There's a new face on the NBA, and it's not a smiling one. Or
even a frowning one. Or a tongue-hanging-out-of-a-mug one. It's
kind of expressionless, with no more range of emotion than the
average cigar store Indian's. When aggrieved, San Antonio Spurs
forward Tim Duncan can make his eyes get big. He's got that over
wooden statues. But if he's capable of registering anything
beyond mild annoyance, he has yet to display it. The NBA's new
face is one, principally, of apparent indifference.
But you'd better get used to it, because this is what the NBA's
going to look like for a long time. Duncan is only 23, and if he
gets even a little bit better--and his progress has been such
that he figures to get a lot better--he's going to own the
league. This isn't particularly good news for the NBA, which
likes its heroes a little more animated than Duncan is, but
there's only so much style you can get away with before there's
an inquiry into substance. Duncan, who may have no style, is all
Take the Western Conference best-of-seven semifinals, in which
Duncan's Spurs swept the Los Angeles Lakers, concluding with a
118-107 victory on Sunday at the Great Western Forum. For
excitement you had Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal grunting and
sweating under the basket, rising for some fierce rim-rattler
that was going to echo in your head long after the game. Or you
had shooting guard Kobe Bryant breaking down the defense with
some move he invented on the spot. Yet, as much fun as those two
were to watch, they didn't get the job done, did they? Shaq
became a liability late in every game because he couldn't make
even half his free throws. (He missed 32 of 61 in the series.)
Meanwhile Bryant was as likely to dribble straight out of bounds
on some bent-for-hell fast break of his own devising as he was
to shake down a three.
For getting the job done, you had the vastly more imperturbable
Duncan, who averaged 29.0 points in the four games--including 37
points on Saturday (a 103-91 Spurs win) and and 33 on Sunday.
That he did it without a smile, a smirk or even a raised eyebrow
(his eyes got big two-three times) is going to disappoint all
those folks looking for marketing angles. His face isn't built
to sell shoes, promote the NBA or otherwise heat up the economy.
But what are you going to do about his game? As the Lakers
discovered, you can't ignore it just because it hasn't got
commercial or sex appeal.
May 30, 1999
Just get used to it, that's all you can do. "This was no
breakout series," cautions Duncan's coach, Gregg Popovich. "He's
pretty much been doing this all year." Most of last year, too,
when he was anointed NBA Rookie of the Year after averaging 21.1
points and 11.9 rebounds. Since supplanting longtime Spurs star
David Robinson as San Antonio's go-to-guy, Duncan has been the
NBA's most efficient 7-footer.
So why haven't you heard or seen much about him? The problem,
besides Duncan's pointed disregard for attention from the fans
and media: He doesn't give the impression that he's doing
anything especially important. "And then," says forward Robert
Horry, "you look up at the scoreboard, and it's Lakers 20,
Duncan 22. He's not like Shaq or Kobe, who can take out the
crowd with a dunk or a drive. He's got a lot of weapons. Too
Duncan has long arms, loves to bank shots off the glass, is deft
in the low post and can pop a 15-footer in your face. "I hate
those long arms," says Horry.
If his performances are somehow too low-key to excite the
masses, maybe these numbers will prove titillating: Duncan was
the only player in the league to rank among the top 10 in
scoring (sixth), rebounding (fifth), blocked shots (seventh) and
field goal percentage (10th). The Big Easy is what teammate
Mario Elie calls Duncan. Either that or the Quiet Assassin. So
what if he doesn't smile?
In fact, as the other Spurs are desperate to announce, Duncan is
anything but easy or quiet off the court. He does smile, they
say. The player who was so inscrutable that Duke fans called him
Spock when he played at Wake Forest is a practical joker, it's
said. "Well, not a very good one," says his best friend, Antonio
Daniels, a Spurs guard just two years into the league, like
Duncan. "I wouldn't say his humor is dry, either. It's more a
cheap-shot humor. But it's funny!"
It's as if there has been a team effort to construct an alter
ego for Duncan, whose composure has come to seem as
other-worldly as Spock himself. He may not be quite as "wild and
crazy" as Daniels insists, but there's reassuring evidence he's
not as restrained as he appears. He always wears his practice
shorts backward, he has a tattoo of Merlin on his chest and a
joker on his back, he has a knife collection, and he thinks of
himself as a guard. Real wild stuff!
Duncan won't contribute to this resume of idiosyncrasy,
preferring to speak in vague generalities about his life,
keeping a distance from his public. Told that Daniels thinks of
him as a "big kid," Duncan dismisses the idea. "I behave like a
kid just enough, no more." he says. "When I'm away from
basketball, I'm the biggest kid. I do a good job of keeping
myself sane. But on the other hand, I'm more of a solitary guy,
glad to be left alone."
This squares with what appears on the court but not with what is
heard off it. "Solitary?" says Daniels. "He busts into my room
on road trips, and if there's a basketball game on, he makes me
turn to wrestling. We're in each other's rooms hours a day,
watching TV and laughing."
According to forward Malik Rose, Duncan is a sort of dime store
psychologist who walks from player to player wherever the team
happens to be, trying to root out each guy's unhappiness. "He
tries to probe my psyche?" says Rose. "Please! I was at Drexel
[an inner-city college]. That might work with Antonio [who
attended, er, rustic Bowling Green], not me." The Spurs,
evidently, get a different face than the rest of us do. "Just
'cause he can do a 360 with a straight face doesn't mean he's
not fun," says Rose.
Inevitably, Duncan's composure comes to be regarded as a lack of
commitment, which gets all his teammates in an uproar and even
causes Duncan's eyes to get big. "It's just my natural
composure," says Duncan, mildly irritated. "That makes me soft?"
Elie, who joined San Antonio this season after spending five
years with the Houston Rockets, where composure is highly
unnatural (ever see Charles Barkley with a straight face?), was
unnerved at first and, after the Spurs got off to a 6-8 start,
piped up about Duncan's softness. "Thought opponents were moving
my man around too much," says Elie, who has since come to
understand, especially as San Antonio finished the regular
season with a 31-5 run, that "there is nobody more focused or
fiercer than Tim when it comes to basketball."
Duncan's lack of visible excitement doesn't mean diffidence
either. He came into a lineup that already featured one of the
NBA's alltime nifty 50--Robinson, No. 50 himself--and quickly
established himself as the Man. "Tim doesn't defer to anybody,"
Popovich says. In short order the Admiral was sent below decks,
where he has been baking pies in the ship's galley, and Duncan
became everybody's first mate.
That this worked has more to do with the Admiral's demeanor than
Duncan's. His role reduced, his minutes and shots decreased,
Robinson nonetheless has come to grasp the beauty of his and
Duncan's two-pronged attack and no longer worries about his
scoring average, which went from 21.6 last year to 15.8 this
season. "It was frustrating at first after a lifetime of getting
all the shots I wanted," says Robinson, a 10-year veteran. "I've
taken a different, not lesser, role. Now I set the tone, get the
rebounds, block the shots. You know, Bill Russell didn't argue
with Red Auerbach about how many points he was supposed to get."
Unlike Robinson to this point in his career, Russell won a lot
of NBA titles. Robinson, who sacrificed himself through much of
the Lakers' series (he was in constant foul trouble, hammering
Shaq), understands what Duncan brings to the Spurs. "I haven't
spent one minute talking to either about his role," says
Popovich. "They just want to win."
It may be unfair to contrast the Spurs, with their dispassionate
duo, and the more flamboyant Lakers. It's not as if Los Angeles
is all style and no substance. O'Neal has to be the hardest
worker in the league. And Bryant, who at times seems to be
dallying on the margins of egocentric basketball, is improving
as a team player. When observers complain that he's clueless,
it's hard to argue against them, except to say, You should have
seen him last year. For all the faults of Shaq and Kobe, their
talent is a bromide that settles many a front-office stomach.
Yet one of those front-office stomachs, the one belonging to
Lakers executive vice president Jerry West, was pretty upset
following Sunday's loss. L.A. had a confused season, as any
season that included Dennis Rodman would be, but its strong
finish in the regular season and its waltz past the geriatric
Rockets in the playoffs' first round promised better than this.
Or seemed to. Realistically, it was put to West, might this have
been just about what you expected? "Maybe," he said.
Los Angeles made one wild move after another this season, with
owner Jerry Buss insisting on Rodman, who predictably lifted the
Lakers and then just as quickly set them back down. There was
the firing of coach Del Harris, who was succeeded, on an interim
basis, by assistant Kurt Rambis, and a blockbuster trade that
brought sharpshooter Glen Rice to L.A. to take pressure off Shaq
inside. "All this," says Rambis, who was very much interim after
this series, "and the games just kept coming at you."
Against San Antonio the Lakers made one gaffe after another, the
worst in a winnable Game 2 at the Alamodome. While leading the
Spurs 76-75 with 8.9 seconds left and a foul to give, they let
Duncan have a nine-footer. "We know that talent doesn't always
win," says West, "but you like to see some good decisions at the
end of games."
The Lakers might yet survive the managerial muddle and make all
their high-priced puzzle pieces fit. They have too much talent
not to win, and just in case they still don't, they'll be the
more interesting team to watch for years to come. There's
something to be said for charisma. It will always play to the
most people. But what the Spurs seem to be teaching us is that
charisma might not have the longest run. Stone-faced kids with
soft bank shots might win the day, or more of them anyway.
"You look at the scoreboard," says Horry, "and it's the Lakers
20, Duncan 22."