Sweet Sixteen

He doesn’t give many interviews, he doesn’t star in flashy television commercials, and he’s far more likely to be seen at a Dungeons & Dragons convention than a fashion show, but Tim Duncan is the greatest power-forward in NBA history, and the greatest player of his generation. And starting next week, Duncan will be playing in his 5th NBA Finals—just another line to add to an already unbelievable basketball resume.

Duncan’s a 4-time NBA champion, a 3-time Finals MVP, a 2-time regular-season MVP, as well as a 14-time All-Star—and just to underscore all that greatness, the living-legend, Bill Russell, called Duncan his ‘favourite athlete’. Despite all that, he’s criminally underrated, underappreciated, and often forgotten in casual conversation, but he probably doesn’t care one bit. It’s not his style to be concerned with accolades and grand narratives. As he told reporters after the Spurs’ Game 3 overtime win against Memphis, “I’m just here to play, man”. And boy is he doing that.

In his 16th NBA season, at the grand old age of 37, The Big Fundamental—a nickname given to Duncan by Shaq because, well, Duncan would never give himself a nickname—made the All-Star game as well as the All-Defensive Second Team, and averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds, and close to 3 blocks per game during the regular season. His 2013 stats are comparable to the numbers he put up the last time the Spurs won a championship—6 years ago! He’s the NBA’s Benjamin Button.

But really, there’s no magic at play here. Duncan hasn’t literally drunk from the fountain of eternal youth. As has been the case throughout his whole career, Duncan’s fantastic performances are the result of hard work and intense preparation. As Gregg Popovich states in a recent USA Today article, Duncan “looks very cold-heartedly at himself. He looks at himself and says ‘This is my age, this is my body. What do I have to do?’”.

And Duncan might be in better shape now than he was in 2007. He lost 15 pounds in the off-season—slimming down to take the pressure off his bothersome knees—thanks to a summer training regimen of boxing, swimming (his first love) and disciplined eating. And his coach is a big fan of the results: “He’s really cut. I just look at him and tell him, ‘You look like Sprewell, like Sprewell used to look. Just skin and bones, ligaments and tendons, and things like that’”. Actually, that might be a complement to Latrell.

As far as NBA big-men go, only Karl Malone and the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played at such a high a level so deep into their respective careers. NBA big-men usually grow old overnight—think Jermaine O’Neil, or Juwan Howard. The merciless physicality of low-post basketball usually catches up with NBA centres and power-forwards. One moment they’re dropping 20-10s on a regular basis and the next they’re plodding down the court on bad knees, and struggling to stay off the treatment table. They go from all-stars to glorified cheerleaders in an instant.

But Father Time might be losing the war with Tim Duncan.

As great a regular season as Duncan had, it would’ve been natural to expect that he might slow down in the playoffs. Minutes go up, the game becomes more physical, and the opposition has more time to focus in on shutting you down. Playoff basketball is simply more demanding. But no, Duncan hasn’t slowed down this post-season. Duncan has got better. He’s outduelled Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, a rejuvenated Andrew Bogut, and most recently, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

In the Western Conference Finals the Grizzlies’ vaunted frontline was supposed to be a terrible match-up for Duncan—and to be fair, in 2011 it was. But the 2013 Tim Duncan is a different animal. Against Memphis he scored on the block, he scored from mid-range, and he frequently beat the Grizzlies down the floor in transition. What’s more, when Z-Bo and Gasol looked gassed at the end of games—Games 2 & 3 in particular—Duncan was just getting started. In the series’ two overtime games Duncan scored 13 points, on 6-9 shooting, and looked like the freshest player on the floor.

Of course, this is where all that off-season work pays off—the exercise, the nutritional discipline, the work in the gym, and (don’t tell David Stern this) the games off during the regular season. Oh, and supreme talent helps too.

However, as NBA fans, we came pretty close to never witnessing that talent.

It’s amazing to consider now, 16 glorious years on from his first NBA season, but if not for Hurricane Hugo, the devastating hurricane that ravaged his native St. Croix in 1989, Tim Duncan would probably have never picked up a basketball. Duncan’s first passion was swimming. He wanted to swim at the Olympics, like his sister, and the NBA wasn’t even on his radar—hell, rec’ league basketball wasn’t even on his radar. But Hugo changed all that. The island’s only Olympic-sized swimming pool was destroyed in the storm, and not wanting to swim in the ocean because of a fear of sharks, Duncan turned to basketball to channel his competitive instincts. It was a good choice.

But throughout his entire improbable career, and despite all his individual success, Duncan has never strayed from being that laid-back island dude. As Chris Ballard’s states in his fantastic Sports Illustrated piece on Duncan: “To this day he is an island guy to the core. He once tried to change his residency to the Virgin Islands so that the taxes on his salary could help out his home territory”. Humble and charitable to the core. That seems to be the consensus on Tim Duncan.

He’s a guy who never asked to be in the spotlight, a guy who’s never wanted to be known for anything other than being a good basketball player and teammate. He’s fulfilled whatever role the Spurs have asked of him—the role of team leader when David Robinson retired, or becoming 1b to Tony Parker’s 1a, as the French point-guard emerged as a genuine NBA superstar. He’s been a mentor to San Antonio’s younger players—guys like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green—and like those guys, he’s been publicly chastised and benched by Popovich when he’s screwed up. All for the good of the team.

Duncan will end his 16th season in the league as a star on a team in the NBA Finals—not THE star, Parker has taken over that mantle—but a star nevertheless. And he’s the still the heart and soul of the Spurs. As ESPN’s J.A. Adande recently wrote, “Duncan has never put himself above the organization, but the organization values him above all else”. Of course, if the Spurs face the Miami Heat in the Finals, they’ll be underdogs—every team is an underdog against the Heat. But it’s a label Duncan, and his Spurs teammates, will be absolutely fine with.

The Spurs are overlooked every year, and as the team’s centerpiece, Duncan has been written off more than once. Duncan doesn’t care if his team is favoured or not, or if analysts foolishly predict that he’ll slow down in the Finals; and he probably cares even less about the debates as to whether he’s a top-10 player of all time (just for the record, he is). He cares about playing the game of basketball. And win or lose, he’ll spend the off-season playing video games and Dungeons & Dragons, hanging out with his kids, not giving interviews, and planning for next season. Such is the life of the greatest player of his generation.



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