BOSTON — The coaching profession has long had its fiery personalities. Bob Knight, Jerry Tarkanian and John Chaney built successful coaching careers in spite of (or possibly because of) their quick tempers and sailor-approved vocabularies.
None of them were able to glower down at their players from almost 7-feet tall, though.
Kevin Garnett is the unlikeliest of unofficial assistant coaches for the Celtics. With a vicious glare and a competitiveness bordering on unhealthy, the 18th-year veteran would appear to be more of a brooding loner, bitter at the young whippersnappers in the league messing around on his lawn.
Ryan Hollins has played against plenty such players in his seven-year career, and he has played with a few, too. Hollins was therefore taken aback when, in one of his first practices after signing with the Celtics in March, he found himself staying late so Garnett could show him a few things the veteran had noticed in Hollins' game. Greg Stiemsma has also absorbed every piece of advice Garnett has sent his way, helping the 26-year-old rookie finally find a place in the NBA.
"A guy at his level doesn't have to be a teacher if he doesn't want to be," Stiemsma said. "He has his own thing to do, but he sincerely wants to see guys do well and he wants you to succeed."
There are only 450 roster spots in the NBA at a given time, and the competition for every job can be fierce. Fans would like to believe that teamwork and camaraderie motivate many veterans to share their knowledge with a younger generation. Hollins, who played for four different franchises before coming to Boston, said that is not the case.
"It's not common at all," Hollins said. "That's what you get when you have superstars like [Rajon] Rondo, Ray [Allen], the entire big four. They're comfortable in their skin. They're not worried about making any more money or anything. It's just about winning a championship and that's what you get."
This is not the first time Garnett has offered to share his knowledge with younger players, but this is the first time in years that his advice was so eagerly received — and has proved to be so necessary. Hollins, Stiemsma and Brandon Bass all supposedly had huge flaws defensively when they came to the Celtics, but they have since given the Celtics valuable minutes at both ends of the floor. All three have credited Garnett with teaching them little things about the game that nobody bothered to show them before.
The advice has had a direct effect on the Celtics' fortunes this season. Injuries to Jermaine O'Neal, Chris Wilcox and Jeff Green decimated the Celtics' frontcourt, forcing Stiemsma and Bass to assume much larger roles than the team anticipated when they acquired them before the season. Stiemsma has become a true shot-blocking weapon off the bench while Bass started 39 games and scored a career-high 12.5 points per game.
If not for those injuries, Hollins probably would not even be a member of the Celtics, but he in particular said he relishes the opportunity to work so closely with Garnett. At 7 feet tall and 230 pounds, Hollins has a similar body type to the 6-foot-11, 220-pound Garnett. The tips Garnett can provide are more useful to Hollins as a longer, leaner player.
"I'm not saying I'm him, of course," Hollins said. "We have different games, but he is someone built similar to me. I can hear it from other players, but everybody has their own perspective. It's like a big muscle guy trying to tell you how to box out or something. It makes more sense if it's someone having a similar frame."
There are two sides to Garnett that most fans know. There is the scowling, demonstrative version and the silly version who giggles like a kid when "Gino" dances to the Bee Gees on the TD Garden video screen once a blowout Celtics victory is in the books.
But there are other sides that the public rarely sees. One is the thoughtful, bespectacled, scarf-wearing man who analyzes every game in the Celtics locker room after his teammates have cleared out for the night, explaining not only what happened on the court but preaching the importance of team unity and consistent improvement.
That is the version Hollins and Stiemsma did not know existed before they joined the Celtics, and that is the version that has taught them the most about not just how to play the game, but to think the game.
"You'd be surprised, he's very logical," Hollins said. "He has a very high IQ. He's a very intellectual guy. He makes you think the game beyond just running up and down the court. There are a lot of little things behind the game, and that's the biggest thing he shows you."
Doc Rivers remarked during the season that Garnett had the intelligence and knowledge to be a coach, although Rivers drew laughs when he added that he was not sure how players would respond to Garnett's R-rated messages. But there have been many times Garnett has taken Stiemsma aside in a quiet moment after practice, and Stiemsma said that eerily often he will see a play unfold in a game exactly as Garnett described it in a walkthrough.
In such cases, Stiemsma knows where to be and what will come next, but even if he did not, he can hear Garnett barking out instructions and sometimes physically pushing him into the correct position.
"Playing with KG, he covers up a lot of mistakes," Stiemsma said. "He can make up for little things, so it's been awesome to play with him. I'm just hoping we keep playing for as long as we can."
How long the Celtics stay alive in the playoffs will not only hinge on how well Garnett plays, but how well his teammates absorbed what he taught them.
Photo via Twitter/All About Rondo