SI Vault
S.L. Price
December 15, 2003
Two-time MVP Tim Duncan doesn't like to sound off or even share what he's really thinking. But the NBA's master of the mind game has one obsession: He needs to win at everything he does
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December 15, 2003

The Quiet Man

Two-time MVP Tim Duncan doesn't like to sound off or even share what he's really thinking. But the NBA's master of the mind game has one obsession: He needs to win at everything he does

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The basketball player is bragging again. It is endless. "Do you need a big man in the middle?" he says. He is scowling, shoving a basketball into your face. "Then I'm your man."� He has been doing this for 15 minutes: telling how great he is, how necessary, how unstoppable. "Do you need a guy who can score inside?" he says, cocksure, full of attitude, incredulous that you could even think about anyone else. "Outside? From the line? From just about anywhere on the court? Do you need a shot blocker?" He spins the ball on his finger, looks you dead in the eye. "Do you need an MVP on your team? Then I'm your man."� The director calls for a break. Outside the gym, which is tucked away at the end of a dim, hot hallway in New Jersey's Bayonne High School, the cluster of technicians, ad execs and handlers watching a monitor sit back, look at each other and begin cooing in relief and delight. "He's good! He's really good!" Truth be told, no one involved in this commercial shoot last summer for an Atari video game, Backyard Basketball, which was taped as Tim Duncan and his U.S. teammates practiced in New York City for the Olympic qualifying tournament, knew what to expect from their new spokesman. The San Antonio Spurs forward has, over the seven years of his NBA career, been a paragon of anticharisma. Addressing the world in a polite monotone, complementing his self-effacing game with a dullness so deep that it borders on funny, Duncan has never pounded his chest, drawn a finger across his throat or bantered about some reporter's wacky sport coat. Looking completely uninterested, he rattles off postgame clich�s, then flees from the microphone as if from a burning automobile.

But today is different. Today, Duncan is anything but Duncanesque. Never mind that the words come from a script or that he's getting paid well to say them. To hear those words from that mouth is a shock akin to hearing a silent-movie star speak for the first time. Not that any of the words are untrue: Duncan has been named the NBA's Most Valuable Player the last two years. He is indeed your man if you've got a stake in the Spurs' drive for their third championship in six years, or in the U.S. team's hope of reclaiming its preeminence, or in some barroom argument about the one player to build a franchise around. What's surprising is that he's not hesitant to say so. He isn't going through the motions here. He's all edge and aggression, his eyebrows perfectly arched. Either he's the best actor since De Niro or, in sending out a message to an audience of seven-year-olds, Duncan has given himself permission to state his undeniable case.

"From just about anywhere on the court? Hey," he says sharply, "I'm your man?

Even when taping stops, the attitude doesn't fade, not completely. Duncan knows his own reputation, and when one of his representatives approaches to say how pleased everyone is with his performance, he begins to giggle. Duncan does this quite a bit when he's relaxed, but for those not accustomed to it, it's like watching one of those Star Trek episodes in which Spock drinks from the wrong cup and gets all goofy and human. Then someone shows Duncan the Backyard Basketball rating system of l-to-10 cartoon balls for various skill categories, which has given Duncan low marks—one ball only—for outside shooting and, most egregiously, defense. "One?" he says. "But I've been named six times to...."

His voice trails into another giggle, because for someone named six straight years to the NBA All-Defensive first or second team, that's kind of funny. Duncan says no more, but he doesn't forget. When he goes back to be taped taking some shots, he waits until after he buries a succession of three-pointers before loudly chiding the game designers for their error.

"One ball?" he shouts. Swish.

Duncan's Nickname, the Big Fundamental, has all the panache of an erector set. He describes talking about himself as torture, so why not just leave him alone? There are plenty of people willing to be expansive on the subject of Duncan. The problem is, they tend to inflate him to proportions he'd be horrified to contemplate. Flashier players go against type and hold Duncan in awe for his unselfishness. "Words can't even describe the type of player he is," Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson says. Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets unloads so many compliments—about Duncan's "rare" talent, his "first-class" graciousness—that Kidd blushes. "People probably think I'm getting paid to say all these nice things about him," he says, "but there's nothing bad I can say."

From there, naturally, it's only a small step to seeing the 27-year-old Duncan as the answer to all that's wrong with the NBA, sports in general, the cult of celebrity and the corrupting influence of easy fame and big money. The best clues to Duncan's character lie in plain sight: Athletes reveal themselves most honestly in competition. His game has never been about risk taking or ego. "He's the ultimate team player," says Detroit Pistons and U.S. Olympic coach Larry Brown. "He's just as happy getting eight shots up and seeing his team win as he is scoring 35. It's what our game is supposed to be about. I laugh when people say he doesn't have enough pizzazz. I know him personally. He's incredible; his teammates love him. I would love my son to have him as his role model."

As a player, Duncan is a breed unto himself, a 7-footer who can score from the post and the perimeter and whose transcendent passing skills and underrated ball handling make him the funnel through which the Spurs' offense flows. Beyond that he has the quality most respected in the league: He's a winner. Shaquille O'Neal is an unstoppable force, but Duncan is the one player in the post- Michael Jordan era who knows both how to make his teammates better and when to take over.

Yet outside of San Antonio and summer coaching clinics and gabfests among his peers, Duncan's brilliance is greeted with a resounding yawn. Television ratings for the 2003 NBA Finals were down one third from the year before—down, in fact, to their lowest level since the Nielsen rating system began keeping track of the Finals in 1976. Only one thing had changed since 2002: The small-market Spurs, led by Duncan, were back. Here he was at last, the athlete all the moralists and parents and columnists had been seeking for years, the role model, the anti-Me-Me-Me man, finally coming into his own, showcasing the type of game that hoops aficionados had feared was passing into history. But when it came time to watch, Duncan was found lacking.

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