I don't know if it's because I'm getting older or because as a sports writer I'm automatically more cynical, but whatever it is I don't look at athletes the way I used to. Don't get me wrong, I still appreciate great players and still root for the home teams, but I don't live and die with the games the way I used to and I don't worship athletes the way I once did.
The last time an athlete really had an impact on me was Curt Schilling in 2004. He came into spring training saying all the right things, promising to deliver a World Series title and generally just seeming to get it. I was on his bandwagon from Day 1, which made it that much sweeter when he actually delivered on his preseason promise that fateful October.
Then 2005 came around and Schilling was banged up and seemed to stop always saying the right things. He started to come across as a know-it-all and self-promoter at times. Now that Schilling's time in Boston appears over, I still respect what he's been able to do on the field, but I don't hold him up on a pedestal anymore.
Even with all of the athletic excellence in Boston right now, there is really only one athlete that has “it.” I can't describe it, except to say you know it when you see it. You need a combination of talent, charisma, personality and leadership. It guys have a presence that is tangible. There are plenty of candidates, but all have flaws. Manny and Ortiz are more of likable fun guys, than it guys. Beckett's too surly to really relate to. Papelbon is too goofy. The past few year's have hurt Pierce's stature. The one guy who is closest to having it is Brady, but the thing that hurts his case is that he's fallen a little too much into the Belichick system to the point that he never really says anything anymore. Sure he shows fire on the field, but whens the last time you've heard him say anything of note?
Who does this leave? Well I'll give you a hint: it's not Brian Scalabrine but he probably does abuse Scal daily in practice. I am of course talking about Kevin Garnett. I know it's insanely early to anoint Garnett as the most important athlete in the city, but that's what I'm doing. Now maybe the honeymoon period will end as it did with Schilling, but guys like this only come along often so I'm going to enjoy it will it lasts.
I can't even lie, I almost get the chills during his new Adidas commercial, "This is real talk. It's we not me." The guy just has it. It's a commercial and yet Garnett's intensity comes across. The guy seems completely consumed with winning. Take for instance, that the biggest knock on him in his Minnesota days was that he was too intense and played too hard every night, thus wearing himself out by the time the playoffs rolled around. I don't think many season ticket holders have left the Garden in recent years complaining that the players appeared to be trying too hard.
That passion shouldn't be a problem in Boston, now that he's on a team that is built to make a championship run and he is surrounded by veterans, who, like him, have had the individual accomplishments and are focused on cementing their legacies with a ring. This might be Pierce's team, but make no mistake, Garnett is the leader. He's the one who has gone out of his way to include Pierce and Ray Allen in his television interviews and has heaped praise on young players like Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins.
Garnett is also the most likely member of The (New) Big Three who will sacrifice his own numbers for the betterment of the team. He seems intent on spreading the ball around to get his teammates involved. He knows he's a Hall of Famer right now, but if he wants to be considered an all-time great he needs to win a title. In his 12th year in the league, it has to be clear that these next few years will be his best chance to get it done.
That's why he was hanging on every word Celtic legend John Havlichek said when he addressed the team last week. Garnett sees the banners hanging from the Garden rafters and he genuinely seems to be impacted by the Celtics tradition.
The big difference with Garnett and a lot of guys who say the right things is that he actually seems to believe what he says. It doesn't seem contrived, doesn't seem like he's trying to be anything – it's just who he is.
Friday night was as electric as the Garden has been for a regular season game in a long time and Garnett is the single biggest reason for that. He went out with his new teammates and rewarded the crowd with a big win and a 22-20 performance. The signature moment of the night came at the end when Garnett and Pierce were removed and left to a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd.
As the two made their way to the bench there were two kids – probably eight-years-old – sitting courtside next to the Celtics bench. Pierce walked past the kids without a second thought, while Garnett slapped hands with the kids, giving them a memory they'll never forget. It's not a knock on Pierce that he didn't stop to high-five the kids. But the fact that Garnett did think to stop is just another example of the difference between guys who get it and those who don't.