Maurice Lucas had come from a time in the NBA when a man with the act and mouth of Kevin Garnett(notes) had to back it up with his fists. He was paid to take on the biggest, strongest player in the sport, protect the superstars. Lucas never walked onto the floor and eyed the most vulnerable and frightened foe. He picked out the biggest bleeping guy, started on him, and no one ever had reason to doubt his ferocity.
Here was a "cancer patient," as apparently K.G. likes to call them. Lucas died this week. He was 58 and lost his life to bladder cancer. Apparently, Garnett honored that memory with the mocking of the Detroit Pistons' bald forward, Charlie Villanueva(notes), on Tuesday night. Garnett's always gone too far, but never like this. Never this cruel, this twisted.
"K.G. called me a cancer patient," Villanueva tweeted on Wednesday morning. "…K.G. talks a lot of crap. He's [probably] never been in a fight. I would love to get in a ring with him. I will expose him."
[Photos: More of Charlie Villanueva]
Garnett released a statement late Wednesday afternoon calling the incident a "major miscommunication." He denied calling Villanueva a cancer victim, saying he instead told Villanueva he's "cancerous to your team and our league."
"I would never be insensitive to the brave struggle that cancer patients endure," Garnett said in the statement. "I have lost loved ones to this deadly disease and have a family member currently undergoing treatment. I would never say anything that distasteful."
Do I believe Garnett talked that stiffly in the heat of the game and said, "You are cancerous to your team and our league"? No, I don't. Not at all. Maybe Villanueva didn’t hear K.G. precisely right, but I have a hard time believing K.G. said it that way. After getting called out, this was an easier way out for Garnett than simply saying, I'm sorry. Rest assured, there are plenty of people who have a bigger issue with Villanueva ratting Garnett out. And they're entitled. That's the code of the league, that's the way it always goes.
I don't believe Garnett is uncaring or unsympathetic to the plight of cancer victims. Like everyone else, it's touched his family. Once he had a chance to think about it, of course he wouldn't want to be associated with the words that Villanueva assigned to him. This statement read a lot more like spin than it did a clarification. Unless Villanueva completely backs down, I think he heard Garnett far more clearly than Garnett wants people to believe.
With the way the NBA throws around fines and suspensions, the days when Villanueva could've handled the matter on the floor are long gone. This is a truth that's never been lost on Garnett. Trash talk goes back forever in the NBA, gets deep, personal, and yet this was a different kind of affront. The Pistons are 0-4 and Villanueva has done little to earn the $35 million contract delivered him a year ago. To say Charlie V. should shut up, win a game and stop tweeting, well, that's a different discussion.
This is about Garnett, as it should've been long ago with his bully act. Here's the thing: There are few more complex characters in the NBA. K.G. is a fantastic teammate, a leader, the hardest-working man in the gymnasium. He cares about winning, cares deeply, and the success his time with the Celtics has brought him has become a precious part of his legacy. He's so smart, so calculating, that it remains a conundrum why he has always gone to such lengths to be a needlessly vicious bully.
For years, he's gone after smaller, younger players. He never goes after tough guys. Never. For some reason, he reveled in going out of his way to abuse European players. So many young Euros grew up idolizing him, loved the range of his versatility at 7 feet, only to have images of him shattered with cheap shots and trash talk on the floor. A few days ago, this happened to the Knicks' Timofey Mozgov(notes). It happens all the time. Pau Gasol(notes). Jose Calderon(notes). The list is long and the act is tired.
So much is said on the floor, but this hits people in a different way. Cancer victim? Villanueva has a condition called alopecia universalis, which results in hair loss. Villanueva always has taken the time to meet and talk with kids who share the condition, and has listened to their stories of getting teased with those kinds of cutting words. Garnett is too old for this, too smart.
[Related: Charlie Villanueva's tweets]
Nevertheless, it's stained his legacy. This one promises to chase him into retirement. Beyond that of an MVP and an NBA champion, Garnett has gone to inexplicable lengths to craft a parallel legacy: a vicious bully, a cold and cruel jerk.
For all the instances of Garnett's bullying available on YouTube, those two words – "cancer patient" – will never go away. This is the one that people will remember, the stain that'll be hardest to wash away. Garnett's 34 years old, and shamefully a man too smart – too principled in a lot of ways – to act like this. Only, he's done it for years, and it's now a bigger part of his legacy than an old Boston Celtics champion will want to believe.
The NBA lost one of its true tough guys this week, a cancer patient named Maurice Lucas. He came out of a different time in the NBA, and never talked like Kevin Garnett. There was never a need. He had to back it up, the way K.G. never has and never will. The true tough guys never have to tell you about it.
- Kevin Garnett