The Pathology of the Spurs: Part III
This series started with an article by ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz. His premise was that you, the American basketball fan, don't care all that much about the San Antonio Spurs, that you don't even do them the courtesy of disliking or hating them, the way you do with the Miami Heat or Los Angeles Lakers. No, your feeling toward the Spurs is worse than hatred, it's blatant indifference. You find them boring and you changed the channel. Instead of rooting for them or against them you find yourself rooting for some glorified karaoke singer on American Idol or seeing what shenanigans them fellas over at Duck Dynasty have gotten themselves into. Arnovitz's conclusion was that overall while there are some subconscious and geographical forces at work, for the most part the culture the Spurs have fostered, led by grand architect/totalitarian dictator Gregg Popovich, has been one built around keeping the media (and by extension, the public) at arm's length at all times. The less curious the world was about them, the better it was for their win-loss record, which was, in the end, all they cared about.
As I wrote in the first two parts of this series, David Robinson was the start of his all, but for all his all-world athleticism and ungodly talent, he kept coming up short year after year in the postseason, mostly due to an underwhelming cast of teammates and a Rolodex of random coaches. Guys like Bob Bass, John Lucas, Jerry Freakin' Tarkanian and, of course, Bob Hill, who's currently the top whistle of something called the Tokyo Apache. Robinson started taking plenty of hits in the press, getting criticized for having too many outside interests with music, computers and other doohickeys during the first half of his prime, and then, even more absurdly, for being too much of a doo-gooding Christian. There were actually #HotSportsTakes back in the day about his religious devotion making him too soft on the floor, that he didn't want it as bad as someone like Michael Jordan, who slugged Will Purdue in practice for setting a pick too hard.
Public attention and ad campaigns swiftly moved away from Robinson and toward Charles Barkley's Suns, the Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp Supersonics and even, begrudgingly, the Houston Rockets, because while their inside-out brand of basketball wasn't overly exciting, at least they were winners who raised their games when it mattered. "The Admiral" profile was somewhat diminished and once he missed an entire season with back and foot injuries, with the Spurs flopping to a 20-62 record, he was practically an afterthought in the national consciousness. He started showing a grouchy side with the national media when they did want a piece of him and feuded with Popovich (who hinted to the press that he didn't necessarily disagree with the "playoff choker" label of Robinson) a few times behind the scenes.
Into this environment entered one Timothy Theodore Duncan.
How different would Duncan's career and personal narrative have been had his personal mentor been the Robinson who had the happy-go-lucky, well-liked-by-everybody mentality than the one who had suffered through eight seasons of disappointing playoff exits, six head coaches, crappy teammates, and so many slings and arrows and potshots from the pundits? He went from being a media darling to a guy who was being ripped and derided in a span of just three seasons.
Sure, there was an early shaving lotion commercial you may remember...
But an interview like this one with Roy Firestone is more revealing
Even back then (fast-forward to 4:00) you hear Robinson mention that he's spoken to Duncan about overcoming different "obstacles" and sharing his experiences with him. Why do I get the feeling that he wasn't necessarily talking about things on the floor?
By his second season, the 1999 lockout year, Duncan already seemed to have figured out his place in the world and exactly how close he'd let other people get to him. He agreed to do fewer endorsements and fewer interviews, perfectly happy to let guys like Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson hog the spotlight. Here's an excerpt from Sports Illustrated's Richard Hoffer, after Duncan dominated the Lakers on the way to a second-round sweep:
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 otherworldly 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."
And there it is, the narrative of his career, already fully formed in year two, just like his game was: I know I'm good. You know I'm good. Now, leave me alone.
If you thought the injuries Robinson (and some others, like Sean Elliott and Chuck Person) suffered in the 96-97 season were the turning point for the franchise, a close second was the cartilage tear that wiped out Duncan's chance to defend the first title right before the 2000 postseason. Duncan wanted to go out there and play. Popovich wouldn't hear of it and shut down his star.
He didn't like it at the time, but years later Duncan admits that, from then on, he trusted Pop implicitly. He grew to see him as something more than some coach who wanted to use his talents to win games, but rather as a father figure concerned about his well-being off the floor. When it came time to sit down and weigh the options in free agency between bolting for Orlando and teaming up with Grant Hill or staying a Spur for life, the way Pop handled that situation was a huge point in San Antonio's favor.
(Though knowing that there would be more media attention playing alongside Hill was likely another.)
After a couple of relative lean years where he had to take a backseat to the Shaq-Kobe dynasty, Duncan was finally given some reinforcements by way of young foreign stars Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. They overwhelmed the feuding Lakers in the second round and helped send out Robinson on top, as Duncan clinched the Finals with a 21-20-10-8 in Game 6.
The seemingly seamless transition of power from Robinson to Duncan was an old story by then, but nevertheless the pair of Hall-of-Fame teammates garnered Sports Illustrated's "Sportsmen of the Year" award, an emphatic rebuke to the already tiresome battle of egos that was imploding the Lakers.
Here's SI's Jack McCallum, in the cover story, artfully explaining Duncan's unique philosophy among the strutting peacocks that run amuck in the NBA:
Further, in a sports world gone mad with narcissism, Duncan is a two-time MVP who eyes a camera as if it were a poisonous snake. He presents a conundrum to the media members pursing him: Though he aggravates them because he seldom cooperates, he has their grudging respect because he refuses to play their game. Duncan's reticence stems from a near pathological aversion to being elevated above his fellow Spurs. If a teammate, an assistant coach or even an assistant trainer happens by during an interview, he will invariably interrupt to yell a friendly insult. The message: I'm talking to this guy, but I'd rather be hanging with you. Which is, of course, the truth.
"If we need anything in the world today, it's a little bit more of a philosophical bent," says Popovich. "We need people who know what their job is, do it superbly and don't care about the adulation. That's Tim."
Even more telling was this passage later on...
If there's one man in America who seems comfortable in his own skin, he's it. Says Amy, who has known him since their days at Wake Forest, "It's very difficult—even for me sometimes—to tell the difference between Tim's best day and Tim's worst day."
Yet Duncan does become a little defensive when asked about the paragon of virtue that preceded him. Last week he was suspended for the first time—one game, for inadvertent contact with a ref during the course of action—thereby surpassing Robinson's career total. "I feel no pressure to be like David, because I can't be," he says. "He was an incredible role model, especially off the court, and I can only aspire to be a fraction of what he's meant to the community. But I have to do it my way, affect people in the only way that I know how. And that is not by giving speeches and preaching to the masses. That's not me."
The same message, over and over: Appreciate my art or don't, I don't care, I don't do it for you. Take whatever you want from it, but don't ask me to explain it, to talk about how I do it or anything else about what I was thinking, what I'm feeling now or about my personal life. Let the work speak for itself and let that be the prism through which you see me, if you want to see me at all.
That little quote from Amy Duncan was significant; the one who was closer to Duncan than anyone became frustrated at times that she couldn't tell what he was thinking. Here's a better passage, from S.L. Price's feature story in the same issue that does an even better job of explaining Duncan:
Duncan's wife, Amy, tells this nice little story. Tim had left Wake Forest after graduating in the spring of 1997, and she had no intention of being "that girl back home." She knew all about pro ballplayers and the women on their trail. Amy was going to become a doctor. She wasn't going to be pathetic. She figured she and Tim were through. But he wouldn't have it. For eight months, throughout his breakout rookie year, he called Amy four, five times a day—before practice, after practice, the moment he touched down in a new city—showing how much he needed her, sanding down her suspicion until, finally, the path between them was again as smooth as glass.
Now the subject is brought up to Duncan himself, and the atmosphere in the room changes. For the last few days he has chatted openly, even wittily, about everything from the effect of the Spurs' failed courtship of Kidd on Tony Parker ("His feelings got hurt by everybody, but you have to learn that it's a business") to Duncan's attitude heading into last spring's Western Conference semifinal against the Los Angeles Lakers ("Cool. They'd ended our season the last two years. We wanted to be the ones who sent them home. Let them have that feeling") to his famously vanilla quotes ("Wasn't I on si.com's all-boring team? I'm at the top of my game, baby!"). But now, on a close-to-the-bone subject like romance, Duncan shuts down. He smiles, he stares. He sits in a corner, leaning back in his chair. He doesn't say a word. His wife, sitting on the other side of the room, tries drawing him out.
"I was still in college, and we had those first couple of months when I was convinced you were going to go off and do bad things," Amy says. "Then all the uncertainties went away, and you did that for me, by calling and reassuring me that you weren't...you weren't out there doing bad things. You rekindled that belief." The words hang out there a good 10 seconds. Finally Tim nods. "Sure," he says.
Everyone sort of laughs, but it's clear that she has put him in an awkward spot. Amy goes quiet, and soon she decides to move. She takes her book and goes outside to the balcony. There's nothing wrong, exactly. Anybody who knows Tim will tell you that Amy has broadened him socially; anyone who has seen them work a charity event knows that she's even more committed than he is to making an impact; anyone who hears Tim talk about Amy knows that he trusts her completely. "It's not a typical NBA relationship," says Tim's agent, Lon Babby. "It's a real marriage, a real partnership. You have no doubt they're going to be together in 30 years."
Obviously, in light of their recent divorce and some of the allegations and rumors going on about Amy, the last part seems ironic. Look, you probably heard the TMZ rumors about Duncan. I'm not going to address them here because there's a 99.9 percent chance they're completely made up, but ... Never mind, it's nonsense.
Later on in the article Duncan explains the trademark of his game, even more so than his bank shot from the left wing. It's his silence, even in the wake of relentless, obnoxious trash talk.
The silent man makes everybody nervous. It's an old saw of negotiating that the less you say, the more your opponent reveals. Duncan lives this. There are players who babble and bait him, none more than Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, whose athletic gifts as a 7-footer match (or even exceed) Duncan's. Yet Duncan never speaks on the court. "Emotion doesn't work for me," he says. "If I get too high or low, something always happens. If there's 10 seconds left and I hit a shot and I'm jumping up and down and high-fiving everybody on the side? It's a guaran-damn-tee that they're going to hit a shot and the game's going to be over. And I'm going to look like an ass."
But then there's the quality that separates Duncan from all the sweet-tempered giants who never panned out, the tiling that makes him one of the greatest players ever: He enjoys what happens when he doesn't speak. It gives him control and, paired with his skill, frustrates his victims, shames them, beats them mentally as much as physically. Duncan isn't like Shaq, wearing out the opposition with his bulk. He's Garry Kasparov in hightops, a former psychology major who delights in the power of his silence. "You destroy people's psyches when you do that," he says. "You absolutely destroy them. They can't get inside your head. They're talking to you, and there's no response other than to make this shot, make this play, get this rebound and go the other way. People hate that."
When, during college, Duke center Greg Newton ripped Duncan for being "passive," "soft" and "babyish" after one game, reporters dutifully trotted to Duncan for a response, sure that he would rise to the bait. The insults were just too blatant. "He's a great player," Duncan said calmly, and Newton has been living down the comments ever since.
When Duncan distances himself from even his peers, it is as calculated as it is effective; it creates mystery. "People don't know anything about me," he says, "and it's good." Nearly any conversation with Duncan is on his terms. When Odom started pitching the 16-year-old Duncan on the merits of Wake Forest, he found himself competing with a football game on TV; holding his temper over such rudeness, Odom plopped himself down next to the screen so Duncan would be forced to glance at him during timeouts.
"[His aloofness] drives people nuts," Amy says, "and the fact that he knows that gives him the power. In our personal lives, neither of us is confrontational, but he knows that not saying anything, or saying, 'You're right,' infuriates me. It's very difficult to win an argument with Tim."
You really don't want to take sides in something like this, especially when it involves two total strangers, basically, but admit it, you can imagine where Amy's coming from. Living with Tim Duncan could drive someone insane over time, just the way playing against him night after night has discombobulated so many of his opponents.
Finally, in an SI feature story last year that sneakily actually used very few quotes from Duncan despite the considerable length of the piece, Chris Ballard got Duncan to break down his point of view, for the final record:
The question has to be asked: Why not let the public see this side of you? "With the media, I just keep it basic, surface, to the point," he says. "You're here to talk about basketball. I'll give you what you want, and let's go home. I don't really care about anyone getting to know me, or getting into my life or anything else like that."
This is understandable, even admirable in a way. After all, how many of us would want total strangers knowing intimate details of our lives? Yet when Duncan's gone, will we suddenly realize how much we miss him? Will we realize how singular his career has been? Will we begin to appreciate him not just for all that he was but also for all that he was not?
Then again, maybe it's not too late to start. He's asked about it. Doesn't he care about how he's viewed, how he's remembered?
Duncan thinks for a second, pulls on the sleeve of his silver Spurs sweatshirt. "Why?" he says. "I have no control of that. All I can do is play and try to play well. Winning should be the only thing that matters. I can't manipulate how people see me."
But that's not true at all, he's told.
He considers this, then frowns. "I mean, I guess I could. I could be more accessible and be the darling for everybody. I could open up my life and get more endorsements and be out there and be a fan favorite. But why would that help?"
He pauses for a moment. "Why should it?"
Why indeed. Robinson's rise and fall was the foundation, his disillusionment serving as a floor plan for the grand structure to come. Duncan was the brick and mortar, an extension of that plan, come to life for all to see and admire.
Popovich though, is the architect. In Duncan he found a model for his vision, material tougher than adamantium, just as deadly, and beautiful only to nutball basketball lifers like him. Pop's job was to comb every corner of the globe to find like-minded individuals to surround Duncan with, now that he had proof in his hands that his philosophy worked. It came together by hook or by crook, as we'll see in the next installment.