I have attended only one Minnesota Timberwolves game at Target Center in my whole life, but I have seen many here at Barclays Center in New York. I can also tell you that unlike some of my more funded co-fans, I have been residing in the upper, upper levels of the Brooklyn arena where the tickets are cheap and the food... well, still isn’t. But, there’s something magical up there. Something I get to see regularly that the people in the lower bowl have to crane their necks to catch a glimpse of.
The rafters are littered with legends that shaped the team I’m watching. Years of service distilled down into one hanging cloth ornament. The lower bowl gets a better view of the game but me? I get to see everything this team was. I get to see who got them there. I get to acknowledge not just one game or one iteration of the roster. I see it all.
It’s why the honor is so rare, and so important. It’s why the Boston Celtics, with their near century long history, have the most retired jerseys, why the Los Angeles Lakers have the second-most. It’s why the Memphis Grizzlies announcing the special privilege they will be affording to Marc Gasol is so important for Memphis, who saw the outcasts of Vancouver show up on their doorstep in 2001 and raised them in a way their Canadian counterpart couldn’t.
Retiring a jersey matters. Not to the numbers or the history, because the stats and stories are still there, but to the people involved, the fans, the owners, and, of course, the players.
In 2016, a legend of the sport, albeit a legend with some controversy, announced his retirement. It was expected that the franchise Kevin Garnett spent almost 13 full years with would retire his jersey. But years and years passed. And here we are. The jersey is still not up there at the south end of Target Center. At the center of the drama, a terrible relationship between former star and franchise owner.
“It did not make me happy.”
“Of course it bothers me.”
“It’s not my decision.”
The words of a top player of all time at his position usually don’t sound like this. They should be filled with thank yous and speeches that echo what an achievement their careers truly were. They should be filled with light-hearted jabs, remnants of drama long forgotten, not of scars still unhealed and festering.
The Wolves have been laughed at and called second-rate for situations like these. But those were not the words of a former Wolf. They certainly were not words directed at a franchise the sport world considers sub-par. They were, in fact, directed at a team with 22 jerseys retired, with an all-time winning percentage of 57% with six championships considered at the top of the sports world.
Those words, those pained, half-spoken statements were Alex Rodriguez’s response to the Yankees cementing their choice to not retire A-Rod’s #13 jersey when they handed it to Joey Gallo in 2021.
Rodriguez the player merits not just jersey retirement but Hall of Fame votes. Drafted to the Seattle Mariners, traded to the Texas Rangers, and eventually ending up in the New York Yankees pinstripes, A-Rod is objectively a top-10 shortstop (and third baseman) of all-time. To start his career, Rodriguez is arguably the greatest rookie shortstop of all-time, shattering record after record in 1994, at times over-shadowing my childhood hero and people’s GOAT Ken Griffey Jr. He was starting at shortstop at age 18 on a team with championship hopes.
We’ve all (hopefully) seen the Jon Bois doc, we know about early career A-Rod. We know about who he was in Seattle, we know who A-Rod was as a Mariner and how he left. What some of you may not know, or truly understand, is how great of a player he was.
Tied for second-most MVPs of all time with three. Second all time in runs scored. Seventh in total bases. Fifth in home runs. Fourth in RBIs. Two Gold Gloves. Fourteen All-Star appearances.
What’s even more insane is he did all of this despite changing positions mid-career and missing two years in the midst of his career.
And there it is: the answer to the “why” of the Alex Rodriguez question. In 2013, Rodriguez was handed a huge 211-game suspension for his use of PEDs. After the destruction of the legacy of the greatest player baseball has ever seen with Barry Bonds, A-Rod clearly could not survive the same torrent of defamation.
This is not to infantalize Rodriguez. He made a choice, one he has to deal with. But those words, the sheer pain of them, come with the weight of his legacy.
The stories are still there. The numbers are too. But, the fans, the owners, the people have turned on him. The honor will not come. A-Rod will not have his jersey retired. Not in New York. Not in Seattle. Not in Fort Worth.
I can’t imagine how heart wrenching that is.
Rodriguez is, by all accounts, a jokester. From his appearances on Twitter and MSNBC, his little kazoo-like giggles, and his general demeanor, you can see a man so genuine and cheesy, but one that is so earnestly pursuing his own happiness. He can’t change the story of Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player. Amazingly, I don’t think he really wants to anymore.
And that’s how we got here.
Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player, is now also Alex Rodriguez, one of the Timberwolves and Lynx incoming majority owners.
The Timberwolves are in a stand-off with a franchise legend who spent nearly 13 years with them chasing championships, largely due to a spat with ownership.
“I’m not entertaining it.”
“I don’t want any dealings...”
“It’s not genuine.”
Those words are more pointed than Rodriguez’s ever were. While A-Rod had become resigned to the fact that what he knew was coming, Garnett’s were filled with the shock of shattered expectations.
KG’s beef with outgoing majority owner Glen Taylor comes from the assumed mistreatment of Garnett after the passing of other franchise legend and KG’s confidant, Flip Saunders. The story is long and filled with both presumed and acted disrespect, but it comes down to the same question of respect between two people.
Taylor wanted to retire Garnett’s jersey, cementing 21 in Timberwolves lore. Garnett saw this not as respect to him as a person, but just as Taylor’s surrendering to the fans who he loved, and those who loved him. It’s a petty feud. Garnett wouldn’t let Taylor retire his jersey because more than the credit he wants for himself, he wants to make sure none of it goes to Taylor.
It’s hard to think of two people more different than Kevin Garnett and Glen Taylor. It’s a relationship that mirrors that of Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees’ Steinbrenner family.
The MLB Hall of Fame votes came out about two weeks ago. Alex Rodriguez got only 34.8% of votes. Not only is that not close to the three quarters mark A-Rod needs, it is lower than his tally last year at 35.7%. Rodriguez will not be making the Hall of Fame, even though he should, just like he didn’t see his name in any Rings of Honor, even though he probably should.
But, though KG has recently been inducted in the NBA’s Hall, this places the two former stars as two sides of the same coin. Alex Rodriguez will not be able to save his own baseball epic, it will end as tragically as any cruel fall from grace can. But, the hope is that Rodriguez can do what Taylor never did to Garnett. He can truly see him, truly acknowledge him as an equal and acknowledge the rage that comes from not being understood.
This type of thing is not important for the on-court product. It is, however, important for the fans, who can’t stand seeing not just a legend of the team they love, but the legend, the pivotal piece, the moment that established them as no longer just an expansion team but a real team with roots and stories.. It’s important for Garnett, who can finally see the late honor that he has deserved since he ushered in the greatest era of Wolves basketball despite being virtually abandoned in the talent standpoint. It’s important for the duo of new owners, who are seeking to avoid the same pitfalls that saw Wolves fans grow to dislike Glen Taylor.
It’s also important for Rodriguez, who can never fix his own story but may finally be able to create the ending he wanted so badly for himself. A-Rod will never escape the scandals or the steroids, but he can start anew as an owner, able to make the decisions he was once at the whim of. The world is cruel, but we get these perfect, wonderful moments that exist for an instant before crumbling back into reality.
We are on the precipice of one here.
It comes down to two legends of their sports, both controversial in their own right. It comes down to one failed story, one set of molten wings, and another set of wings that have been retired but not burnt. It is time for the two to fly again, with the help of each other, high, high above the court and alight upon the rafters, where I can look them in the eyes from the nose bleeds and smile.