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Nov 3, 2008

Celtics' Garnett plugged into the soccer scene

BOSTON -- Steve Nash became one of the first NBA stars to popularize playing soccer in the offseason. The Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett has taken Nash's idea a step further by setting up a soccer field in the backyard of his suburban Minneapolis home.

"I put in two goals there," Garnett said. "When it's time to get back in shape I get my friends and go in the backyard and start messing around. It's just for conditioning."

But Garnett is not ready to bend free kicks like Beckham, or even like Nash.

"Steve Nash is a lot more for real about it," Garnett said. "Mine is more recreation, having fun, and messing around. He actually knows how to bend the ball and that type of stuff. I'm just a fan and enjoy watching it, more than a true competitor."

Nash grew up with soccer. His father played semi-professionally in South Africa, and his brother, Martin, played for the Canadian national team. Garnett was introduced to the sport by a boyhood friend, Bug Peters.

"Bug played when he was young and he is a huge soccer fan," Garnett said. "About six or seven years ago, when YouTube first came out, there was some footage of Ronaldinho on there. Freestyle was big at that time and I just gravitated towards it.

"Like tennis, I was screaming watching the Williams sisters. You tend to like it for whatever you like it for. You are a fan of it, you appreciate it and it draws you to it. Then, being a fan and having favorite players causes you to be more of a fan.

"I play a lot of video games. I got on a video game and that teaches you the players and their style. Now, you want to get better at the game so you really watch it and it makes it all come full circle, of becoming a fan and appreciating the sport."

Garnett's favorite soccer-related video games?

"FIFA '09, World Cup, Euro League. I enjoy it all."

Favorite players?

"Ronaldinho, Didier Drogba, I like watching Cristiano Ronaldo. Wayne Rooney is a tough kid -- I enjoy watching him. Lionel Messi. Frank Lampard and John Terry of Chelsea."

Favorite team?

"Chelsea."

Garnett met Drogba when Chelsea visited the Los Angeles Galaxy last year.

"I enjoy watching Drogba on TV," Garnett said. "They had a meet-and-greet for Chelsea in L.A. and I brought some family and they met him, also. We exchanged numbers there and when we went to London [during the 2007-08 NBA preseason] he came to watch us play.

"I didn't know soccer players were big NBA fans until then. [Cesc] Fabregas was at our game in London and I think [Emmanuel] Adebayor and a couple other guys were there. We met [Alessandro] Del Piero when we were in Rome."

The NBA schedule has prevented Garnett from attending games in person. He did get to the Brazil-Mexico friendly at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 12, 2007, which set a New England soccer attendance record with a crowd of 67,584.

"It was a zoo, it was crazy," Garnett said. "It takes me half an hour to get to a Patriots game and it took three and a half hours to get to the Brazil-Mexico game. I didn't know Boston had that big a Brazilian population. Yeah, it was the craziest sporting event I've been to. The Olympics was something crazy, but it was like a Walt Disney show."

Garnett said he has turned down a chance to be involved in small-side games such as the charity match Nash set up in New York in June.

"They want to make me play goalie and I want to be a striker," Garnett said. "I don't want to be a goalie. I don't have striker's skills, I just want the liberty of not only passing the ball but also the liberty of shooting the ball, or at least trying to be a striker.

"I know, everybody wants that. But in basketball I'm good at being a liaison between the scorer and the passer and making sure everyone is getting better. In soccer, I don't want to do that. I want to kick the ball all over the place."

Garnett has a striker's mentality, a concept of the team game mixed with a selfish streak and a willingness to fire away. His soccer progression is sort of the opposite of Hakeem Olajuwon, who was a goalkeeper growing up in Nigeria before he turned to basketball.

"I never play soccer anywhere else except in my own backyard," Garnett said. "That way, I know the rules. I know if someone is fouled, nine times out of 10 I take the free kick, or I'm the one taking the penalty kick. That's why I play on my ground."

Garnett is not reluctant to shoot from anywhere at any time, part of the reason for "countless" balls having to be fished out of a pond in his yard.

"Luckily I have groundsmen who know how to swim and good adidas balls that float," Garnett said.

Garnett is hoping to attend games at San Siro, now that Ronaldinho has joined Milan, and Stamford Bridge, but might not be able to for a while. The 2010 World Cup is another possibility.

"I've never been to Africa and Dikembe Mutombo wants to get me over there, but I just haven't had the time," Garnett said. "I definitely want to go to the World Cup. So, I'll probably go to Capetown, make a trip there first to see what I'm in for. I definitely want to do that.

"I promised myself to take a vacation to see either a Serie A game in Italy or the Premier League. I really want to see AC Milan and someone told me I should go to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea. That will probably be an event. But I really haven't had the liberty and, hopefully, I'll have two more short summers like I had this time. After I retire I see myself going and seeing some games."

Garnett keeps tabs on the European game via a running feud with rival supporters on the Celtics' staff.

"For the most part, I follow it," Garnett said. "Some teams have gotten better this year. Robbie Keane is with Liverpool. Manchester City surprised me a little bit by getting Robinho. I didn't see that coming. But they've got all kinds of money."

The team's massage therapist, Vlad Shulman, also supports Chelsea.

"Me and Vlad, we walk around here and get beat on the head a little bit," Garnett said.

A few days before the Celtics' season opener, Garnett was talking soccer at the team's Waltham, Mass., practice facility, tossing verbal jabs at media relations coordinator Brian Olive and Cameron Twiss, the son of vice president of media services Jeff Twiss. Both are Manchester United supporters, and they got an earful after Everton tied United 1-1.

"Soccer is growing, the appreciation and desire for it is growing," Garnett said. "Now, we need to get a soccer channel here."

Reminded that several channels already exist, Garnett said: "No. I mean in here [at the Celtics' training facility]. So we can watch right here."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com.

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