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All About Winning

June 04, 2007
June 04, 2007

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June 4, 2007

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TONY LA RUSSA
  • A DUI arrest. A pitcher's death. A horrendous start to the season. Only seven months after a World Series triumph that sealed his place among the greats, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is calling on all his smarts to cope with crises on and off the field

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All About Winning

So consistent is his excellence, it is easy to forget that Tim Duncan, at 31, has already won three titles and is chasing a fourth

With heels splayed and toes pigeoned, Tim Duncan's anime-wide eyes are fixed on the floor 10 feet in front of him as he makes his tell tale walk toward another NBA championship.It is the walk of someone with something on his mind that he doesn't wish to share. Is he confident ... or anxious? It's none of your business. Every night that Duncan steps onto the court from the San Antonio Spurs' bench, he carries himself like a baseball manager on his way to the mound: head down with his long arms seesawing to their own gangly rhythm, his face an inscrutable mask.The fans may be cheering or booing, but Duncan, bless his consistency, appears deaf to them.

This is an article from the June 4, 2007 issue Original Layout

There was a time five or six years ago, when he couldn't get his team past the Los Angeles Lakers, that Duncan's reticence was seen as a weakness. He was a team-first player then, too, yet he was criticized for lacking the fiery charisma, the bravado to inspire the Spurs. Those days are hard to recall now that Duncan's leadership and passion have set a standard beyond reach of his rivals. These playoffs should complete the makeover of Duncan from Shaquille O'Neal's victim to his heir: If he leads favored San Antonio past the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference finals (the Spurs led 3--1 after their 91--79 win on Monday night in Game 4) and then maximizes home court advantage in the Finals against the Detroit Pistons or Cleveland Cavaliers, his ring collection will match Shaq's—and Duncan will have won his fourth at 31, three years younger than O'Neal was when the Miami Heat took the title last June.

The 6'11",260-pound Duncan has emerged as the Jason Kidd of big men, a playmaker able to elevate his teammates from the low post. "In my 20 years in the NBA, Duncan is the best big to play the game," says former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. "O'Neal always had the benefit of a dominant perimeter player from Penny Hardaway to Kobe Bryant to Dwyane Wade. Duncan has had very good players—Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker are tremendous—but he's never had that dominant player, so that's why I give him the edge."

If Duncan has avoided historical reckoning until now, it's because his versatility has made comparisons difficult. "The first decision that has to be made is, are we going to talk about him as a post guy or as a forward? Because he's sort of both," says Gregg Popovich, Duncan's only NBA coach. "You think about guys like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Wilt Chamberlain, and you don't think of Tim. Then you look at forwards like Elvin Hayes or Kevin McHale or Larry Bird,and you don't exactly think of Tim in the way that they played either. He's really an anomaly and has done both [roles].

"So I just try to think of him more as a power forward, for lack of a better definition. And I don't know that there's ever going to be somebody better at that position, considering everything he's done. It's not just the scoring and the defense—you add the blocked shots, the passing, the leadership he's given, the championships."

Says Orlando Magic senior vice president Pat Williams, "Are Karl Malone, Kevin McHale and Bob Pettit the greatest power forwards of all time? On that basis I'd take Duncan. He's just rock solid as a competitor and performer every night. He wins. At the end of the day that's all there is to do."

Last year Duncan looked prematurely old while playing 80 games (and averaging a career-low 18.6 points) with a painful season-long bout of plantar fasciitis. "We talked a lot about, 'If you're at a certain point, Timmy, I'll just need to sit you for two months,'" recalls Popovich. Duncan's ailment, along with a league-wide trend toward up-tempo play, combined to create doubt that the Spurs could keep up with younger contenders like the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks, who KO'd San Antonio in the second round.

But Duncan began working himself back into shape early last summer, and after pacing himself through the regular season (20.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.38 blocks in just 34.1 minutes per game) he has picked up his production in the playoffs with a more familiar line: Through Monday he had averaged 23.3 points,11.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.53 blocks. "It's always interesting to see how he is to start the ball game," says Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "He is very polite and very nice to the guys he plays against, and then he annihilates them when he gets out on the floor. He is a no-nonsense guy."

After watching Duncan seal himself deep in the post for one-step layups to help the Spurs seize the first two games in San Antonio, Utah decided to forego the nonsense as well. In Game 3 last Saturday in Salt Lake City, Mehmet Okur, Jarron Collins and anybody else within slapping distance struck Duncan's hands, arms and head,forcing him to commit an uncharacteristic eight turnovers. Duncan's subsequent retaliations led to game-long foul trouble, limiting him to 16 points and 26 minutes in a 109–83 loss. "People were asking me if I was surprised to see him so emotional," says Jazz guard Derek Fisher. "I'm not surprised. Tim's a champion. If things aren't going well for you, you're supposed to be frustrated and not pleased with what's happening."

Two nights later Duncan was still irascible, muttering when he misfired on an array of warm-up jumpers before Game 4. But he predictably translated his anger into a Spurs victory. Amid a Greco-Roman atmosphere Duncan provided order with 19 points,nine rebounds and five blocks, and in the final quarter he bulled his way to the line for five points to complement the drives of Ginóbili, who scored 16 in the fourth. The Spurs looked as competitive as ever, and by game's end Duncan was back to his placid self.

The old argument that Duncan was too insular to be an effective leader has turned out to be upside-down wrong. Duncan is still quiet, yes, but his stoicism has only strengthened the Spurs' faith in him; in turn, he has been emboldened and now speaks up more often. "I can honestly say that I feel more comfortable in saying what I have to say," says Duncan, who even while he was winning MVP awards in 2002 and '03 preferred not to raise his voice. "I feel that people respect what I have to say, and that is a big part of it, being confident in that."

When his fellow Spurs look to Duncan, they know that he isn't looking down his nose at them in return. "I've never seen him get on one of his teammates in the games we've played, and we've played a lot," says longtime Jazz assistant Phil Johnson. "I only see complimentary things."

Duncan's encouragement has empowered everyone from Parker and Ginóbili to Bruce Bowen, a former journeyman who has become the league's top perimeter defender and three-point specialist. "He's a guy who leads not just by example but by being supportive and empathetic and non-judgmental with teammates, to the point where the trust they have with him is quite significant," says Popovich."Tim Duncan touching you on the back of the head or putting his arm around you on his way into a timeout or leaning over and saying something to you during a timeout is huge. He knows that the attention from him to his teammates is just monstrous in their development and their self-confidence, and that recognition has made him the leader that he is."

The Spurs are 12–2 in playoff series over the last five years in no small part because Duncan's stability and versatility have enabled them to get the most out of complementary pieces, such as swingmen Michael Finley and center Fabricio Oberto. But Duncan was reminded how lucky he was to come to San Antonio by arecent Sporting News cover that showed him in a Boston Celtics uniform, illustrating a story about how the league might have changed had the Celtics won the 1997 draft lottery. "I was fortunate—as fortunate as the Spurs—to land where I did," he says, citing the ownership of Peter Holt, the stewardship of Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford, even the quality of the facilities in San Antonio as positives. "It's not guaranteed if I did go somewhere else that I would have won a championship. Maybe things being different, I never get to that point, because people don't prepare, people don't draft, people don't put teams together the right way, people don't coach the right way. So I'm absolutely blessed having the situation that I'm in."

Watch Duncan during a dead ball and he will reveal the secret of how someone who still says so little can wield so much influence. Instead of looking around to admire the view of 18,000 people flattering him with their taunts or praise, he draws within himself, blotting out the noise and taking account of what he needs to do better when play resumes. If Duncan appears blinkered and self-possessed,it's because he has a lot of people depending on him. And coming through for them really isn't as easy as he makes it look.

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"He is very polite and very nice to the guys he plays against," says Sloan, "and then HE ANNIHILATES THEM when he getsout on the floor."

PHOTO: Photograph by Greg Nelson "TIMMY-TIME"
The Finals MVP in each of the Spurs' previous three title runs, Duncan has raised his averages in points, rebounds and blocks during the playoffs. 
PHOTO: LISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGES 

SOUND ADVICE
Duncan doesn't say much, so when he does speak his teammates listen.