CHICAGO -- Kevin Garnett sat in front of a room full of children on Wednesday night and couldn't help but see himself.
The Boston Celtics forward, who is in to town with his team to face off against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night, made a quick stop at the James Jordan Boys and Girls Club on the West Side to participate in a Wheaties Fuel event for teenagers and their mentors. What he saw made his mind race back to almost two decades ago when he was in the exact same position as some of the kids he was now talking to. In the midst of telling the small group about how he excelled in basketball and math as a teenager, and how he was "never afraid of something I got right," big, bad, Kevin Garnett got choked up with emotion for just a second.
"It's crazy to sit here because I can remember sitting on a floor just like this listening to Michael Jordan say some of the same things I'm telling you guys," said Garnett, who grew up in South Carolina but moved to Chicago in high school. "I'm sitting there like, 'Man, Jordan's just talking, man. I don't want to hear that, man. He ain't never been in the 'hood. You ain't never been out there.' And I understand that because I'm looking at ya'll, I'm seeing a lot of myself in ya'll ... I was just like that. I was very similar to ya'll. That's who we are. That's who I am. And you don't have to change that for anybody so remember that."
Some of the lessons Garnett was trying to instill into the kids and their mentors were the same ones instilled in him by one of his own mentors, his old coach at Chicago's Farragut Career Academy, William "Wolf" Nelson.
"He was huge," Garnett told ESPNChicago.com. "Coming here, I had a lot of fundamentals I leaned upon. I can't say I didn't play with emotion but I was kind of confined. I played, [was] from South Carolina, taught to play a certain way, play a certain style. Then when I got here, the only way you survive in this city is through emotion and passion, and he taught me that. He taught me to be myself, to not be afraid of my skill level, and not to be ashamed of it."
It's a lesson Garnett hasn't forgotten.
"Since day one, I always think I've worked on the things that I didn't think I did well" he said, "Which was damn near everything. And he taught me to don't ever be afraid to pull that out. He gave me that confidence. And before I got here, I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself. And I can definitely say leaving here, especially my journey, and the road that I took, it definitely took a lot more than self confidence, so he gave me that."
The emotion Garnett sill feels for Nelson was evident when seeing the pair together. There is a certain love that the former NBA MVP has for his old coach and it's one that becomes even clearer as Garnett talks about his current one, Doc Rivers.
"He reminds me a lot of my high school coach, actually, Wolf," Garnett said of Rivers. "He instills confidence in you. He instills that whoever you are, be that. You don't have to answer to anybody but yourself, your family and God. He makes it OK at the end of the day. He's a tough coach to play for. He's very firm, he's very stern, but I love him. Everybody that's played for Doc, he lets you play. He wants you to play free-minded. The only thing he ever, ever, ever gives two cents about is your effort. And my effort is always 100 percent, even when I'm not 100 percent, I give that maximum effort."
It's that effort that both endears Garnett to his teammates and has infuriated countless opponents throughout the years. Just a few months ago Garnett, a fierce trash talker on the floor, got into hot water for allegedly calling Detroit Pistons forward Charlie Villenueva, who suffers from alopecia universalis, a "cancer patient" during a game. When asked if some of his opponents would be surprised to see him so involved in an event like this, given the reputation he's developed on the floor, you can tell that there is a softer side to the giant that most people would never imagine seeing after watching him play basketball.
"I totally don't know what guys would say, but I am human, and the people that know me, personal people that know me, or personal guys I play against like Chauncey [Billups], [Tyronn] Lue and the guys I've battled against for countless years, Joe Smith ... they know that I'm a person at the end of the day," he said. "And that I'm competing at a high level when I'm on the floor, but I'm nothing like what you see on the floor when I'm off the court."
If Wednesday night is any indication, that is absolutely the case.
Everybody gets to see, and make an opinion on Garnett the basketball player, but the 34-year-old doesn't want that career to define him. He seems genuinely interested in mentoring kids, whether they're on the basketball floor or not.
"Basketball is just work. It's just like a grind to be honest," he said. "It's about how much you want to put into it, versus what you want out of it. So just know if you love the work and you have the focus, you can be the best at anything, as long as you're able to put your mind, and put the effort into it, all right?"
Those could have been the words Jordan passed to Garnett when he was a kid. Garnett is just hoping one of the kids he spoke to on this night will remember what he said and pass them down in the future.