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Fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves can tick off a laundry list of reasons why the team is in the midst of its best season in franchise history. In no particular order, they cite the variety of zone defenses deployed by coach Flip Saunders, the added muscle of Gary Trent and Marc Jackson, the improvement of Wally Szczerbiak and Rasho Nesterovic, and the splendid versatility of Kevin Garnett. But some members of the Wolves also believe--well, sort of believe--that there are more mysterious factors working on their behalf. This may well be the most superstitious team in pro basketball. Rituals abound.
Saunders has been known to repeat his wardrobe throughout a hot streak, giving new definitions to "dirty work" and "winning ugly." For a long time earlier this season, point guard Chauncey Billups took a more circuitous route from his house to the Target Center because he deemed it a luckier journey. Other players and staff enact their own odd, private rites to please and appease the gods of fortune.
As with so many other areas affecting the franchise, however, the unquestioned team leader in idiosyncratic rituals and behavioral quirks has got to be Garnett. What follows is a description of KG's X-file, the assortment of routines he has adopted that lend added pleasure and intimacy to witnessing the Wolves in action.
The bulk of KG's elaborate machinations occur before the contest has even begun. Some are undertaken in the context of the entire team. It's probably no coincidence, for example, that the sound system at Target Center almost invariably booms out a tune by DMX, KG's favorite rapper, as the Wolves take the floor for their pre-game shoot-around. Before the national anthem, KG and the other players form two moving lines and start jumping into each other with playful smiles on their faces. Eventually it is time for the announcement of the starting lineups. Always the last player introduced to the crowd at Wolves' home games, Garnett dances for a few seconds in and out of the spotlight in the darkened arena and then locks arms with the other four Minnesota starters--and the mascot, Crunch--for a swaying huddle just before the house lights are turned back on.
As the starters from both teams begin sauntering onto the court for the opening tap, KG heads in the other direction, down by the baseline under the basket. It is time for the Shirt-Tuck, a painstaking process that includes the stretching of the elastic on the pants, the tuck, the tying of the drawstring and the smoothing of the jersey, always done facing the audience, with his back to the court.
Then, until very recently, the highly anticipated Bunny Hop Butt Slap ensued. This ritual began early in KG's career, in tandem with a bygone bit player named Reggie Jordan, who helped Garnett work out a maneuver that included bumping hands, then hopping sideways and slapping each other on the butt. For the past year or two, another teammate who didn't play very much, Dean Garrett, became KG's partner and the duo worked out some snazzy, intricate choreography. First, fists were bumped in "one potato, two potato" fashion, then Garrett would unleash a wild, roundhouse right hook over a ducking KG, followed by the now-traditional Bunny Hop Butt Slap, and, as a final coup de grâce, the mutual pointing of index fingers toward the Target Center rafters. Garrett, a veteran journeyman, was traded to Golden State on February 21, and I'm sure I and other Wolves fans will miss his peculiar routine with KG more than anything he did on the court, as we eagerly await the identity of Garnett's next Bunny Hop Butt Slap foil.
For now, however, KG proceeds straight from the Shirt Tuck to the Fists and Chalk. Jersey smoothed, he walks along the Wolves bench and bumps a single fist with each of the Wolves assistant coaches (a relatively recent addition) before bumping two fists with Saunders, who slaps Garnett's butt as KG continues on to the scorer's table at center court. There, he fills his hands with the chalk the players use to enhance their grip on the ball, rubs it in a little, and then tosses the rest in a puff-cloud of dust at the assembled media. This is clearly an homage to Michael Jordan, who performed almost exactly the same ritual in Chicago at a time when KG was watching Bulls games on TV as a Windy City high school senior.
By now, KG has held up the start of the game at least two or three minutes, a little mind game that ratifies his eminence as he finally strides onto the court. Two other psychological ploys among KG's rituals are wielded during the course of the game. One, a real crowd pleaser, is Dead Balls Don't Score. Over the years NBA players have made it a habit to finish off their shot, or offer up a nonchalant practice toss at the hoop, even after the official has whistled the play dead because of a foul or other infraction. For the past couple of years, Garnett has made it his mission to ensure that no post-whistle shots go into the basket. Frequently, he'll leap high in the air and catch the attempt as it heads downward (it would be goaltending if the play were live). Sometimes he'll just steal the ball before an opponent can shoot it. Early this year, Houston's Cuttino Mobley sought to sabotage the ritual with a successful dead-ball basket; twice he and KG went at each other one-on-one long after the whistle had blown. Only once have I seen an opponent make a dead-ball shot when Garnett is trying to deny it: KG walked to the sideline muttering peeved, self-chastising comments.
Finally, mention must be made of Foul Shot Hexes and Blessings. This seems to be one of the more strategic, situation-oriented components of Garnett's arsenal. Sometimes, but not always, before an opponent is about to take a foul shot, he'll ask for the ball from the referee and briefly squeeze and stare at it before giving it back. Occasionally it seems to be a matter of some urgency, and he'll practically wrest the ball away from the ref or the player holding it. Less often, he'll call for possession and do the squeeze and stare before he or one of his teammates is shooting the foul shot.
These are obviously blessings where the others are hexes. They have replaced the Head Bash With the Ball that KG used to perform at irregular intervals when he'd miss from the free-throw line.
Perhaps not surprisingly, neither KG nor his teammates and coaches seem very willing to talk about his many rituals or routines. "Yeah, I do have a lot of little superstitions and stuff," Garnett says with a chuckle when I raise the subject in the Wolves' locker room after a game. Can I talk to you about them and what they all mean? I ask. "Noooooooooo," he howls, the smile still on his face. He shoots me a "you've got to be crazy" look before adding, "I ain't going to tell you what they mean."
No matter. It's working.
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