For most of their careers, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett were rivals. Rivals that respect each other, yes, but rivals nonetheless: first when Garnett was with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and then again when he was traded to the Boston Celtics and clashed with Bryant’s Lakers in the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals.
It didn’t have to be that way, though.In an interview with Michael Pina for GQ, Garnett revealed that he actually wanted to team up with Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers before he forced a trade to the Celtics in 2007, so much so that he tried to orchestrate it himself:
Garnett had reservations about going to play in Boston, even after speaking to Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. That’s partly because before he made a final decision, he wanted to talk with Kobe. The only problem: Bryant was touring China for Nike and, from Garnett’s point of view, couldn’t be bothered to discuss a future as teammates. “I needed to have a conversation with him. I couldn’t talk to Phil [Jackson, then coach of the Lakers] or none of that. I’m not a phone guy, you know what I’m saying? But it’s [Kobe], you know what I’m saying? It was just kind of water under the bridge. At least it felt like that.”
But Garnett was never able to get in contact with Kobe, and eventually agreed to be traded to Boston. When Bryant found out that Garnett had tried to team up with him first after returning stateside, he reacted in exactly the way you’d expect.
Garnett then launches into a story about the first time he saw Bryant after becoming a Celtic, quickly staging a one-man show in which he played both parts at two opposite volumes and temperaments.
“‘YO, MAN, YOU WAS TRYING TO GET IN CONTACT WITH ME?’ ‘Man, get the fuck outta here.’ ‘NAH, NAH, I’M SERIOUS, MAN. I GOT THIS SHIT LATE, MAN. DAMN MAN.’ ‘It’s all good.’ ‘NAH, IT AIN’T GOOD, YOU IN THAT WRONG COLOR, MAN. WHAT THE FUCK, MAN. HOW YOU GONNA GO TO BOSTON OF ALL PLACES.’ ‘Man, nah, you gotta chill.’”
Garnett then sits back. “It was all good. I always loved playing against [Kobe]. But yeah, it probably would have been a different level playing with him.”
Bryant would eventually get the No. 2 he longed for the following year, when the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol, and they won more championships (2) together than Garnett won with the Celtics (1), where he led Boston to their only title in the last three decades-plus. Still, even as successful as Bryant and Gasol were, it’s hard not to think about what Bryant and Garnett could have accomplished together.
In the season before Garnett was traded to the Celtics, he averaged 22.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. Meanwhile, Bryant averaged a league-leading 31.6 points per game on 46.3% shooting from the field, and that was the season before he won MVP. When Bryant was MVP in 2008, Garnett finished third in voting for the award. They would have been the best one-two punch in the NBA.
Instead, Bryant and Garnett spent six years on opposite sides of the most storied rivalry in NBA history — that’s about as far away from “almost being teammates” as you can get. Garnett and the Celtics got one over Bryant in 2008, but Bryant and the Lakers got the last laugh in 2010. Things could have been different, but both sides made it okay in the end.
Still, it would have been cool if Garnett wore the purple and gold if only to assure that Celtics team never sniffed the Finals — they’re the most insufferable one-time NBA champions in league history.