Mr. Basketball of Illinois 1995 | Farragut's Kevin Garnett
Farragut's Kevin Garnett (left) and Ronnie Fields in 1995. (Chicago Tribune Media Group file photo / December 6, 1999)
Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields had just finished putting on a slam-dunk spectacular worthy of highlight-film stature in leading Farragut to a decisive victory over Downstate power Rock Island at DePaul. A sellout crowd of nearly 6,000 had jammed into Alumni Hall to watch two of the most exciting high school players in the country. The 6-foot-11-inch Garnett and the 6-3 Fields more than lived up to the hype, each executing four dunks that pulled spectators out of their seats.
But there was more. As they exited the locker room, they were beseeched and besieged by autograph seekers. So much so the throng taxed even the team security guard.
Yes, a high school basketball team with its own security guard. It has been that kind of a year for Kevin Garnett.
Ever since Garnett, acclaimed by many as the nation's No. 1 high school player, moved to Chicago last summer from Mauldin, S.C., high school sports just hasn't been the same.
In leading Farragut to a No. 1 ranking in the Tribune's regular-season ratings and as high as No. 3 in USA Today's national poll, Garnett established himself as arguably the best center ever to come out of Chicago.
He was a landslide choice as Mr. Basketball of 1995. In balloting among coaches and media statewide for the award presented by the Tribune and the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association, Garnett had three times as many votes as runner-up Gary Bell of Joliet. He will be honored, along with Ms. Basketball Tamika Catchings of Stevenson, at the coaches' Hall of Fame banquet April 29 at Illinois State.
Garnett averaged 26 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and six blocks a game in leading the Admirals to their first Public League championship. In a victory over Manley in late January, Garnett finished with 25 points and 28 rebounds. He had 39 points and 17 rebounds against Westinghouse despite suffering from the flu, and last week his 18 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks earned him the most valuable player award at the McDonald's All-American Game in St. Louis.
He singlehandedly transformed what was predicted to be a down year for Chicago-area basketball into one of the most memorable.
Garnett became so popular at his new high school that he helped bring together opposing factions of African-American and Hispanic students that were fighting with one another last year. Farragut's bleachers were packed with students putting aside their differences in cheering on these Admirals, whose success energized the community.
"It's so easy to notice Kevin in the halls because he is so tall," said freshman Nina Dela Rosa. "All the kids like him. He doesn't act like he's anything special, and none of this stuff like being on ESPN and in the newspapers all the time has gone to his head."
Garnett made an appearance on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" in February, and at the St. Louis Shootout in early December, no less a basketball authority than Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West, along with fellow NBA executive Bernie Bickerstaff and scout Ed Manning, was on hand to observe.
Reports began surfacing early in the season he might consider skipping college for the pros. The Lakers scouted Garnett several times along with the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies. A recent survey of NBA general managers forecasts him as a mid-first-round draft pick, though most observers think he could use a year or two of seasoning and bulking up his 220-pound frame.
If he winds up qualifying academically for a Division I scholarship, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia Tech are the leading contenders with Illinois, Michigan State and Arkansas a step behind.
"What makes Garnett special is the intensity he brings to the game every second he's on the floor," says Roy Schmidt of Hoop Scoop, one of the nation's leading scouting services. "Not only that, but he makes all of his teammates around him better and seems to have a profound influence on everybody on the court-including the officials. Garnett is the most skilled big man we have ever seen at the high school level, with the possible exception of Shawn Kemp."
He whips around no-look, blind, over-the-shoulder passes with incredible court vision. His drop-step move in the low post combined with a quick spin-around shot and a deadly turnaround jumper make him unstoppable in high school.
He blocks shots with a self-control that allows him to recover the rejection and trigger a fast break. He exudes an attitude that every rebound should be his while continuously adding new wrinkles to his game. Instead of reaching over for an offensive rebound, he lightly taps the ball to a waiting teammate for an uncontested layup.
"Where I came from was a lot smaller and sometimes it seemed like I was the focal point of everything. I was the big news in a small town. It put pressure on me to be a certain person, and I couldn't always be myself.
"Ever since I was in 10th grade and people found out who Kevin Garnett was, I haven't had time to sit down and think about what I want to do in life. I had to act a certain way, and I didn't have to do that here."
Garnett was the jewel in coach William Nelson's eye.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Nelson of working with Garnett. "He has done more for one program than anyone in state history. You can see the progress at school and in the community. It's a different place, and Kevin helped transform the school.
"He seems to bring out the best in people and always seems to find a way to smile about everything. He doesn't think about a lot of the pressures of life. Everybody who meets him, as he turns around and walks away, they'll say: `That's a nice kid.' Long after he's gone, he'll still be here. Everybody will remember."
Garnett realizes his game and even the lifestyle he leads are worlds apart from the glamorous, sophisticated, illusion-filled subculture of pro basketball.
"Do you think I could go pro right now?" Kevin once asked two reporters, who shook their heads in the negative. "Thank you. Where do they get that stuff? This is a 220-pound body, and I think I'm a pretty nice player. But look at the caliber of players in the NBA, and you have to think of reality. I'm not saying I can't play in the NBA. I have a lot of confidence in myself. But I want to get a college degree and enjoy life the right way. If the NBA comes, that'll be great."