Over the course of their parallel careers, NBA legends Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan — the league’s No. 1 and No. 4 lifetime earners — developed a sharp-edged on-court rivalry.
Duncan, who spent his entire 19-year career at the San Antonio Spurs, led his team to five NBA championships. He and Garnett, a 15-time NBA all-star who has retired from the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves, clashed on court more than 50 times during their careers.
The animus sprang from Garnett’s habit of baiting, slapping and "whispering really weird smack" into Duncan’s ear during games, according to a Sports Illustrated profile of Duncan. Eventually, Duncan came to hate Garnett "the way liberals hate Sean Hannity," SI reported.
Some in Duncan’s circle take issue with the idea that the former power forward known for his unfailingly mild personality could hate anyone; The Onion once ran a headline that said, "Tim Duncan hams it up for crowd by arching left eyebrow slightly." Either way, after both retired in 2016, the two men’s rivalry soon found a new post-game outlet.
In spring of 2017, they sat on the opposite side of a federal courtroom in San Antonio during a hearing about Charles Augustus Banks IV, Duncan’s former financial advisor who still worked for Garnett. Duncan was suing Banks at the time and Garnett turned up to support the advisor. At the time, Banks was working for himself, having left CSI Capital Management, which was later acquired by SunTrust Bank.
To testify that day, and urge the judge not to grant Banks the probation he requested, the exceedingly shy Duncan braved the kind of publicity he’s always tried to avoid. That’s how strongly Duncan felt about protecting other athletes — including his antagonist Garnett — against Banks.
"I’m the poster child for the dumb athlete whose financial advisor took his money. I hate it," Duncan said in a statement at the time. Even more than that, he added, "I hate the idea of Charles being able to do this to someone else.”
Excoriated by the judge, who could have sentenced him to 20 years in prison, Banks pleaded guilty. He told Duncan tearfully before a packed room, "I’m sorry I abused your trust."
The judge sentenced Banks to four years in prison for looting Duncan’s savings and ordered him to pay $7.5 million in restitution. All told, Duncan’s legal team says Duncan lost nearly $30 million with Banks, monies they are still trying to recoup through other avenues.
Many in Duncan’s camp were side-eying Garnett during the emotional proceedings, wondering how he could continue to support an advisor who they’d discovered — and eventually proved — was a thief.
Didn’t Garnett realize his own assets could be at risk?
A POINTED ELBOW
Apparently not. At the end of the sentencing day, Garnett and J. Tullos Wells, the Spurs’ former general counsel who is representing Duncan in actions against Banks, found themselves approaching each other on a narrow path to the courthouse. The previous year, Wells had made a point of urging Garnett through intermediaries to meet with FBI agents and lawyers from the Department of Justice who wanted to talk to him about Banks. If he took the meetings, Wells says he hoped Garnett would learn the truth about the advisor. But Garnett declined the invitations, Wells says today.
As the men passed each other, Wells says Garnett, who is more than a foot taller than the lawyer, stuck out his elbow and "shouldered" him.
It was a classic Garnett move from his playing days, Wells says, "because everyone knows Kevin and his history with elbows." Garnett did not respond to questions about Wells’ account of the incident.
Today, however, Garnett’s support for Banks apparently has evaporated and Duncan’s fears may have been borne out. Garnett is now accusing Banks of "helping himself" to $77 million of his lifetime earnings, according to a lawsuit Garnett has filed, more than double Duncan’s claimed losses.
Taken together, Banks allegedly stole $100 million from both men.
"It’s insane," says Wendy Kowalik, Duncan’s financial consultant who discovered the alleged fraud when helping Duncan prepare for a divorce in 2015.
Banks is currently serving his sentence until 2021 in federal prison in Montgomery, Alabama — a "country club prison," Kowalik says — where Enron felon Jeffrey Skilling is also being held.
"Garnett got taken for even more money than Tim," Kowalik says. "With the losses Garnett reports in his suit, he will likely end up being a bigger creditor than we are, which is horrendous because he is now retired."
Garnett’s career earnings hit $334 million, topping Shaquille O’Neal, with $286 million, and Kobe Bryant, with $323 million, according to sportingnews.com. Duncan earned $236 million, according to Forbes.
Sharp elbows aside, Wells says, "I feel horrible for Kevin," a sentiment that he says Duncan shares. "Kevin has been so loyal to Banks, this must be scalding to him."
SUING THE CPAs
Garnett is trying to recover his alleged losses by suing his former CPA, Michael Wertheim, and his firm, Welenken CPAs, in Louisville, Kentucky. The suit does not name Banks himself, but accuses the accountants of helping Banks perpetrate his scheme. It is filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
"What became clear," Garnett’s complaint against his accountant says, "is that Banks intentionally and continuously looted Garnett of his earnings and assets for many years, including the many years that Welenken and Wertheim provided accounting services to Garnett."
Garnett declined comment through one of his lawyers, Mark Gaughan, who says the charges in the new lawsuit speak for themselves: "We are confident this matter ultimately will be resolved in Mr. Garnett’s favor."
Greg Simpson, the attorney for Wertheim and his firm, says Garnett’s case is baseless.
"My clients intend to vigorously defend themselves against the allegations in the complaint," Simpson says. "They deny any wrongdoing and believe the suit lacks merit. They will be moving to dismiss it at an early stage."
Duncan let Wells and Kowalik speak on his behalf.
Although Garnett did not name Banks in the accounting case, he has sued Banks in a different lawsuit filed in the name of Hammer Holdings, a limited liability company based in California that Garnett and Banks jointly own. The Hammer case, filed in District Court in Hennepin County, Minnesota, is sealed and in arbitration, says Simpson, the CPA’s lawyer.
In the CPA lawsuit, Wertheim’s role is described as having gone well beyond that of an accountant to "serving in a fiduciary capacity as a money manager" to Garnett, all the while failing to protect him against Banks.
Once, the complaint says, Banks pushed back against Garnett’s request for $40,000 of his own money to keep him from exceeding a budget he and Wertheim had created for the athlete.
While being scolded by Banks, however, the suit says Garnett was unaware that three days earlier Banks had withdrawn $500,000 from Garnett’s funds for himself. Eight days later Banks allegedly took another $1.5 million, along with $60,000 in management fees.
Over and over, Garnett’s suit says that Banks dipped into Hammer "to pay credit cards, to pay his mortgages, to make personal investments in which Hammer had no interest, to hire private jets, to take his family on lavish vacations [and] to make other personal expenditures."
Today, Duncan feels sad, even crushed, about Garnett’s potential losses, according to Wells.
"We tried to save Kevin," says Wells. "We tried to tell him."
"Tim was really worried about him," he adds, "because he knew exactly how it would end."