Kevin Garnett is a mysterious man—well, at least to our voyeuristic culture.
After he retires, you’re not going to see him end up as a broadcaster or analyst; he won’t be doing movies; he’s not going to coach.
No, he’ll, as he put it, disappear.
And I think that’s virtuous. Kevin Garnett is one of those people who does nothing but work on his game. He views it as a craft, an art. He’s not in the NBA for the accolades. On this he shares a similarity with Flannery O’Connor who, when asked why she wrote, said: “Because I’m good at it.”
This is why I’d like to depart from this often-repeated aphorism: “Athletes aren’t role-models.” Sure, some aren’t, but, then again, neither are some teachers or doctors or politicians. There are good and bad people in every profession. And I think athletes like Kevin Garnett are wonderful role-models.
Here’s why: what they have to teach us transcends their sport.
Of course aspiring basketball players can look up to Garnett. They can spend hours on the courts attempting to mimic his moves. That’s fine.
But I think Garnett also reminds us that techne—the Greek word for craftsmanship—is important to human life. We live in a world of ease. It is flooded with devices that remove anything arduous. For instance: We don’t know how to fix things anymore. When such devices break, we often toss them away or we’d just rather buy a new one.
We also don’t know how to build. We prefer to let robots take care of that for us.
Doing something and becoming good at it is often satisfying. Let’s take writing. It, like basketball, is a craft. It takes years of hard work to learn how to hear the musicality of a sentence, to know how to put together a story. And, even then, writers are often far from perfect.
Our culture prefers expediency, too. Kids often think that, a week after learning how to play basketball, they’re ready to play in the NBA. This should fade with maturity, but it hasn’t. Recently, Toucher and Rich, a Boston-based sports talk radio program, sponsored an event that invited anyone to challenge former Celtic Brian Scalabrine to a game of one-on-one. Sure, this was in jest. But there were people who actually believed they could beat someone who played in the NBA.
Those who understand that perfecting a craft takes time are wise. The act of doing and experiencing grants a profound intelligence—one that cannot be gained by sitting in a classroom. This is another reason one can admire Kevin Garnett. Education should be a holistic enterprise. It should instill in the student a sense of wonder. But it has become a treadmill: you get the Bachelor’s and the Master’s and then you end up with the PhD. After that, you end up in the unemployment line or in a banal job that you can’t stand. No one uses education to seek purpose, because that doesn’t offer benefits.
Garnett, who knew his purpose involved basketball and thus didn’t attend college, is described by teammates as one of the most brilliant people in the league. And you can see it in his interviews; you can read it in the newspapers. When he talks, you want to lean in and catch every word.
This was especially evident in his 2008 conversation with Bill Russell, a legendary player and a figure similar to Kevin Garnett. They talked about the game—what it means to win, tradition, duty, friendship, sacrifice, the art of basketball. As Stuart Scott rightly said, it should give the listener goose bumps. It was like witnessing a conversation between Plato and Aristotle.
So I think we all have a lot to learn from Kevin Garnett. He demonstrates to us what happens when someone pursues his purpose and works hard at it.
And I hope he continues with this approach. His so-called disappearance will be soon—this summer or the next or the one after that. Retirement, I’m sure, makes you restless. I’m wondering if he’ll move onto something else.
Maybe he’ll try writing.