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1. The Same Old Story
To see one Tim Duncan game is to have seen them all. You will be treated to a fusillade of bank shots, all fired with the same high, mechanical release. There will also be jump hooks, excellent post defense, effortless dissection of double teams and precise outlet passes in the mold of Walton and Unseld. The same craggy, white-haired coach will pace the sideline, frowning the same disapproving frown. Throughout, Duncan’s expression will run the gamut from stone-faced to indifferent.
On a spring night in Oakland near the end of the regular season, Duncan scored an impressive 13 points in 11 minutes against the Warriors. Even so, there were no oohs, aahs or even boos from the Warriors crowd. During player intros Duncan received the kind of polite applause you might hear at the end of a poetry reading. He could have been any opponent.
It’s a bit shocking, of course. Duncan is arguably the greatest basketball player of his generation, inarguably its most successful. Yet compared with his peers, he remains practically anonymous.
How can this be?
2. The Silence
“I have to warn you that I have a headache,” Tim Duncan is saying in the lobby of a Denver Marriott. There is also the issue of time, he adds. The team flight was delayed getting in. Ice on the runway. Everyone’s tired.
Plus, Tim’s an island guy, and it’s cold as balls in here.
Duncan stares down at me with his wide, flat face. Maybe we could just scrap the interview, the face says. Anyone who interviewed Duncan knows the drill: He talks only after games or practices, and then only for a few minutes and in tiny bursts of spectacular blandness. He is a man who has achieved so much yet continues to flee from the very thing so many others chase with a white-hot desperation: fame. Year after year Duncan has turned down interviews and endorsements that could have netted him millions. He hasn’t feuded with teammates, used the media as a back channel to tweak his G.M. or forced out a coach.
In this case both Spurs p.r. man Tom James and an assistant coach had to vouch for me. Then James had to wait until the time was right to bring up the idea of an interview—on the road, when Tim would have an off day he couldn’t spend with his wife, Amy, and their two children, which Tim prefers to do 100 times out of 100 during the season. Even then, it was unclear how much time, if any, Duncan would grant. He has a reputation to uphold, after all.
3. No Second Act
This is problematic because who doesn’t love a narrative about redemption and vindication? But Duncan? To recap: Tall, talented young man succeeds for four years in college, goes to NBA, succeeds immediately, then continues to do so for the next 15 years. Here are the numbers.
13: Consecutive seasons to begin his career in which Duncan was named All-NBA and All-Defensive team, six more than anyone else in league history.
.702: The Spurs’ winning percentage during the Duncan era, the best 15-year run by any NBA team in history.
0: Number of teams in the four major pro sports with a better winning percentage over the last 15 years than the Spurs.
It happens almost every game now, including in these playoffs, during which the top-seeded Spurs blew through the first round in four games against the Jazz: Some opposing big man throws his weight into Duncan’s 36-year-old back, digs out position and then asks the question, How many more years ya got in ya?
Each night, Duncan says the same thing: “I got at least one more game.”
It’s worse when the young guys guard him. “Hey, I grew up watching you,” they’ll say, and Duncan will try to ignore the implication. He understands how this works. “Your mortality as a player is not known,” he says. “You don’t see the end coming.”
Even his coach gets into the act. Earlier this season, when Gregg Popovich held Duncan out of a game, he gave the reason as DNP—OLD.
Not surprisingly, Duncan’s numbers dipped during the regular season; he averaged 15.4 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. However, inspect his production per 36 minutes—starter’s minutes. Those figures rise to 19.7 points and 11.5 rebounds. Or almost exactly his career averages.
Watch him this week, as the Spurs begin their second-round series against the Clippers, and you’ll note that he’s moving better than he has in a while, that he looks fitter and that he appears rejuvenated by both the lack of double teams and the relative youth of his teammates. (San Antonio’s average age, 26.9, is the lowest of the Duncan era.) Says Duncan, “It’s the best I’ve felt in years.”
5. His Buddy KG
Just kidding, as this might count in his favor. In fact, Duncan hates Kevin Garnett. Hates him the way liberals hate Sean Hannity. This information comes from very reliable sources, who talk about how KG has made a career of trying to punk Duncan, baiting him and slapping him and whispering really weird smack into his ear. They talk about how funny this is, because the worst thing you can do as an opponent is piss off Duncan. Then, as Malik Rose says, “he f—— destroys you.” Duncan’s lifetime numbers versus Garnett’s teams, by the way: 19.4 points per game, 11.6 boards and a 44–17 record, including the postseason.
Duncan is diplomatic about the topic. Asked if perhaps all those years battling Garnett have softened his feelings for the man, led to a Magic-Larry type of kinship, Duncan leans back on the couch in his hotel room and grins. There is a pause. A longer pause. Finally he says, “Define kinship.“
Duncan ducks into the elevator in the Marriott. He will do the interview, in his hotel room no less (raised eyebrow, thumbs-up from James). Moments later a family of three enters the elevator: corporate husband, well-coiffed wife, teenage daughter. The door closes. Here’s what the husband does not do. He does not do a double take, betray any recognition of Duncan or make a comment about the previous night’s game or this year’s postseason or that one time Tim Duncan did that amazing thing. The wife does not bat her eyes or squirm. The daughter does not think OMG! OMG! OMG! and start texting furiously. This is not LeBron or Kobe. Or even Melo.
The door opens, the family leaves without looking back. Duncan looks relieved.
7. An Unusual Love Story
The story of Duncan’s career begins on an island, in the summer of 1997. That’s when Popovich flew down to St. Croix to meet his team’s No. 1 draft pick. On the first day, Duncan took his new coach swimming. Out they went, one man tall and assured, the other short and as pale as the sand, his arms churning furiously. Duncan led them past rocky outcroppings into deeper water, the shoreline of the island quickly receding. Popovich began to think about how far out they were, about what lay beneath, about the waves cresting off the rocks. Still, he kept going, determined not to show weakness.
Over the next three days—or two or maybe four, neither can remember—the two men swam and lay on the beach and ate, talking about life and family and priorities. Everything but basketball. Despite a difference of nearly 30 years, they connected in a way few athletes and coaches do. Today Popovich tears up just talking about it. “I really cherish that time,” he says. “It was like an instant respect and understanding of each other. Almost like we were soul mates.”
From that point on, the two were on the same page. Other than a brief flirtation with the Orlando Magic in 2003, when Duncan was a free agent—he and Pop stayed up late drinking beers in Pop’s backyard, talking it through—Duncan never wavered in his commitment to the team. This, in turn, allowed Popovich to build his highly successful system, the tenets of which were simple: The offense runs through Duncan, the defense runs through Duncan, and if you don’t like it, you’re gone. It holds true to this day. “I like role players who aren’t very good but have a skill,” Pop says with a chuckle, though he is not joking. “I know who’s going to have the ball on our team, and need players who understand this.”
8. Captain Jack
In 2001, when Stephen Jackson was in his second year and Duncan in his fourth, Jackson used to get so mad when he was subbed out of the game that he’d walk in a giant arc to the bench, nearly reaching the opposite baseline in an attempt to stay as far from Popovich as possible. Once seated, Jackson would unleash a stream of profanity so curdling that nearby fans would turn ashen. When it got to be too much, Duncan would approach Popovich. “I got him,” Duncan would say.
And the funny thing is, Duncan did. He’d take Jackson aside, put a big, lanky arm around him and break it down. He’d joke with him, hang with him, make plans to play paintball with him. They made for an odd couple: Duncan, one of the squarest players in the league, and Jackson, who never met a club he couldn’t close down, a team he couldn’t tear apart or a bottle he couldn’t pop.
This season, after an 11-year separation as Jackson moved from one team to another, seven in all, the two men are reunited in pursuit of another championship, and this is what Jackson has to say about Duncan: “I’m humbled to be able to say that Tim Duncan is a good friend of mine.”
Turns out lots of people feel that way. During his 15 years with the Spurs, Tim Duncan has had 116 teammates. They range from the celebrated (David Robinson) to the not-so-much (Cory Joseph), with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Last year Duncan tried to count them all but couldn’t do it. Throughout, Duncan has been the center around which all else has orbited.
Most important, he’s allowed Popovich to coach him. For 15 straight seasons Pop has gone after his franchise player in practice. We’re talking neck veins bulging, spittle flying, a Gatling gun of obscenities. And all Duncan has done is stare back, absorbing it. “He hasn’t always liked it,” says former teammate Sean Elliott, now a team announcer, “but he takes it. You know how important that is for the rest of the team to see?”
Or, as one Spurs coach puts it, “How could a guy like Stephen Jackson complain when Pop was motherf—— Tim every day?”
9. The Sage
These days the tirades are less frequent, but Popovich leans on his star in other ways. When the Spurs call a timeout and you see the San Antonio coaches huddle a few feet from the bench, it’s not to hash out strategy. Rather, Pop is giving Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker time with the team. “You’ll see Timmy over there with a young kid, talking about how he should do this or that or what we meant by such and such,” says Popovich. “I’ll come back to the timeouts sometimes and say, ‘Are we square?’ and Timmy will say, ‘Yeah, we got ‘em.’”
Popovich pauses. “He commands that type of respect because he doesn’t demand it, if that makes sense.”
10. Ferry Hunting
O.K., it’s a toss-up as to how this will make you feel about Duncan: Did he once invite a bunch of teammates to a paintball course even though most had never played paintball? Perhaps. Did Duncan then stack his team with ringers and bring his own high-powered paintball gun? Maybe. Did he give certain players such as Danny Ferry guns that, according to Ferry, “were bent and shot six feet to the left every time”? There’s a chance. And did Duncan then take great delight in hunting down his teammates, chasing the pale, balding, shorts-wearing Ferry until he was in close range, at which point Duncan unleashed a hail of water-soluble hellfire upon the man? It’s possible.
11. He’s Small-Time
One story among many: In the fall of 2003, during the Spurs’ preseason training camp, most of the players stayed at a local hotel at the team’s behest. Ferry and Steve Kerr, however, decided to commute from their homes. Both were nearing the end of their careers and had kids. They figured the hotel was intended for the younger players, to keep them in line.
On the third day of camp, Ferry and Kerr pulled up to the practice facility just as the team bus arrived from the hotel. A succession of rookies exited the bus. At the rear was Duncan, six years in the league already. He took one look at Kerr and Ferry. “Wait a second, are you guys staying at home?” Duncan asked, incredulous.
“Yup,” said Kerr.
Duncan’s eyes got wider. “You mean you can do that?”
Ferry stared back at him. “Tim, you’re the league MVP. You can do whatever you want.”
“One of my biggest pet peeves as a player was when guys got some success in this league and they changed,” says Elliott, who played with Duncan for four years. “Sometimes it happened in, like, two weeks. The reason is that the overwhelming majority of guys don’t know who they are. They’re trying to be someone they’re not, to appease a certain type of crowd or niche.”
And Duncan? “He’s always known who he was and been comfortable in his own skin,” Elliott says. “In 15 years he hasn’t changed.”
Ask Duncan about it, and this is what he says: “It sounds somewhat arrogant, but I don’t really want to change. I like who I am, I like how I do things.” He pauses. “I try to be that way.”
13. New York
Great parlor-game discussion: What would have happened if Duncan had been drafted by the Knicks? Would he be the league’s marquee name? Or would the spotlight have been too much?
“He’d have been great,” says Popovich.
“He would have adapted,” says Kerr. “The beat writers would have chased him around for a year and eventually given up.”
Says Duncan, “It would have been torture. I probably wouldn’t have lasted there very long.”
14. The Island Vibe
There’s no Hoosier heartland in Duncan’s background, no housing projects or city streets or any of the other roots so familiar to the athlete narrative. Duncan grew up in St. Croix, raised by a loving jack-of-all-trades father and a mother whose mantra was, “Good, better, best/Never let it rest/Until your good is better and your better is your best.” He watched his mother, Ione, die of cancer when he was 14, weathered Hurricane Hugo in the house his father helped build and left a promising swimming career to play basketball. To this day he is an island guy to the core. He once tried to change his residency to the Virgin Islands, so that the taxes on his salary could help out his home territory. It worked, Duncan says, for roughly two years. “I thought it was great,” he says.
The U.S. government didn’t.
Here is a partial list of the NBA players who dunked more often than Tim Duncan this season: Gordon Hayward, Landry Fields, John Wall, Byron Mullens, Trevor Booker. In all, 63 players threw down more often. Even when Duncan did put one down, it was invariably a one-handed job, raised above the rim and deposited with something close to disdain. In fact, you could make a credible argument that, with the exception of Larry Bird, no player in NBA history has been more successful while blessed with fewer hops.
16. The Subtlety
On the other hand the stuff Duncan is good at really, really excites NBA assistant coaches. The corollary to this, of course, is that most Americans aren’t NBA assistant coaches. Assistants will go on about the way he can pass out of the post to his wing shooters with his eyes shut, the way he faces up one foot farther from the basket than most big men, the way he blocks shots without jumping, the beauty of his bank shot (a shot the rest of the country has made a tacit agreement only to use in H-O-R-S-E) and countless other small but important details.
Here’s Warriors assistant Mike Malone, one of the game’s best defensive minds: “Tim loves the left block, going middle, turning over his left shoulder, getting to his righty jump hook. So, obviously if you can, you want to turn to the baseline, which is his countermove. But then when he faces up, he’s so good at that bank shot, and if you get your hands up, he’s going to come up and draw that foul. You have to be ready to contest, but if you have your hand out, he’s too smart! You have to do your work early, take away the middle and still give some help from the nail, some double team help. And try to push him out a little farther. Don’t let him get two feet in the paint so he can get to his righty jump hook. Be physical, try to send him baseline. Get a late contest.”
And? “And it still doesn’t work,” Malone says. “It’s like Kobe. You can say, ‘Make Kobe go left,’ but he still scores going left.”
17. The Myth
Two weeks ago, before Game 1 of the series against the Jazz, Popovich was asked whom he’d be starting at center, and he answered, “Tim Duncan, like we have for the last 15 years.” And thus the lamest ruse in recent NBA history finally came to an end. After two decades of being called a power forward, of showing up on All-Star ballots as a power forward, of engendering debate about whether he’s already the greatest ever at the four, the Spurs have come clean. Tim Duncan’s a center. Always has been.
18 The Big-Man Bias
It’s an accepted truth: The only reason most big guys get into the game is that when they’re young, someone grabs them on the playground, says, “You’re tall, so you need to play basketball.” Then that person shoves a ball in their hands. It’s why you see so many indifferent big men even at the NBA level, players such as Joe Barry Carroll and Eddy Curry and Stanley Roberts, even Andrew Bynum. As a result, fans become conditioned to expect mediocre effort from the game’s biggest players.
Ask those who know Duncan what drives him, however, and they all say the same things: He loves the game. He cares just as much as the little guys do. It’s one thing to claim to love the game and another, as Ferry says, “to make the sacrifices that are necessary to win.” They point out how Duncan lost those 15 pounds in the last couple of years to protect his knees, at an age when most 7-footers only get stockier (and indeed, to see him in the locker room with his shirt off, devoid of body fat, is jarring). They talk about how, in contrast to David Robinson, who was lovable and smart and marketable but never could remember all the plays, Duncan “knows every play from front to back, position one through five.” As longtime assistant coach Mike Budenholzer says, “Tim could coach the team if he needed to.”
19. Mind Games
His on-court demeanor is so reserved that The Onion once ran a story titled, TIM DUNCAN HAMS IT UP FOR CROWD BY ARCHING LEFT EYEBROW SLIGHTLY. This impression is intentional, it turns out. Duncan has said he uses silence to “destroy people’s psyches.” He explains, “The best mind game you can run on someone is just to keep going at them and at them until they break.” Don’t respond, don’t show emotion. Just keep playing. “Eventually,” he says with a grin, “you’ll piss them off.”
20. The Anti-Marketing of a Superstar
There are no shoes. No line of wicking shorts. No, well, anything. Lon Babby, Duncan’s longtime agent and now G.M. of the Suns, says that Duncan “turned down almost all of it” when it came to opportunities. “It just wasn’t that important to him,” Babby says. “I had to make sure I was doing what he wanted, not what I wanted.”
The result is that it can be awfully lonely to be a Duncan acolyte. Ever seen a Duncan jersey outside Texas? Know any non-Spurs fans who’d call him their favorite player?
When this last question is posed on Twitter, a virtual scavenger hunt ensues. Dozens upon dozens try to help. They respond that they once knew this guy who had a friend who really liked Duncan, or that Duncan was their favorite player from 1997 to ’99, or that Duncan is, like, their third favorite player and does that count? Then, finally, paydirt. An NBA fan in Canada, one in Cleveland and one in New York. I query them with e-mails, ask why they love Tim. An interesting theme emerges: In Duncan, they see themselves. They talk about how he’s “old school,” how “he’s an introvert like myself” and how “he does his job and goes home.”
Which is to say that Duncan is sort of like us. And what kind of hero does that make?
21. The Last Word
The 20 minutes Duncan proposed have become 40, and he is still talking. He’s comfortable here in his hotel room, having jacked up the heat. (“An island thing,” he says.) He’s thoughtful, possessed of a dry wit—Duncan is a big giggler—and gracious. It’s a side his teammates are all familiar with.
The question has to be asked: Why not let the public see this side of you? “With the media, I just keep it basic, surface, to the point,” he says. “You’re here to talk about basketball. I’ll give you what you want, and let’s go home. I don’t really care about anyone getting to know me, or getting into my life or anything else like that.”
This is understandable, even admirable in a way. After all, how many of us would want total strangers knowing intimate details of our lives? Yet when Duncan’s gone, will we suddenly realize how much we miss him? Will we realize how singular his career has been? Will we begin to appreciate him not just for all that he was but also for all that he was not?
Then again, maybe it’s not too late to start. He’s asked about it. Doesn’t he care about how he’s viewed, how he’s remembered?
Duncan thinks for a second, pulls on the sleeve of his silver Spurs sweatshirt. “Why?” he says. “I have no control of that. All I can do is play and try to play well. Winning should be the only thing that matters. I can’t manipulate how people see me.”
But that’s not true at all, he’s told.
He considers this, then frowns. “I mean, I guess I could. I could be more accessible and be the darling for everybody. I could open up my life and get more endorsements and be out there and be a fan favorite. But why would that help?”
He pauses for a moment. “Why should it?”