The photographer was encouraging David Robinson and Tim Duncan
to relax in front of the camera. Do what comes naturally, he was
telling them, move around, make a little conversation. He
suggested that Robinson, the San Antonio Spurs'
nine-year-veteran center, pretend to explain something to
Duncan, his rookie teammate. So Robinson began chatting quietly
to Duncan about the first subject that came to mind. If you
listened closely, you could pick out enough key phrases ("laws
of motion...approaching the speed of light...gravitational
pull...") to tell that this was not some chalk talk about the
finer points of low-post defense. Robinson was giving Duncan a
quick discourse on Einstein's theory of relativity. "The scary
thing," says Gregg Popovich, the Spurs' coach and general
manager, "is that Tim probably understands what David's talking
Duncan and Robinson clearly communicate on a higher plane, and
not just because Robinson is 7'1" and Duncan only an inch
shorter. In addition to being the most athletically gifted pair
of 7-foot teammates in the league, they're surely the most
cerebral as well. "Tim has an incredibly quick mind," says
Robinson. "You show him something once and you'll never have to
show him again. He absorbs things immediately."
Maybe it's because of their intellects that the two aren't
especially interested in attempts to hang a hokey nickname on
them. Twin Peaks has been mentioned, and in a reference to
Robinson's Naval Academy background and Duncan's classy court
demeanor, some have suggested an Officer and a Gentleman.
Because of their shot-blocking ability (at week's end Robinson
was ranked seventh in the league, with 2.78 blocks per game, and
Duncan 10th, with 2.44), others think they should be called the
Robinson and Duncan would rather be called members of a
championship team. That possibility grows more realistic with
each game, as Robinson, a seven-time All-Star, comes ever closer
to his old form after missing all but six games last season with
a strained lower back and a broken left foot, and as Duncan, the
first pick in June's draft, becomes increasingly familiar with
the pro game. They have already elevated the Spurs--who should
have been renamed the Scars last year when a remarkable string
of injuries caused them to finish 20-62, 39 games worse than the
season before--to contender status. San Antonio was 6-3 through
Sunday, with Robinson and Duncan combining for an average of
42.1 points and 24.4 rebounds per game. The consensus among
friends and foes is that the duo is capable of even bigger
things, especially Duncan. "Once he gets 20 or 30 games under
his belt, Tim's going to dominate people," says Spurs forward
Monty Williams. After facing Duncan in the preseason, Houston
Rockets forward Charles Barkley was similarly impressed. "I have
seen the future," he said, "and he wears number 21. He's even
better than I thought he was, and I was expecting good stuff."
November 24, 1997
Duncan accepts such compliments the same way he reacts to almost
everything, with all the outward excitement of a man picking up
his dry cleaning. It's not that he lacks enthusiasm--he's simply
serene and comfortable with himself. "He's not impressed with
this NBA stuff," says Popovich. "He's not even impressed with
himself. If you knock his shot into the stands, or he knocks
your shot into the stands, there's no difference in his
demeanor. He goes down to the other end of the floor and does
That's not to say that Duncan is humorless. While Robinson was
giving him that impromptu physics seminar during the photo
session, Duncan asked, "So how does this relate to Shaq coming
down the lane?" He drew laughs before a practice last week by
imitating the way point guard Avery Johnson had hopped around
and argued a referee's call the night before. He also thinks on
his feet quickly enough to avoid the traditional rookie
treatment from his teammates. Returning from a game in Toronto,
the Spurs were at the baggage claim when Popovich informed
Duncan that, as a rookie, it was his job to grab the bags.
Duncan went into a pantomime of a dutiful first-year player,
scurrying over to the carousel and pretending to unload the
gear. His teammates were laughing too much to object to the fact
that he never lifted a single suitcase.
Duncan is slightly quirky--he collects everything from
switchblades to samurai swords because, he says, "I just like
sharp things"--and disarmingly humble. Mention that he used to
be called Mr. Clumsy when he began playing basketball, on the
island of St. Croix, and he'll say, "Used to? I still am, are
you kidding? Clumsy is my middle name."
He's also completely confident. It's no coincidence that there's
a no fear decal on the back window of his black Yukon truck,
although it is a bit of an overstatement. Duncan admits to being
afraid of heights and sharks. "But that's it," he says. "Nothing
else. And I don't think I have to worry about facing either one
of them in the NBA."
The only concern about the Robinson-Duncan partnership was that
the players would get in each other's way on the court. Like a
pair of jets, they might be magnificent alone but not when they
had to share the same airspace. They quickly erased those
doubts. "As soon as we saw his feel for the game, how good a
passer he is, how he's as comfortable facing up out on the wing
as he is posting up down low, we knew he and David were going to
be good together," says Johnson. "It almost doesn't matter which
one you call the center and which one you call the power forward
because they can do both jobs."
Even when they do get in each other's way, their athleticism
makes things work. When San Antonio guard Jaren Jackson had the
ball on a fast break in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers
last week, he looked up at a sight that can only be seen at a
Spurs game: two 7-footers streaking down the floor, ahead of the
defense. Duncan and Robinson were so close together that when
Jackson threw an alley-oop pass, they looked, for a split
second, like a pair of outfielders about to let a pop fly drop
between them. At the last instant Duncan reached out, grabbed
the ball and dropped in an acrobatic layup.
Most of the truly remarkable sequences occur on defense. Against
the Lakers, Robinson was drawn to the perimeter to guard
Shaquille O'Neal, which against any other team would have left
the middle open. But when O'Neal passed to Derek Fisher cutting
down the lane, Duncan was there to make the block. Later O'Neal
outfought Duncan for an offensive rebound, but Robinson stepped
in to block O'Neal's dunk attempt. "You have to rethink the
rules when you play those guys," says Houston coach Rudy
Tomjanovich. "You get by one of them, and the next thing you
know you're facing his clone."
Even though many of the players and coaches who have gone up
against him say that Duncan plays as if he has been in the
league for years, there are still a few things Robinson can
teach him. Before most games Robinson tutors Duncan on the
favorite moves of the power forward he'll be facing that night,
showing him how to position himself on defense against the
Minnesota Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett or how to protect the ball
from the patented strip move of the Utah Jazz's Karl Malone.
Duncan has helped Robinson as well, not in technique but in
temperament. "I tend to want everything right now," Robinson
says, clenching his fist. "I want to be completely over my back
problems right now. I want to win and accomplish everything
right away. Tim brings that calm perspective to things. Watching
him reminds me that there's a lot to be said for patience, for
not expecting so much of yourself so quickly. You don't often
say this about a rookie, but he's got a lot of wisdom."
One of the few questions about Duncan as a pro prospect was
whether he was physical enough. He built a reputation as a
finesse player at Wake Forest, and NBA opponents wasted no time
in finding out whether they could push, grab or elbow him out of
his normal style. "Charles Oakley put a hard foul on him right
off the bat the first time we played the Knicks in preseason,"
says Johnson. "Tim handled it fine. He didn't get upset, and he
didn't let it make him less aggressive. That's when I knew that
that kind of stuff wasn't going to work against him."
Duncan has since grabbed 22 rebounds against the Chicago Bulls'
Dennis Rodman and has stood up to the muscle of Malone, but he
knows he will be tested all season. "I think everybody wants to
see what you'll take and what you won't take," Duncan says. "You
have to accept that and make sure you don't back down."
Robinson, meanwhile, is trying to pass his own test. He's
striving to get back to the level of play that made him the
league's MVP in 1995. His back pain, which grew so bad last year
that he couldn't bend over the sink to brush his teeth, is gone,
and his statistics suggest that he has returned to full
strength. Robinson knows he hasn't. "Physically I'm fine," he
says, "but in terms of confidence in my back, I'm not there yet.
There are plays I would've made without thinking two years ago
that now make me wonder, Can I really do this? It's the mental
part that I'm battling through."
Last week Robinson tipped in his own missed layup at the buzzer
to beat Minnesota. While everyone congratulated him on scoring
the game-winner, Robinson thought about how, if he had been his
old self, he never would've missed the first shot because he
would have been confident enough to go up and dunk the ball.
"They are little things that most people might not notice," he
says, "but I know that until I can do all those little things, I
won't be 100 percent back to normal. Every game I feel a little
bit better, though, a little bit more confident."
Even at less than his best, Robinson has teamed with Duncan to
transform the Spurs. It doesn't take a genius to understand San
Antonio's first theory of motion: When two 7-foot forces are
applied equally, the rate of a team's improvement can approach
the speed of light.