Nothing but Garnett: He Skips College, Joins the NBA at 19 and Swiftly Becomes the Highest-Paid Player in Team Sports. Then Kevin Garnett Turns into an Arrogant, Immature Jerk, Right? Wrong and Here's Why

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Kevin Garnett is a gifted mimic. He steps off the basketball court and seconds later is on a rollicking roll, from the late rapper Tupac Shakur to a dead-on Tony Montana, the Al Pacino mobster in "Scarface," to quick riffs goofing on his Minnesota Timberwolves teammates. No one is ever safe from Garnett's barrages, except his mom. She calls regularly from back home in Mauldin, S.C., with the most... uh, helpful suggestions on dealing with the rigors of NBA life. "When I hurt my ankle this season, she told me to eat tomato soup," says Garnett. "I'm like, 'Ma, how is that going to help?' But then you know what I did, right?" Of course: Kevin heated up the soup.

Since he arrived in the NBA five years ago, Garnett, 23, has been heating up the basketball court too. Each season the seven-footer has upped his scoring, rebounding and assists, establishing himself as the most versatile big man in the league. He can hammer the ball inside or throw a feathery pass in the lane, and this season has added a respectable three-point shot to his offensive repertoire. Only the fact that Garnett labors in the NBA hinterlands has slowed his ascension to the pantheon of the post-Michael NBA. But now, with a boost from some clever Nike ads (especially his Foosball contest with soccer heroine Brandi Chastain), "KG" has fame to match his game. At Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Oakland, Calif., Garnett will start at forward--voted by fans ahead of more-ballyhooed players like Karl Malone and Tim Duncan.

Garnett called his selection a surprise and went so far as to apologize to Malone for being chosen ahead of him. Garnett's humility is not exactly standard issue in today's NBA. Nor is his work ethic, which is a throwback to the league's less glamorous days. Kevin even claims to love Minneapolis for its weather because it seldom offers him any distractions from basketball. "My father was never part of my life and my mother had two jobs," says Garnett, whose mom cleaned homes by day and offices by night. "She and my grandmother told me you got to work for everything you get. Nothing is ever promised to you and nothing lasts forever. I won't forget."

That Garnett has proved to be a model NBA citizen is a considerable irony. Kevin seemed to be emblematic of absolutely everything wrong with today's NBA. He entered the league at the age of 19, the first high-schooler in two decades to make that giant leap. Few who followed had his skills or maturity. Then, at 21, Garnett scored the biggest contract in sports history, a six-year, $126 million deal. The deal proved the proverbial straw that, while not exactly breaking the NBA's back, provoked league management into last season's labor war. "Don't blame me," he says. "I was just a kid getting what he can get. That's the American way."

The American way has yielded Garnett a household filled with toys, including his favorite, a large go-cart track in his backyard. And it has produced a significant upgrade in KG's accessories; having always worn a rubber band around his arm for luck, Kevin's ears now sparkle with--"bling-bling!"--10k earrings. The impact on the NBA has been more profound. The new labor agreement ensures that no more youngsters will land deals of Garnettian dimensions. Still, NBA Commissioner David Stern is a big KG fan. …