By Jason Keidel
Think about the litany of luminaries who have been the avatar of a dynasty. Bill Russell. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. And, of course, Michael Jordan.
All of them – and even the legends with just one ring – are regarded in regal adjectives, most known by one-word handles. Magic. Mike. Bird. Big O. Mr. Clutch. LBJ.
All but one. And he’s got more titles than Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, or LeBron James.
He would be Tim Duncan.
He has no flashy handle, no sprawling posse, entourage, or sycophants; not even a signature celebration. His histrionics explode with a love tap to the back of a teammate’s head.
Duncan has no arrests, rap sheet, or demands. The worst transgression over his bejeweled career is his theatrical, wide-eyed indignity after every whistle. Like his long-armed predecessor and power forward, Kevin McHale, Duncan has never committed a foul. It’s become comical, really, but also almost endearing.
In the epoch of the highlight, the me-first, groin-grabbing histrionics on eternal loop, serenaded by the latest, greatest hip-hop or pop track, the celebration of narcissism is booming.
You never see a replay of a rebound or outlet pass, of a blocked shot that doesn’t fly in the stands but rather absorbed and hurled to the open man. There’s no news reel of player’s pivot foot, of good positioning on the low block.
Tim Duncan’s patented move is a bank shot, his soft, high-arc offering that kisses the corner of the square above the rim. That’s so not cool.
And Tim Duncan not only went to college, he actually – gasp! – got a degree. Education definitely isn’t cool. Indeed, Duncan is the last icon of the career college star. He and Grant Hill are the final, twin pillars of education, on and off the hardwood.
And is it a coincidence that those two were not only great players but also statesmen, diplomats, and high priests of hardwood? With Hill’s chronic ankle troubles ending his career, Tim Duncan is perhaps the greatest ambassador the game has ever known. He dwells in the understated, lean mien of teamwork, grounded in the gristle of the pick-and-roll.
Duncan averages the most clandestine double-double on earth. He uses the glass. He jousts for position on offense, and rebounds on defense. He prefers a layup to the rim-rattling jam. He doesn’t clutch his crotch after an “And One.” He doesn’t do a powdery, talcum powder clap before tip-off. He doesn’t demand the most money in the league.
It’s no secret that the game died when Jordan left. It was David Stern’s job to tell us the sport was in good hands, but in truth the decade after Jordan was a pseudo-depression, the NBA’s version of medieval times. Shaq and Kobe were an electric duet, but ultimately imploded over pride. And LeBron, of course, revived the sport with skills that only Jordan could comprehend. But, like Mike, it took King James nearly a decade to put it all together.
The glue between Jordan and James was Duncan. He’s never had a losing season, and has won 50 games in 16 of his 17 seasons. The lone season he didn’t,1999, was truncated by a lockout. His Spurs only went 37-13 and won the NBA title.
According to USA Today, Duncan has produced as many 50-win teams as the Philadelphia 76ers have all-time. And only half of the NBA’s 30 teams have won 50 games at least 10 times.
In the age of me over we ball, Duncan is a corrupt cliche – a winner.
We judge stars by rings more than ever. The Heat didn’t win; LeBron won. Kobe or Shaq won a decade ago.
But when the Spurs win, Duncan is part of a greater whole, lost in a selfless, Vulcan coda. Sure, Duncan is great, but so is his coach and GM and owner and point guard. Duncan can’t lead a team to a title, even if he’s done exactly that four times, and is two games from doing it a fifth. But he has all that help, you see.
As if Magic didn’t have Worthy or Kareem, or if Bird weren’t flanked by future Hall-of-Famers like Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson. Even Jordan needed Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and Dennis Rodman. It’s hard to remember now, but Jordan toiled in the lower tiers of basketball, always a bridesmaid to the Celtics and Pistons until the Bulls drafted his gifted wingmen.
Not to say we don’t need singular stars in any sport. Hockey had Gretzky. Football had Montana and Rice. Baseball had Gibson and Koufax and Mays and Mantle. Basketball had Wilt and Russell and Dr. J. But lost somewhere in the social filter was the fundamentals, the “Fundies” as baseball great Keith Hernandez often says.
And for all that, Duncan inherits the sterile handle of “The Big Fundamental.” Which is probably how he wants it. For all his success, Duncan has never lusted for the the lion’s share of cash, cameras, or commercials. Just being a great player is enough.
Sure, sometimes Duncan gets his subtle props when we ponder the abstract pyramid of greats. To the highbrow roundtable, he makes the mythical, all-time first-team, when created strictly by position. They regard him as the best power forward of all time, or the best “Four” – as the modern lexicon demands.
Four is an interesting number. Duncan has four rings, and is four quarters from a fifth ring. And he’s about to get his crown at the King’s expense. No doubting LeBron’s place as the best player, but Duncan would rather be on the best team.
The laconic, iconic Duncan is breezing by some sacred records. He just leapfrogged Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most minutes in playoff history. He also just hopped over Magic Johnson for the most double-doubles (158) in playoff history. But, like Johnson, Duncan’s magic is more muted, a montage of nuanced memories, a throwback in every good sense.
But we have to say it, because he won’t. Hubris isn’t too fundamental.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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