Does he have to talk the talk, too? Maybe the NBA, in seeking to jack up ratings with years of personality marketing ( Shaq! Michael! The Showdown!), has sold the game so far down the river that excellence isn't enough anymore. Maybe Duncan is the litmus test for separating the pure fan from those who are there for the spectacle. Maybe we like (or need) to watch a superstar perp-walk into a police station. Maybe, in the end, we say we value one thing—teamwork, humility, good citizenship—but really want its opposite and switching channels makes it easy to avoid the obvious. Nobody likes being caught in a lie.
Duncan's wife, Amy, tells this nice little story. Tim had left Wake Forest after graduating in the spring of 1997, and she had no intention of being "that girl back home." She knew all about pro ballplayers and the women on their trail. Amy was going to become a doctor. She wasn't going to be pathetic. She figured she and Tim were through. But he wouldn't have it. For eight months, throughout his breakout rookie year, he called Amy four, five times a day—before practice, after practice, the moment he touched down in a new city—showing how much he needed her, sanding down her suspicion until, finally, the path between them was again as smooth as glass.
Now the subject is brought up to Duncan himself, and the atmosphere in the room changes. For the last few days he has chatted openly, even wittily, about everything from the effect of the Spurs' failed courtship of Kidd on Tony Parker ("His feelings got hurt by everybody, but you have to learn that it's a business") to Duncan's attitude heading into last spring's Western Conference semifinal against the Los Angeles Lakers ("Cool. They'd ended our season the last two years. We wanted to be the ones who sent them home. Let them have that feeling") to his famously vanilla quotes ("Wasn't I on si.com's all-boring team? I'm at the top of my game, baby!"). But now, on a close-to-the-bone subject like romance, Duncan shuts down. He smiles, he stares. He sits in a corner, leaning back in his chair. He doesn't say a word. His wife, sitting on the other side of the room, tries drawing him out.
"I was still in college, and we had those first couple of months when I was convinced you were going to go off and do bad things," Amy says. "Then all the uncertainties went away, and you did that for me, by calling and reassuring me that you weren't...you weren't out there doing bad things. You rekindled that belief." The words hang out there a good 10 seconds. Finally Tim nods. "Sure," he says.
Everyone sort of laughs, but it's clear that she has put him in an awkward spot. Amy goes quiet, and soon she decides to move. She takes her book and goes outside to the balcony. There's nothing wrong, exactly. Anybody who knows Tim will tell you that Amy has broadened him socially; anyone who has seen them work a charity event knows that she's even more committed than he is to making an impact; anyone who hears Tim talk about Amy knows that he trusts her completely. "It's not a typical NBA relationship," says Tim's agent, Lon Babby. "It's a real marriage, a real partnership. You have no doubt they're going to be together in 30 years."
After 15 minutes Amy comes in from the balcony. She plants herself on the floor to Tim's left, near his feet. Once, almost imperceptibly, she leans forward and kisses his knee. He fields a few more questions, and she interjects a memory or clarifies a point. Tim never shows a trace of annoyance; no one doubts his intelligence, and he's secure enough to welcome being corrected. Asked if winning a championship is every-thing it's supposed to be, Tim says, 'Yeah, it is, but it's a little miscon...skewed? Mis...con...?"
"Misconstrued," Amy says.
"Misconstrued," Tim repeats. "People say, 'You've done this once, you've won twice, what else do you have left to do?' That's the stupidest question I ever heard. To do it over and over again—you can't beat that. Every time that you don't win it, it's more disappointing."
The afternoon before the U.S.'s Olympic qualifying opener against Brazil in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Duncan is banging around his hotel room, talking about the strangeness of playing against his homeland, the U.S. Virgin Islands, later in the week. The phone rings. "Come on up," Duncan says, then he puts down the phone and starts to laugh.
Rashidi Clenance and Duncan have known each other since elementary school. They competed for rival high schools on St. Croix, and they team up each summer for a youth basketball clinic on the island. When the knock comes, Duncan announces, "Here's this retard," and flings open the door. He hugs Clenance and, glancing down at the man's Duncan-endorsed Adidas sneakers, giggles, "You wearing the stripes! You got to represent!"