NBA Playoffs: Tim Duncan; The Spurs Quiet Superstar
Chris Ballard of SI with a rare full interview sitdown with Spurs Tim Duncan:
“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?
“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.”‘