OAKLAND, Calif. -- The subject is Kevin Garnett, and nobody is at a loss for words. Nobody stammers or pauses. Impressions leap forward.
''Long,'' Grant Hill said of the 6-foot-11, 220-pound Garnett. ''Silly. Clowning. Pressure and money make you forget at times basketball is a game. But his nickname fits who he is: ''Da Kid.' And how old is he-23, right? That's ridiculous.''
''Versatility,'' Alonzo Mourning said. ''I call him, ''The Big Ticket.' God willing, if he stays healthy, the record books are in trouble. What's he, 23 years old? Man, get him outta here.''
''Energy,'' Dale Davis said. ''Skills and hard work make him great. His energy makes him special. And he's still so young-23, right?''
Whatever Garnett is, and clearly he is a lot of things-and maybe even everything-the most noted thing of all is that while he is a three-time all-star, five-year veteran, and the most broadly skilled player in the game today, he's frighteningly just 23. It's the number nobody here can run away from, or get a hold of.
In fact, the issue of age is inescapable during this NBA All-Star Weekend. For five years now, we've been talking about, anticipating, a changing of the guard. Well, it's changed. Nine players on this season's all-star teams are first-timers, including starters Vince Carter and Allen Iverson. Fifteen of the 24 are first-, second-, or third-timers.
For the first time since 1979, there is no member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team -- the only Dream Team as far as I'm concerned -- in the All-Star Game's starting lineups. In 1992, 11 of the 12 Dream Teamers (all except Christian Laettner) were in the All-Star Game. All five Western Conference starters-Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Earvin Johnson-were on that team. As recently as 1997, eight of those 12 Dream Teamers were all-stars. That was only two all-star games ago. Now, there are only three Dream Teamers -- David Robinson, John Stockton and Malone -- and all are reserves. Malone threatened not to come at all.
Those who are reluctant to let go of that generation of stars tie their departures to the NBA's drop in attendance and television ratings. The young stars, including Garnett, have heard it all. ''I think this is good for the game,'' he said Friday. ''What's wrong with asking the fans to invest in new guys? Give us a chance. I hear about the ratings and attendance. But I think it's like a blue-chip stock that might be down a little right now, but it will come back.
The oldest player in the Eastern Conference's starting lineup Sunday will be Alonzo Mourning, who turned 30 last week. Shaquille O'Neal, 27, is the oldest starter on the Western Conference team.
There's nobody these younger all-stars hold in that kind of reverence. But Garnett, before he is 30, could have that kind of stature. Of all the present-day NBA players, Garnett is the one former greats seem to find most fascinating. Garnett spent much of a one-hour discussion talking about what a great season O'Neal is having with the Lakers. Nearby, former NBA great Al Attles was holding court.
When the subject of Garnett was raised, Attles shook his head and said: ''I've been around the league a long, long time and seen a lot of players come and go. It's important that in each generation, there is a player who is unique when you ask, ''What do you do that no one else does?"
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