Kevin Garnett’s pregame progression — a series of idiosyncratic acts and subtle gestures — has been calibrated and perfected over 1,455 total games.
It is moments before tipoff, and Kevin Garnett is a space shuttle, advancing methodically through a complex launch sequence, preparing himself for thunderous flight.
His pregame progression — a series of idiosyncratic acts and subtle gestures — has been calibrated and perfected over 18 full N.B.A. seasons and 1,455 total games. And when he steps onto the Barclays Center court Friday for his first regular-season home game as a Nets player, he will go through it all again, in much the same way as he did as a teenage rookie on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The whole procedure feels automatic, almost mechanical. It possibly betrays a tendency toward obsessive behavior. And, according to those around Garnett, it reveals everything about his professional character.
“Kevin is a creature of habit, and he’s done the same thing his entire career, from Day 1,” said Sam Mitchell, who was Garnett’s teammate on the Timberwolves from 1995 to 2002. “It hasn’t changed. I know Kevin. It won’t.”
Mitchell, who played 13 N.B.A. seasons, said every player had a “go switch,” a method to become mentally engaged before tipoff. Garnett just happens to have a particularly overt and complicated one.
Observing him before a game, one can almost hear a motorized crescendo, an apparatus whirring to life.
After the national anthem and the player introductions, after his team’s last pregame huddle, Garnett peels off his warm-up clothes and walks over to the basket and faces the padded stanchion. The arena is buzzing around him, but he sets himself to the side, a solitary figure.
Eyes down, he leans his forehead into the padding and begins adjusting his uniform, tucking his shirt into his shorts, stretching the elastic waistband, tugging on the drawstring. All the time, he is mumbling under his breath.
“It’s just total focus,” said Paul Pierce, who played six seasons with Garnett on the Boston Celtics before the two were traded to the Nets this summer. “He’s there getting his mind right to play.”
Things are simmering at this point, but Garnett is only beginning. Shorts tied, Garnett bangs his forehead against the pad twice, hard, and slaps it. Then he stalks toward the bench — pausing for a moment, always, to bounce on his toes — where he acknowledges his teammates, his coaches and other team staff members. He bumps fists and performs a few personalized handshakes.
Once he reaches the scorer’s table, he pours talcum powder into his hands and claps them, puffing the stuff into a small, dense cloud.
Steve Aschburner, who covered Garnett’s entire Timberwolves career for The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, recalled how he and the other reporters would grab towels to cover their computers when Garnett strode past.
Aschburner said the routine had remained largely the same since Garnett’s first year, except for minor tweaks and embellishments.
Jason Terry, the third player the Nets acquired from the Celtics this summer, said: “Each thing might seem little, but they’re big for him. It’s all about finding that balance, physical and spiritual.”
Pregame routines naturally proliferate from the league’s grinding 82-game season.
Leonard Zaichkowsky, a sports psychologist, said that consistent routines were often the consequence of athletes’ trying to recreate the feel of past success, and that they were likely to help them focus.
“And you can’t be critical of Garnett as a player, for sure,” he said about the 15-time All-Star and former most valuable player. “He has shown that constancy of effort and performance.”
Andray Blatche, a Nets reserve, has one item on his must-do list: after the national anthem, he grabs the rim and does a single pull-up. It is a quick, subtle thing, but he said it was his trigger, a way to activate his mind and body. Joe Johnson, the Nets’ starting shooting guard, said he eyed the player lined up to defend him and created a quick mental checklist cataloging ways to beat him.
Johnson conceded his routine, considered alongside Garnett’s, was “a little more chilled out.”
Garnett’s intensity seems constant. Since joining the Nets, he has celebrated scrimmage victories as if they were playoff series clinchers. At a recent Nets practice, he missed a free throw to close the session, forcing the entire team to do push-ups as punishment. He did his set on closed fists.
His pregame routine, then, seems tailored to get him to full throttle. Once the particulars are prepared just so, Garnett re-engages with his surroundings. He walks on the court, often greeting his opponents.
Then, right before tipoff, he skips toward the baseline and pounds his chest with a clenched fist. At the Nets’ first home preseason game last month, his eyes grew wide, and he let out a profane yell — a positive, encouraging one, to be clear — toward the stands.
“Some players like to be jovial before the game to release pressure,” Mitchell said. “Kevin likes to build the pressure.”
And once the pressure is built, Garnett can achieve liftoff, the same way he has for years.