I knew Kevin Garnett was going to be a Hall of Famer before most of the world had ever heard of him. That’s right. I knew it. Like, truly knew it. He arrived in Chicago in the summer of 1994 as a skinny, incredibly gifted athletically, 6-foot-11 kid.
Sure, college basketball coaches and some die-hard fans knew his name because he was highly ranked in the high school class of 1995. But the average fan would not know who he was until he exploded on the scene as a senior at Farragut HS on the west side of Chicago that next winter.
In fact, the notion of players jumping directly from high school to the NBA was still not widely accepted, and most NBA teams had no intention of drafting a 17- or 18-year-old player at or near the top of the draft.
In June of 1994 I was sitting at home in Deerfield, Ill., with my first wife and our newly born son Brett, who was just a month or so old at the time. I was running my scouting service for college and professional coaches, broadcasting 30-40 college basketball games on television each season and hosting overnights on the radio on sports radio station WMVP in Chicago. One of my dearest friends in my life is Ron Eskridge, who has been a fixture on the Chicago high school basketball scene for the past 50 years. He and I met when I was a college basketball assistant coach at Northern Illinois University from 1982-86, and he was one of the main reasons I was able to assimilate myself into the Chicago high school basketball world.
One Saturday afternoon in June of that year, my phone rang and it was Eskridge. “Hey Dave are you home? I’m up here in your neighborhood with a couple of our guys for a spring league tournament. Can we stop by for a while and grab a sandwich?” Of course, I replied and 15 minutes later my doorbell rang. One player I knew because he had been a camper at my annual summer basketball camp for the top prep players in Illinois as well as being one of the best guards in the country. His name was Ronnie Fields and he was the Pied Piper of Chicago basketball. Fans flocked to see him wherever he was playing, and other players wanted to play with him. He had a 45-inch vertical jump and was one of the most exciting players in Chicago high school history.
The other young man was much taller and extremely gregarious. I knew who he was because I had seen him at the previous summer’s Nike All-American Camp held in Indianapolis. It was at that camp that I watched him play in an all-star game against the great Allen Iverson and many other future college stars. However, I had never interacted with him before that day.
I also had no idea why he was in Chicago when he lived in Mauldin, S.C.
I invited the three of them in and offered them lunch. As we sat and talked, my one-month-old son Brett would not stop crying. I mean: He. Would. Not. Stop. Crying. And what I witnessed next was nothing short of amazing. This 6-foot-11 giant who was eating a sandwich on the couch in my family room asked to hold my crying son. “No thanks, Kevin. He has been crying a lot. You don’t need to deal with this. I appreciate it though,” I told him.
“Just let me hold him Kap. Kids love me,” he chuckled. So, I handed Brett over. Within seconds of being placed in Garnett’s arms he stopped crying. He stared at this new face that he had never met before.
I watched in amazement as Garnett sat in my family room, eating a sandwich in one hand and comforting and holding my son in the other. Brett was calm and happy. It was incredible. I wish I had taken a picture of that moment, but we didn’t have iPhones back then. I do have that memory, though, and that is priceless to me.
During lunch the four of us talked basketball and life, and we laughed and debated the game. Then, we went outside to shoot hoops in the park outside my townhouse. Eskridge and I against Fields and Garnett. Of course, we got destroyed. But that wasn’t the most unbelievable thing that I witnessed while we played.
After a few minutes several young kids from the neighborhood started congregating around the court. Why were they there? They couldn’t possibly know who any of us were, could they? There was no internet, no social media and high school basketball games were not being shown on TV very often. Yet, these kids all knew who Garnett and Fields were. They stayed for as long as we played and they cheered every basket the two high school stars made. It was an incredible sight to see.
That day was my introduction to Kevin Garnett and that day they let me in on a big secret. Kevin was thinking of transferring from South Carolina to Chicago. He wanted to team up with Fields and the rest of the talented Farragut team and play in the ultra-competitive Red West division of the Chicago Public League. It wasn’t a done deal but it was certainly a real possibility. And with no social media, there was no place for rampant speculation. It stayed a secret until it became a reality that August.
With Garnett in Chicago, Farragut basketball games became a must-see attraction. With Fields, Garnett and the late Michael Wright (who played at Arizona and in the NBA) on the roster, the Admirals were almost unbeatable.
And as the season went on, I saw more and more of their games and was around Garnett and Co. a lot. There was something about this young man that was incredibly special. I have scouted hundreds of players in my career, and I can count on one hand those that had the special quality that I like to call, “It.” The “It” factor is an incredibly unique quality that screams more than just talent. It announces itself with a presence that you know is greatness in more ways than in sheer statistics.
Garnett was a tremendous physical talent but he was so much more than that on and off of the court. The way he carried himself and the way he led was special. He did not suffer fools lightly and he demanded that his teammates compete as hard as he did.
But NBA coaches and executives were not convinced that high school players could make the jump to the NBA. In fact, my former boss when I was scouting for the Seattle SuperSonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) did not want to go see Garnett when I broached the idea with him in January of 1995.
The late Gary Wortman was a highly regarded scout with the Atlanta Hawks in 1995 after he had left the Sonics. He was coming to Chicago to see a college game one evening and called me to ask me to have dinner with him before the evening game. I volunteered to pick him up at the airport and told him, “Forget dinner. I’m taking you to see another game that tips off at 3:15 this afternoon. You won’t believe how good this kid is. Then we can go to the college game.”
“What kind of a game starts at 3:15 on a weekday? It better not be a high school game, because I’m not scouting high school kids when we are going to be picking in the Top 20 of the draft,” he growled.
If you’ve never seen an NBA scout drool, it is a sight worth a few laughs. “What the….That kid is incredible. I can’t believe this. He can play in our league right now. He will never be there when we pick.” And he was right. Garnett went to the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth pick. The Hawks ended up choosing No. 16 in that year’s draft, and Wortman told me the day before: “Whoever doesn’t take him at the very top of the draft will end up regretting it for the rest of their career."
The Timberwolves have no regrets.
In February of 1995 I received a call from the producer of the Oprah Winfrey Show which filmed in Chicago. They were doing a show on child prodigies and wanted to know if I was interested in appearing.
“We are wondering if you have ever seen a young basketball player that you believe will be in the Hall of Fame someday? Someone you saw at a young age that you are confident he will be a superstar?”
I had seen a lot of great players as a college coach for four years and as an NBA scout for two different franchises over four years, but I hadn’t seen many young kids that I truly believed were going to be in the Hall of Fame.
Except one name was stuck in my mind. Kevin Garnett.
I gave that name to Oprah’s producer. “We would like to have you on the show and Oprah will ask you about him and some other players that you have seen, okay?” Of course it was okay. The Oprah Winfrey Show was huge. And sure enough, in March of 1995 I sat in the Green Room of the world famous Oprah Winfrey Show ready to talk basketball with one of the best talk show hosts of all-time.
As I sat there waiting my turn to have the makeup artist work her magic a young man walked up to me and said “Hi, what do you do?” I told him I scout famous athletes. I then proceeded to ask him what got him selected to be on this great show. “I’m a singer from Atlanta, Georgia. My name is Usher Raymond.”
I am not very astute when it comes to music and pop culture, but that name I knew. That kid was a star! Then, in walked a father with his daughter. Richard and Venus Williams. Then an actress from a movie I had seen walks in. Katherine Heigl of Under Siege 2 – Dark Territory. Man, this was a star studded show! What was I doing here?
Later in the show, they call my name and tell me I am up in the next segment. I walk out and I am on set with Oprah and a casting agent from a Hollywood talent agency. We start to discuss kids who are stars at a young age. Then, the question that I was waiting for. “Have you ever seen a player at a young age that you believe could be a star?”
I spoke from the heart about my respect for Garnett, his game and the type of young man that I believed he was. He and another area high school basketball star, Joliet’s Gary Bell, were in the audience. I had no idea they were there!
Then, she says to me, “And you made a black man blush which is hard to do!”
Oprah then proceeds to ask Kevin what he thought of my comments and he says, "I just want to say thank you. I really don’t think ahead, I just think day by day. That’s the best way to do it. I just want to be successful in life. That’s all. Yes, I want to go to the NBA. That’s every kid’s dream.”
Garnett and Fields then proceeded to finish off the 1994-95 season with a trip to the Illinois High School Elite Eight, where they lost in the quarterfinals to an extremely talented Thornton HS team that had future NFL players Napoleon Harris, Antwaan Randle-El and Tai Streets, plus future NBA player Melvin Ely, on their roster. The loss was shocking to many, but it has to go down in Illinois high school history as one of the most talented matchups in the state’s storied basketball annals.
With the season now over rumors began to swirl on where Garnett would attend college. But, those close to Garnett, including Eskridge, Fields and Farragut head coach William “Wolf” Nelson, kept telling me they believed he was going to head directly to the NBA.
Bulls front office executive Doug Collins was the head coach of the Detroit Pistons at that time, and I told him to trade their No. 18 and No. 19 picks in that year’s draft to move up into the top five for Garnett if they had the chance.
“A high school kid that high? C’mon Kap, I’m sure he’s talented but in the top five?” Collins told me.
A couple of weeks before the 1995 NBA Draft, Garnett held a private workout for NBA coaches, general managers and scouts at an inner-city gym. He was simply incredible. I talked to Collins that day and he said, “Wow, that kid is one of the best prospects I have ever seen. There is no way we can get him even if we offered both of our picks. He is going in the top five for sure.”
Now, here we are 26 years after I first met Garnett, and he is going to the Basketball Hall of Fame. It was evident from the first time I saw him play, and it was cemented when I had the opportunity to interact with him. Garnett remains the best high school player I have ever seen, and he is deserving of having his name etched alongside all of the game’s very best.
I may not have that picture of Kevin and my son from June of 1994, but I have incredible memories, and those will stay with me forever. Congratulations, Kevin. You deserve this incredible honor. We were all lucky to have been able to watch you play. I was even luckier to have had a front row seat for that magical season in 1994-95 when you exploded on the basketball world. I don’t need a camera to remember it.
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