Thirteen years. Thirteen All-NBA seasons. Four championships. Three Finals MVPs. Two league MVPs. One team. One city. The numbers tell us this much about Tim Duncan: Nobody has ever done it quite like him. What don’t we know about the greatest power forward of all-time? Everything else. In Dime #59, I sought to find the rest of the story.
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Pain becomes art. Novelists, rappers, painters, singers … the suffering of one has long birthed testimonies that resonate with millions. The ones who are really good at it, who turn pain into production into profit, go on to become living legends, and then, icons in immortality.
Is basketball an art? Or is it just a game? Are the stakes of winning and losing at the professional level too high to allow for artistry? Does one become a better basketball player through suffering, struggle and pain?
These are the kinds of questions I want to ask Tim Duncan.
And maybe he’d have great answers. Or maybe — because he’s been blessed with 6 feet and 11 inches of height, 260 pounds of lean muscle, and the footwork and body control of a dancer, or because he won the first of his four NBA championships in just his second year in the League, or because it all seems so easy for him — Duncan will reveal that he doesn’t really know suffering and struggle in his chosen sport.
But I haven’t asked those questions, because Tim Duncan is perpetually unavailable. Not that he’s hard to find: His work schedule is posted for public view and readily accessible to fantasy owners, gamblers and stalkers alike. Rather, Duncan makes himself unavailable for voluntary probing into his mind. One rule of interviewing is that you want your subject warmed-up and loose before throwing your deep, thought-provoking darts — but Duncan rarely leaves the comforts of frigidity. The most successful “thinking-man’s” ballplayer of his era has spent the better part of 13 years in the public eye keeping his life a closed book.
“He didn’t really say much to me when I was a rookie,” recalls Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spurs point guard who has since won three championships with Duncan and formed arguably the League’s best point guard/big man tandem. “Tim is a quiet guy most of the time, but after you get to know him he’s a great guy and a great teammate. He’s a great leader.”
And yet, from a media standpoint, Duncan might be the most difficult player in the NBA. Nowhere near the unnamed disrespectful, mean-spirited, miserable athletes that sportswriters share barstool stories about, Duncan really is a nice guy. He has been the face of the NBA’s signature squeaky-clean franchise for more than a decade. The quintessential All-World Nice Guy, Hall of Fame center David Robinson, will stick up for his former teammate any day.
But he’s tough. And because Duncan is so tough to figure out — treating interviewers to the same poker face with which he’s played each of his 1,100-plus pro games — and because there’s no flexing after dunks and no trace of playground in his style, he’s earned the scarlet letter in athlete marketing and media hype: Boring.
“That’s garbage,” says Robinson. “He does have a personality. But he’s no-nonsense. You know what he has? He has a dogged determination, and the team has taken that on. But it’s a low-key kind of determination, where you don’t talk about it, you just go do it. Tim prepares himself for the season physically and emotionally, and I think all the other guys know they’ve got to be as prepared as him.”
Somewhere along the way, in trying to solve the Duncan puzzle for this story, I figured out this much: Tim Duncan is not boring. He just isn’t interested in being interesting.
“What would I do if I weren’t playing basketball?” Duncan repeats a reporter’s question during a media scrum at All-Star Weekend. He sighs. He may have heard this question 30 times before. He’s not intrigued. “I don’t even know what I’d be doing.”
After some light-hearted prodding by another reporter, Duncan finally admits: “I would not be a reporter.”
Over the years, I’ve pined for Duncan to appear on a Dime cover. Before the conversation got too far, the b-word would surface and things went downhill from there. Beyond the question of whether TD would sell the front page, could I create a story about him that wouldn’t put readers to sleep? I still don’t know. (Let me know if you stay awake.)
The challenge would be getting something good from a Duncan interview. I’d run into him at All-Star Weekends, at New York Knicks games, at adidas events, but never in a setting for a proper sit-down, soul-searching attempt. At Knicks games, during the pre-game media time, Duncan was always cloaked in the no-fly zone of the trainer’s room. One of those times I approached a Spurs media relations employee and pitched one of my great ideas for a Duncan cover story: I wanted Duncan, who has a Psychology degree from Wake Forest University, to break down the psychological mindset of different types of athletes. The champion. The leader. The follower. The loser. Would I be able to get 20 minutes on the phone with Duncan?
The man practically laughed in my face. “Tim hasn’t done a 20-minute phone interview in 12 years.”
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Duncan should be more famous than he is. He is one of the standard-bearers of the NBA. In the recognized post-Jordan era of 1998 (MJ‘s Chicago retirement) until now, Duncan’s rivals can be counted on one finger; maybe two. He has been the anchor of four NBA championship teams in San Antonio, winning three Finals MVPs, two league MVPs, 12 All-Star nods, and 13 All-NBA and All-Defensive Team honors. He has averaged 21.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for his career, ranking in the top seven all-time in each category in the playoffs.
While Kobe has been through ups and downs from Lottery seasons to off-court drama, and Shaq has gained and lost dozens of pounds while playing on a handful of teams and burning bridges in his wake, Duncan is the model of consistency. Every year it’s the same thing: Same team, same 50-plus wins, same championship threat, same 20-and-10-and-2. Only death is more dependable, because some people skip out on their taxes. But no opponent can avoid Tim Duncan.
“He’s just so patient. He never rushes,” says Orlando’s Dwight Howard, the best center in the League. “He takes what the defense gives him and he’s always under control. That’s one thing that as you get older in basketball, you start to learn. I guess it’s just like with life: the older you get in life, the wiser and stronger you become. And that’s why he’s the best power forward to ever play the game.”
“He’s timeless. He’s like a fine wine,” says Chicago Bulls’ All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer. “Honestly, he’s one of those guys that as he gets older, he gets better. More efficient, almost like less energy, but still the same efficiency. Guaranteed 20 and 10.”
As our athletes get quicker, faster and more athletic, Duncan is the tortoise from the old fable. He’s like Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, catching sprinters from behind and taking them out while he’s walking with the same ol’ slow bop.
“Am I a better player than I was five years ago?” Duncan repeats the question. (He does that often.) “I’m a different player. Am I better? I don’t know. I’d argue with myself.
“You always try to stand pat with the things you’re comfortable with, and improve the things you’re not,” he says. “I’m probably a better shooter than I was five years ago. But then, I’m not as athletic as I was five years ago. So where do you draw the line? What do you compare? I don’t know.”
He’s 34 years old now, and conventional wisdom says he doesn’t have much time left to play at an elite level. Duncan’s 17.9 points per game last season were a career-low, as were his 10.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. He still led the Spurs to the playoffs — the team has never seen the Lottery during Duncan’s tenure, and has only been knocked out in the first round once when he was active — but they were swept in the second round by the Phoenix Suns, usually one of the San Antonio’s perennial victims.
Over the summer, trade rumors surrounded Parker, who will be a free agent in 2011, and the Spurs have made moves to feature a younger core that includes Brazilian frontcourt prospect Tiago Splitter. Duncan is still the glue holding everything together, but time is running out on his run.
“He’s been their best player,” says New Orleans power forward David West, a two-time All-Star. “He’s the guy they’ve built around, the guy they function around. He’s where it starts, and teams know that. We all get older, but as long as he’s still putting up 20-and-10 and they’re still winning, you can’t say he’s slowing down or anything.”
Duncan, of course, shrugs it off. “As long as we’re winning games, it doesn’t matter who gets credit for what,” he says. “One person doesn’t win games, it’s a bunch of guys playing well. You do your part as much as you can, and it is what it is.”
And that is … what, exactly? Duncan secured the title “Best Power Forward of All-Time” years ago. Should he get a fifth championship and perhaps a fourth Finals MVP before he’s done, does he challenge Wilt and Kareem and Russell as arguably the greatest big man, period, the game has ever seen?
“The only person in the League that slowed me down was a brotha named Father Time,” Shaquille O’Neal told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in September. “But no big man is ever going to do what I and Tim Duncan have done in our careers. It was time for 10 consecutive years that either me or Tim was in the NBA Finals. It was broken two years, but there will never be another big guy to do that.”
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They traded Wilt, though. They traded Kareem, traded Moses … they traded Shaq three times. Russell got traded on Draft Day 1956, before they knew what they had. They traded KG, C-Webb, Barkley, Artis, Elvin, Pau, Dikembe and Big Ben. While big men win championships in the NBA — or at least they make up the foundations on which championship wishes are built — so many of the game’s giants have at one point or another been deemed expendable by their teams.
Not Duncan. This summer Kobe Bryant said he was “99.99 percent sure” he’ll retire as a member of the L.A. Lakers. Duncan is the only player in the League who can point-oh-one-up Kobe. He will 100 percent retire with the Spurs. And then he’ll have a statue made in his likeness to stand outside San Antonio’s AT&T Center, throwing hook shots or dropping finger rolls or hitting bankers or whatever pose the sculptor suggests, long after Duncan has faded away from the spotlight. The ultimate steady rock of the NBA, now carved out of a chunk of stone. Fitting.
Will we see much of you when you retire?
“I don’t know,” Duncan says. “Right now it seems very unlikely, but maybe.”
“When you leave something, you always wonder the hands you’re leaving it in,” says Robinson, the cornerstone of the Spurs for eight years before Duncan arrived as the No. 1 pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. “You wonder if it’s going to be secure. There’s nobody better I could have left this team to than Tim. He’s phenomenal. The team has kind of taken on his personality.”
More than any team in the League has done for any superstar, the Spurs have converted to Duncan-ism. Parker and Manu Ginobili have built potential Hall of Fame careers by keeping their noses clean, mastering the fundamentals, producing winning (if not always exciting) basketball and, like No. 21, working the referees. Bruce Bowen went from an NBA journeyman to a starter on three title teams by following the Duncan model. Notorious wild card Stephen Jackson, who won a ring with the Spurs in ’03, names Duncan as the player who had the most influence on him during his San Antonio stint. Even the coach acts like Duncan. Gregg Popovich‘s unintentionally hilarious mid-game interviews on national TV have the same clipped, uneasy feel of some of Duncan’s interviews. Not surprisingly, Popovich has often said he’ll probably retire the same day Duncan walks away from the game.
“The thing about Tim,” says Bowen, who retired in 2009, “is that we wouldn’t have had success without him. With certain players on certain teams, they just define the team.”
I relay the words of Robinson and Bowen to Duncan. Tell him that two of his most accomplished teammates credit him with being the foundation of the franchise.
“What does that mean to me?” Duncan is genuinely thinking about this one. “Umm … I think it’s an osmosis thing. I’ve been there for a lot of years now, and the team is somewhat built around me. So I guess you could say that.”
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In putting together this story, my latest attempts to reach out to Duncan weren’t answered before press time. Before that, the last time I tried to get inside the mind of Tim Duncan was during another All-Star Weekend, at an adidas event where Duncan and Howard, the new three-stripes marquee name, were in attendance showing off new product. The two sat for group interviews. Naturally, Dwight’s oversized personality drew most of the attention. I zeroed in on Duncan and tried again.
You told me once that you grew up a fan of the Lakers and Magic Johnson. Do you think team leaders have to be like a Magic, like a Michael Jordan?
“No, because I’m not built like them and I’d (still) consider myself a leader,” Duncan says. “I’m built different — I would guess. I’m a different type of leader. I try to lead by example, try to be the best player I can on the floor. I’m not a big locker-room speech guy. I don’t do that stuff. I think what I do is effective.”
The event’s MC announces there are 30 seconds left for interviews. As I try to think of one last gem, Duncan looks like he’s ready for a nap. Soon, the MC starts counting:
The contingent of Chinese reporters (Duncan is very popular in China) have shut off their recorders, content with what they have.
It’s just Tim and myself now. One question won’t break down a dozen-years wall, but there could be time for a breakthrough.
I’m looking at him; he’s looking at me. The great icebreaker is floating in the air somewhere. I can’t find it. He won’t help me.
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