If Kevin Garnett had halted his ready-for-war rant right after he talked about loading a shotgun, it would have been bad enough.
But for reasons Garnett's apology never quite covered, he didn't stop there.
''This is it,'' he responded. ''It's for all the marbles. I'm sitting in the house, loading up the pump. I'm loading up the Uzis. I've got a couple of M-16s, couple of 9s, couple of joints with some silencers on them, couple of grenades, got a missile launcher. I'm ready for war.''
If you didn't hear the question that touched off Garnett's reverie on weaponry Monday, you might assume he was asked about playing for the U.S. Olympic basketball team headed to Athens this summer. After all, a few other NBA players in the selection pool, as well as U.S. athletes in other sports, have said they're concerned about security at the games.
But that wasn't the case. Instead, Garnett was asked about his state of mind heading into Wednesday's Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals between his Minnesota Timberwolves and the Sacramento Kings on his 28th birthday. The series has been marked by what the league likes to call ''physical'' play and what the rest of us call shoving, tripping and slapping and Garnett himself was elbowed in the face by Sacramento's Anthony Peeler in Game 6.
There's no good time to compare a game to a war, and no worse time than when the country is in the middle of a real one. Given all the knuckleheads drawing NBA paychecks these days, Garnett is one of the last guys you'd expect to go over the top, and his apology Tuesday sounded sincere.
''I'm a young man and I understand when I'm appropriate, and this is totally inappropriate. I was totally thinking about basketball,'' he said, ''not reality.''
But basketball and reality will intersect in Garnett's world sometime in the next few weeks, when he lets USA Basketball officials know whether he'll fill the spot being held for him on the Olympic squad.
Right now, Olympic coach Larry Brown has so many other stars straddling the fence that it's a wonder the thing hasn't collapsed from the sheer weight of their collective ego.
''I look at this as the greatest honor I could ever have in my career,'' Brown said. ''But I'm not going to judge guys that don't want to go. I think it's got to be up to the individual, but I don't think in my heart there's any way they would send us if they didn't feel comfortable with us being safe. And I look at what other sacrifices people are making, and I don't think it's a big thing for me to do.''
The unofficial U.S. roster at the moment includes Tim Duncan, Jermaine O'Neal, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Mike Bibby, Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion, LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire and Richard Jefferson, but a few of them are having second thoughts.
USA Basketball is still waiting on Shaquille O'Neal, but among those who have withdrawn from consideration, or are expected to withdraw, are Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Jason Kidd, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant.
Garnett, who played for the U.S. team that won gold in the 2000 Games, also is expected to be among the missing, and that's too bad. This latest episode aside, few NBA stars are better ambassadors for the game, and with the possible exception of O'Neal and Bryant, none has as much game or would be as sorely missed.
Since basketball became part of the Olympic program in 1936, American teams are 109-2. The infamous hiccups came first in 1972, when officials helped the Soviet Union pick America's pocket, and again in 1988, when then-Georgetown coach John Thompson stubbornly picked a U.S. squad for Seoul that included only one real scorer.
The world has changed in countless ways since. The original Dream Team in Barcelona spread the gospel of hoops so successfully that a handful of countries will arrive in Athens packed with enough NBA-caliber talent to challenge any team USA Basketball puts on the floor. On top of that, the Americans will be up against hostile crowds whose anger will have little to do with the games themselves.
On Tuesday, USOC chief executive Jim Scherr denied his organization had told U.S. athletes to refrain from waving the flag at the Athens Games. But he did remind them ''to be good ambassadors of our country, their communities, families and sports. We want our athletes to be champions who conduct themselves with class and, if it is the case, to lose with grace and dignity.''
Brown has no idea how many of his players fit that bill of particulars. But he can promise any NBA millionaire who claims to be itching for a meaningful game or two shouldn't have any trouble finding one.
''Most of these guys have been adored wherever they've played. I don't think any of us know what it's going to be like. Ohio State at Indiana or Carolina at Duke I guess it'll take it up a notch or two. It's going to be an interesting thing,'' he said, ''to see how our players respond.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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