competition. But I imagine it’s a bitch to handle.