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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

K.G.'s way out of cancer controversy? Join NBA's fight

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Only a handful of people know what words were actually exchanged between Kevin Garnett and Charlie Villanueva on Tuesday night. If the words repeated by Villanueva on his Twitter account the next morning were remotely accurate, then Garnett -- the NBA's bully of our time -- had some explaining to do.

And explain he did, releasing a statement Wednesday denying that he'd called Villanueva -- who has no body hair due to a rare autoimmune disorder -- a "cancer patient." Garnett's statement, crafted by his publicist and released by the Celtics, called the situation "a major miscommunication."

Charlie Villanueva claims Kevin Garnett called him a 'cancer patient.' (Getty Images)  
Charlie Villanueva claims Kevin Garnett called him a 'cancer patient.' (Getty Images)  
"My comment to Charlie Villanueva was in fact, 'You are cancerous to your team and our league,'" Garnett said. "I would never be insensitive to the brave struggle that cancer patients endure. I have lost loved ones to this deadly disease and have a family member currently undergoing treatment."

Villanueva, who'd gone into plenty of detail via Twitter about Garnett's rant, was quiet for much of Wednesday. Shortly after Garnett's statement was fed to the insatiable news cycle, Villanueva tweeted, "New day, moving on." But before Detroit's Wednesday night's game, Villanueva stuck by his claim.

Anyone who knows Garnett and his long history of lacking civility on the court had little reason to doubt Villanueva's accusation. I am not here to police the players and decide who deserves to be punished for on-court boorishness and who doesn't; that's Stu Jackson's job. But I am here to make sure everyone understands that whomever you believe, a little perspective is required before we allow our trash talk to stoop this low. Whether Garnett is telling the truth or Villanueva is, the mere suggestion that a deadly disease could be part of the in-game banter among players diminishes the game, and all of us along with it.

Maurice Lucas, who exuded toughness on the court without having to say a word, died this week of bladder cancer. He was 58. He was known as "The Enforcer," a title that, unlike Garnett, he earned with something other than his mouth.

Another giant gentleman of the game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is quietly and bravely battling leukemia. A great pioneer of basketball and sport, Abdul-Jabbar came to mind immediately upon hearing of Villanueva's accusations. Never mind the he-said, he-said. Thank you, Mr. Garnett, for reminding us how dearly we miss true sportsmen like Kareem.

I reached out Wednesday to a guy who plays for Garnett's former team, the Timberwolves, but Kevin Love didn't respond. Love learned to treat the game, his teammates and opponents with respect by listening to his father, Stan, a former NBA player who raised him well. And Love's jaw no doubt dropped upon learning what Garnett had been accused of saying -- especially since Love has spent the first few years of his career supporting the great work of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the national leader in the treatment of childhood cancer. As part of his work with St. Jude, Love took a special interest in a Minnesota teenager named Dylan Witschen, whose heartbreaking story I told here. Dylan died peacefully at his home north of Minneapolis on June 8, another victim of this relentless disease. He was 16.

The list of cancer victims is endless. Of the 450 players in the NBA, the hundreds more writing about it, and hopefully a fair number reading this, the list of those affected by the disease is far longer than the list of those lucky enough to have been spared. Back to Jabbar for a moment: The man who wrote this touching account of Jabbar's cancer fight, a gifted writer named Mike Celizic, himself succumbed to lymphoma on Sept. 22. His last -- and perhaps best -- contribution to journalism was chronicling his cancer fight for TODAYShow.com. It is sad, funny and inspirational at once, a real-life tale of a man confronting an opponent he knew could not be defeated.

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Celizic's journal is more than recommended reading. It's a guidebook for one topic that should obviously be left out of the shameful taunting and trash-talking culture that has become synonymous with basketball. In today's NBA, you can't look a ref in the eye without getting a technical foul, but the boundaries for bullying among players are much less defined.

So here's my suggestion. Rather than hiring some former federal prosecutor or high-powered law firm to find out what Garnett really said, and then fining him based on the findings, here is a relationship that the NBA should broker: Garnett, his image sullied despite his denial, should be encouraged to join another team. Not the Lakers, Magic or Heat, but a better team -- and a far more important one.

Love, Shane Battier, Steve Blake, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Danny Granger are members of an NBA team that gets far less media coverage than the Heat, but does much more important work. As members of the Hoops for St. Jude team -- which is "coached" by George Karl, a cancer survivor -- these six players pledge a donation each season tied to how many points they score. During Hoops for St. Jude week in March, jerseys and other memorabilia are auctioned off to raise money and awareness in the fight against childhood cancer.

So while I have no doubt that Garnett's No. 5 Celtics jersey raised a fair amount of money for a good cause last spring, this is a spectacular opportunity for him to do more. Whether he said it or not, and whether he went there or not, it hardly matters at this point. Garnett has a chance to make this right in a way that goes far beyond denials.

So if Karl hasn't called Garnett by now, KG should pick up the phone and call him. He should say, you know what, coach? This is all just a big misunderstanding, but I want to do the right thing. He should pound his chest and bark at the moon and pledge some money to a worthy cause whose enemy doesn't belong anywhere near the basketball court. Unless, of course, every basket Garnett scores the rest of the season raises money to fight a disease that spares no one. Some good can come of this.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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