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Sportsman

My Sportsman: Tim Duncan

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

Boring years ago, indispensable today. So varies the perspective on Tim Duncan, even as he remains unchanged, and thankfully so.

A short decade ago, as Michael Jordan was retiring from the Chicago Bulls and his abandoned league clutched and grabbed for a new identity, there was tremendous pressure on Duncan to be something he was not. He wasn't a loudmouth or a braggart, he didn't draw attention to himself and he put the interests of his team before all else.

Now imagine if he had betrayed his principles and become what so many wanted of him. Where would the NBA be today?

For it's clear now that Duncan, more than any other NBA star, has served as the bridge through those lost years when Vince Carter was propped up as Jordan's heir, when the league tried to sell immature stars at the expense of the game's fundamental values, when Shaq & Kobe remained the NBA's big story after their divorce. Now that the NBA has emerged from that ugly era of isolation play and middle-linebacker defense, who sets the lasting trends for pro basketball?

The answer is Duncan. He has won four titles since Jordan stepped aside, and at 31, Duncan may yet equal Jordan's six championships. More important is the means of Duncan's success: He brought stability and order to a league that seemed on the verge of ignoring its fundamental roots. Any team hoping to win the championship knows it must beat Duncan at his own game, which means sharing the ball, defending and finishing when his team needs the points.

This past season Duncan recovered from plantar fasciatis to lead the Spurs to their third title in five years. Already recognized as the top power forward in NBA history, Duncan morphed into the dominant center in the league last season. Then he agreed to a contract extension worth $11 million less than he could have had, enabling the Spurs to afford good players around him in future. As the NBA seeks to profit from China and beyond, remember that it was Duncan who empowered immigrants TonyParker and ManuGinobili to become All-Stars in his company.

More than any other star of the last decade, Duncan maintained his respect for the NBA's ideals even when the league occasionally trampled its own virtues. For upholding those values, he'll be hailed generations from now as a founding father of the new global era. In the meantime, for whatever it's worth, he is my Sportsman of the Year.Agree with this selection? Give us your pick for Sportsman here.

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