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Jimmy Jam: The NBA is better because of Kevin Garnett

The legendary producer tells how Garnett met his wife, his love for Janet Jackson and what the NBA icon may do next

James “Jimmy Jam” Harris was enjoying watching the quick video clip of his brother-in-law, Kevin Garnett, saying goodbye to the NBA hours before the retirement news became official to the world.

Harris said there were people close to Garnett who tried to convince the 15-time NBA All-Star to continue playing. But the legendary American songwriter and producer, who most notably produced songs for Janet Jackson, refused to do such a thing. As much as Harris enjoyed sitting courtside at games watching “KG” play for the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was confident that the future Hall of Famer was prime for success off the court, too.

After Garnett’s announcement Friday that he would retire from the NBA after 20 seasons, Jimmy Jam spoke to The Undefeated about the time he met “The Big Ticket” in a Minneapolis grocery store parking lot, how he introduced him to his future wife, how Jackson delayed the signing of Garnett’s six-year, $126 million contract in 1997, whether KG will be more like Charles Barkley or Magic Johnson off the court and more.

People said that if he waited another year then he would go into the Hall of Fame and it would be his year. I said, ‘Well, you don’t know Kevin really well.’ He’s not really a spotlight guy.

When did you know KG was retiring?

He had kind of gone back and forth during the summer and he wanted to see where things were laying out with both his physical health and also with what the [Timberwolves’ plans] were. Garnett talked to coach [Tom Thibodeau] and talked to ownership. I was told [Friday] morning. We got in contact [Friday] morning and the only thing was he had to get approved by the NBA. That was it.

A lot of people that talked to me wanted to talk him back into playing another year. I passed things on to him, but I never really got a response. I figured that anybody trying to talk him into playing was probably falling on deaf ears in a sense. Of the arguments they were saying to me on why he should play, the only thing that really resonated to me was just the fact that once you retire you can’t really unretire, although Michael Jordan was different. That was the one. People said that if he waited another year then he would go into the Hall of Fame and it would be his year [instead of being with Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan in 2021]. I said, ‘Well, you don’t know Kevin really well.’ He’s not really a spotlight guy.

I think it’s even more satisfying to him to think that five years from now he can go in with his friends [Bryant and Duncan]. He battled with these guys and they took the league to a whole different era. After the Jordan era, he would want to go in with those guys. He wouldn’t want to have his own year. He would want to share that because that’s his nature. That argument didn’t have a lot of resonance with me and it didn’t have any with him either … I’m just glad I had the privilege of watching him and knowing him. The NBA is definitely in a better situation because of him. There are a lot of players, especially Timberwolves players, that will have benefitted from being around, Celtics players and all that.

ATLANTA - FEBRUARY 9: Kevin Garnett #21 of the Western Conference All-Stars poses with celebrity Jimmy Jam and the MVP trophy after the 52nd NBA All-Star Game at the Phillips Arena on February 9, 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia. The West defeated the Eastern Conference 155-145 in the first ever double overtime All-Star Game.

Kevin Garnett (21) of the Western Conference All-Stars poses with songwriter and producer Jimmy Jam and the MVP trophy after the 52nd NBA All-Star Game at Phillips Arena on Feb. 9, 2003, in Atlanta. The West defeated the Eastern Conference, 155-145, in the first-ever double-overtime All-Star Game.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

You attended countless games of Garnett’s during his NBA career. Which was the last one you attended?

It was the weekend of [the late Timberwolves coach and president] Flip Saunders’ funeral. It was a very bittersweet weekend. We were planning on going to Minneapolis for the [2015-16] opener. As a matter of fact, we talked to Flip early in the summer and he said, ‘You guys got to come out for the opener.’ We said, ‘Definitely.’ As soon as we see it on the calendar, we will make plans to come up. It was on a Sunday, so we put it on the calendar.

And coincidentally, we did Janet’s Unbreakable album and she was going on tour and she was going to be in Minneapolis the day before on a Sunday. We said, ‘It’s great. We’ll see Janet in Minneapolis and then we will go to a Timberwolves game, do like a fun little getaway. Then Flip Saunders passed, and they put Flip Saunders’ funeral on a Saturday. It was such a weird weekend because obviously being with Flip’s family and all the Timberwolves is probably the worst circumstance you can view possible to the next night [after] all the people kind of celebrating. Music always has a way of healing.

And then the next day at the Timberwolves’ opener, that was the last time I really saw him because I didn’t go to any other Minnesota games. There were a couple games I missed where I couldn’t get there. And he didn’t play. We went to the Wolves games in [Los Angeles] against the Clippers and the Lakers [last season], but he didn’t play in any of those games. That didn’t really count. But I loved watching him at games on the bench barking at people. That was fun.

How many Garnett games did you go to?

I went to every [home] game [in Minnesota] and I used to drive my assistant crazy because whenever someone would say, ‘Can you come on this day to work on this project? Can we work on it this day?’ The first thing I would say to my assistant was, ‘Where are the Wolves that night?’ Or they would say, ‘Can you come to New York to work? Can you come to Atlanta to work?’ I would say, ‘When are the Wolves going to be in New York and when are the Wolves going to be in Atlanta and let’s plan it around that.’

I got to see a whole lot of games. When the Wolves did their couple of playoff runs — one when they had [Latrell] Sprewell and [Sam] Cassell and they went to the Western Conference finals — that whole series I went to every single game …

The greatest one was the Boston [NBA Finals] win [in 2008], which was absolutely unforgettable. It was so fitting to me because as much as I would have loved to see him get a championship in Minnesota, we never were ready. We never quite had all the pieces at the right time. But Boston with those three players coming together. Paul [Pierce] had labored for so long. All three [Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen] came together, they all had something in common as they were all the best, pretty much, at the positions with what they did. But they had nothing to show for it as far as a championship ring.

Those three came together and did it for the most storied franchise. For that to happen in Boston, that couldn’t have been a better thing to watch and be a part of. I really feel blessed. I watched a lot of great basketball and I really got a chance to get to know him off the court.

What do you remember about first meeting KG?

We were at a supermarket, Lunds & Byerlys in Minneapolis. It’s a 24-hour supermarket, but it really upscale. It was really nice. It had a chandelier and all that. Crazy, beautiful place. It was after a game his rookie season. I remember it was not quite Thanksgiving yet, but around that time. He was with his guy, Bug, who was his best friend. I was with my wife, Lisa.

I got out the car and I was looking and saying, ‘Is that Kevin?’ And then he was looking at me saying, ‘Ain’t that Jimmy Jam?’ We literally ended up standing in the parking lot and talked for an hour, maybe an hour and a half. What really impressed me about him was the questions he asked me. He asked me, ‘What do people expect from me in the community? What would they like to see?’

I said, ‘People up here, because I grew up in Minnesota, they want you to keep your nose clean, work hard and give effort. That’s all they want. To be honest, that’s it. It’s a real simple mentality out here.’ And he said he always looked up to [former Minnesota Twins star] Kirby Puckett and the way he was revered. He said, ‘I want to be like Kirby Puckett. I want people to feel that way about me.’ I said, ‘Well, all you got to do is go out and do your job. You’ll get your charitable foundation and do what you need to do there. But every night you just have to leave it out there on the court.’

People always say to me that it was great that he had me as a mentor. But I always said, ‘Well, it’s pretty easy to mentor somebody when they ask the right questions because you can give the right answers.’

I feel so blessed to know him and watched him throughout his career. Go through bad times. Go through good times. Receive the ultimate, winning the NBA championship. I think that meant everything, and I was able to share in that experience.

What do you remember about Garnett’s arrival to Minneapolis after being drafted?

The thing I remember about Kevin coming is I know Flip and Kevin McHale pretty well. They’re both Minnesota guys. We actually got to know each other pretty well over the years. I remember their excitement when they went to watch him work out in Chicago. They kind of tempered what they said when they talked about him. They said, ‘He’s good. He’s young. But he’s fresh out of high school.’ But when they talked to me about him, they said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this.’ When they got him in the draft, they were so happy. I wasn’t that familiar with him. It was before the YouTube days where you can see any player at any time.

What do you remember about introducing KG to your wife’s sister, Brandi Padilla, who he married and has two children with?

Brandi used to come to the games. Not a lot, but every once in a while she would come to the games. Kevin was kind of bringing the ball up the court because back in those days he was really a small forward, but he was kind of point forward. He played a lot like [Scottie] Pippen did where he would bring the ball up the court sometimes.

I remember him going up the court and he fired a pass that went over everybody’s head and into the crowd. I remember thinking, ‘What the heck was he doing?’ Later on after the game, Kevin called my [music producer] partner, Terry Lewis, he said, ‘Terry, I don’t want to be disrespectful to Jam or anybody. So Jam’s wife was courtside?’ Terry said, ‘Yeah.’ Then [Garnett] said, ‘Who was the girl next to her?’ And Terry said, ‘That was her sister, Brandi. You should give Jam a call.’

So he calls me. He always calls me, ‘J-Rock.’ He said, ‘Hey J-Rock?’ I said, ‘What’s up KG?’ He said, ‘Who was the girl sitting next to your wife?’ I said, ‘That is her sister, Brandi.’ [Garnett said,] ‘Where is she staying?’ I said, ‘Our house.’ He said, ‘Word, can I come over?’

That’s how they met. They were friends for a long time and obviously now married with two daughters. It all started with a basketball being thrown into the stands. He explained it to me. He said, ‘I don’t ever look into the crowd. I’m always focused on the court and I never look.’ We’d be sitting courtside and he would apologize saying, ‘Man, I’m sorry I didn’t say anything. I’m locked in on the game.’ I said, ‘It’s no problem, Kevin, I get it.’ But for some reason, she caught his eye because he threw the ball into the stands.

What are your favorite memories of watching Garnett play?

Utah used to come in and beat us all the time. Kevin used to go off in those games. He’d have a ton of rebounds, dunks, assists, the whole thing. And Karl Malone would do his little stuff and they’d win the game. Kevin used to say, ‘Man, Karl has little tricks. He holds on to your shorts. He puts his knee in the back of your leg. He does all this veteran-type stuff. But I’m going to learn all that stuff.’

When I watched him play later on in his career against Blake Griffin and all of the guys, I used to watch the same thing happen. Blake would get these highlight-reel dunks, but the Celtics would still win the game. Kevin just knew all the tricks. He turned into that Malone-type, savvy veteran player. It was kind of interesting watching the evolution …

KG was such a savior when he came. It was amazing to me that he was such a leader because he was the youngest guy on the team. But he took over such a leadership role naturally. No one asked him to do it. He just kind of did it naturally. It was great. I had the best seat in the house to watch.

How different was it watching Garnett’s games when he became a brother-in-law?

It didn’t really change a whole lot because we were close and he was like a member of our family anyway. What I was happy to watch was when his daughters got old enough to come to the games and watch him play. That was really fun for me to watch them and see them say, ‘Daddy.’ If he was on the road, sometimes Brandi would bring the kids out and they would stay at our house. We’d watch the games and see daddy on TV.

When you have kids, you want them to appreciate what it is that you do. And so I was happy that his kids got a chance to watch him play.

He has never expressed one definitive thing that he wants to do. That’s why I said there is no rush to me. I’m sure he’s made plans and there are things he wants to do.

Was it time for KG to retire, and were you sad about the news?

I wasn’t sad, but I am reflective. That is the word I would use right now. I have so many thoughts going through my head. I feel so blessed to know him and watched him throughout his career. Go through bad times. Go through good times. Receive the ultimate, winning the NBA championship. I think that meant everything, and I was able to share in that experience.

It will be interesting to see what he decides to do. There are a lot of people that retire. There are some people that retire and go on and do better things after retirement. The best example of that is Magic Johnson. When you look at Magic, his impact is going to be as a businessman and a trailblazer for AIDS research and HIV. The basketball takes care of itself, and you talk about it, but it’s all the things that he is doing off the court. What he has done off the court is so much bigger for me.

There are certain people that have the opportunity to do that. Michael Jordan is well on his way in doing that with ownership and the things that he is doing. Now he’s become a lot more outspoken, which I think is great. You see the impact that Charles Barkley has on the way the game is covered and even the way it is played and called. People remember him playing, but they will remember Charles Barkley as the guy on TNT. He’s made a legacy after basketball.

There are a few players that will be able to do that, and I think Kevin will be one of those players. It will be very interesting to see what he chooses to do. He’s in a situation where he can choose to do what he wants to do. I think he will excel at whatever he does.

Garnett once said that he will disappear when he retires, and if you want to find him he’ll be playing basketball at the YMCA in Malibu, California. You think he we will be outside of the public eye?

Yes, you probably will see him at the Malibu YMCA playing ball.

I think he has the intention of, ‘You’re not going to see me.’ I think he has way too much to offer. And people that have a lot to offer need to be there for people who needs things. He will be there. He may hide from the spotlight a little bit because that never appealed to him. He’s never tried to be that guy. But I think there is a great future ahead of him that he may not know what it is at this point. And that’s fine.

Would you be surprised to see him on television as an NBA analyst?

No, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on TV. I would enjoy seeing him on TV. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to sit with him to watch a basketball game, but it’s hilarious. It’s unbelievable. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did that. Ownership, he expressed an interest in that. But it’s too bad with Flip passing away. It was a great plan that Flip had. The initial plan was to bring him back, give him the ropes of ownership.

I think he still is interested in that. He has never expressed one definitive thing that he wants to do. That’s why I said there is no rush to me. I’m sure he’s made plans and there are things he wants to do.

Raphael Saadiq, Terry Lewis, Kevin Garnett and Jimmy Jam

Raphael Saadiq, Terry Lewis, Kevin Garnett and Jimmy Jam.

L. Cohen/WireImage

Any good story about Garnett with you in the music industry?

Janet is pretty funny. Two Janet things come to mind. At her concert in Minneapolis, this was on the Velvet Rope Tour. The late ’90s. She would always bring someone up from the audience. He actually went onstage and she did this whole routine with him [sitting in a chair] that was hilarious particularly because it was Minneapolis, which is basically his hometown. That was very funny. I’m guessing that exists on YouTube. She had her way with him and that was hilarious. I knew what she was going to do because I saw the show, but he had no clue.

The other Janet story that was really funny to me … I remember when we finished the Velvet Rope album [in 1997]. Kevin wanted to hear the album, so I told him to come to my house. We had a big theater in my house and we put something on the screen and just listened. So we’re blasting this record and his cellphone is going off. And I’m like, ‘Kevin, shouldn’t you get that?’ He said, ‘No, no, no, I want to hear this.’ About halfway through the record, his phone is going off and I said, ‘Kevin, hold on, why don’t you get your phone and see what’s happening.’ He said OK.

He gets the phone and it’s his agent, and he says, ‘KG, you got to come to Target Center right now to sign your contract. We just got your contract done.’ And Kevin goes, ‘OK, I will be there in a little bit. I’m just finishing listening to this Janet Jackson record.’ His agent said, ‘No, now!’ He said, ‘Oh, OK.’ I gave him the CD and I told him to listen to it on his way down there and enjoy it because it had not come out yet. We literally just listened to it.

There was a news camera there because it was a big deal with a press conference and everything. And I remember him driving in, and we both had the exact same car, these 600 Mercedes coupes, and he has his sunroof open. He drives into Target Center and there is a camera outside and he waves out of the sunroof to the people gathered and I hear this Janet record just blasting as he was heading in. That was the funniest thing to me and he was about to sign, at that time, the biggest contract anyone had ever gotten and all he cared about was he had to listen to that Janet record. That never goes out of my mind.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.