OAKLAND, Calif. -- Kevin Garnett did not make a spectacle of it.

He merely met Karl Malone at midcourt, said what he had to say, then strolled away.The gist of what Garnett told Malone after the Minnesota Timberwolves played their most-recent game at the Delta Center was something like this: You are the game's premier power forward, and you deserve to be leading the All-Star balloting at our position -- not me.

No one told him to do it. No one had to.

Garnett knew what was right, and that is why he whispered what he did.

"The media was looking at me to really agree that there were better players other than Karl -- better forwards in the game," Garnett said Friday, almost a month after the largely overlooked gesture that speaks volumes as to what this three-time All-Star is all about. "I felt like that's a guy that deserves respect. That's a guy that demands respect. And it wouldn't be right if I left the floor without saying what I said to him."

Garnett finished first among Western Conference forwards in fan voting for today's NBA All-Star Game, and he doesn't feel it was right that Malone -- the reigning NBA MVP, and a man who defined the position plays -- finished only fifth in the balloting.

"That's the thing: I've got more respect for Karl Malone than anything, and I wanted him to know that," said Garnett, who will start today's game while Malone comes off the bench as a reserve. "It had nothing to do with ego. It had nothing to do with personalities -- or nothing. It's just that I'm a different cat."

Different indeed.

Not one anxious, or even willing, to be lumped with the new breed of NBA players -- the one that does not know Dr. J from Dr. Doolittle -- Garnett prides himself on a couple of things: One is having a healthy respect for the history of game he plays. The other is bonafide feelings toward those who paved the way for the league to become what is has.

"I was taught by the old school," said Garnett, who skipped straight from high school (Farragut Academy in Chicago) to the pros after the Timberwolves tapped him fifth overall in the 1995 NBA Draft.

"I understand that each generation is different, but very similar. You look back at generation to generation, you've got similar-type players -- just at different times. You know: Dr. J . . . Michael Jordan . . . Vince Carter. It keeps going on and on."

Elvin Hayes . . . Karl Malone . . . Kevin Garnett.

As the torch is passed, and the positions are continually redefined, Garnett is someone who can fan the flames to places they never before have been.

"He's made himself into one of the great players of this game. And he's got a lot of years left," Jazz center Greg Ostertag said of Garnett, who, at the tender age of 23, is already in his fifth NBA season. "Coming into this league at 18, he might get 25 years in this league."

Scary is the only the way to describe it, which is precisely what Al Attles does.

"I saw him in a private workout in Chicago, and he just blew me away," said Attles, a former Golden State Warriors head coach who is now a vice president of the host All-Star Game franchise. "Here's a guy of that size who can handle the ball, shoot the ball, and has everything going for him. If you try to project that he gets better five, six years down the road, when he reaches his maximum potential -- it's scary.

"That's why he's so unique," Attles added. "There's been no one with that size, that athletic ability, do what he does. There's been some guys smaller that can do that, or guys that big that can maybe do one or two things that he does, but I can't say I can see anyone like that."

On the floor, Garnett gives opponents like the Jazz fits.

"He's a great, great player," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, whose club dropped three of four games in its season series with the Timberwolves this season. "He provides a lot of problems for you on both ends of the floor. It's tough to get shots off against him. He's tough on the defensive end. You can't get out on the floor and play him. He can shoot the ball anywhere on the floor, and that's one of the most unusual big guys to ever have to play.

"You show me another player at that size who can play three different positions across the front that players are going to have to guard. I don't know of anybody in a long, long time that's had to be played that way. So that's a tough thing to do."

Those assigned the task agree.

"He's a big guy . . . who'll go outside or inside," Jazz forward Armen Gilliam said. "So if you put a big guy on him, he's gonna take 'em outside and try to go around 'em. Put a small guy on him, he's going to post up.

"He's long, he's talented and he's

going to find a way to score. Even on the double-team, he's long enough that he can just jump over it."

But when there's an issue to tackle, such as the one with Malone, Garnett faces it head on.

"I feel when I have something I need to say, I say it," he said. "Then it's up to you if you listen or not. . . . But I'm definitely going to voice my opinion."

When Garnett spoke in Salt Lake City, Malone listened. It was a big step, in and of itself.

The Mailman tends to lump the game's potentially great young players in one big basket, one he believes is given kid-glove treatment and favored-son promotional status by the league.

"It is," he said, "a day and age when it's all about them -- young guys. . . . It's all about how many homeboys you can hang out with, and do all that kind of stuff. The game is secondary."

Then Garnett comes along with his recent postgame gesture, and Malone almost seems to allow that maybe all the kids are not alike, after all.

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"Other than what you guys write, you don't really know what legacy you're leaving, and you don't know what a young guy really is thinking. . . . You go out, and play for a number of years, and you don't know -- until they say something," he said. "It's awesome. But then you say to yourself, 'I still have to go play this guy; you still have to go play.' . . . You don't read too much into it.

"I don't know Kevin," Malone added. "I just know him from playing against him. . . . You would hope he's set apart, but I don't know. Like I said, I think it's neat if he is. . . . If that's the case, I think it's really neat, and it's great for him."

Malone's only regret: There aren't more cats like Garnett.

"I say to myself," he said, " 'It would be pretty refreshing if guys -- every single young guy -- had (that) kind of respect.' "