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A Portrait of Tim Duncan

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The sixteenth and final in the series of profiles on each member of the 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs.

Tim Duncan - oil on canvas
Tim Duncan - oil on canvas
Michal Dye

2013-14 Regular Season:
74 G, 29.2 MPG, 15.1 PTS, .490/.000/.731, 9.7 Rebs, 3.0 Ast, 0.6 Stl, 1.9 Blk, 2.1 TOs, +4.0 per game, 107.4 ORtg, 100.7 DRtg, .164 WS/48, 21.3 PER, 131 YTS Points

2014 Playoffs:
23 G, 32.7 MPG, 16.7 PTS, .523/.000/.760, 9.2 Rebs, 2.0 Ast, 0.3 Stl, 1.3 Blk, 1.1 TOs, +6.6 per game, 112.1 ORtg, 100.9 DRtg, .204 WS/48, 21.1 PER, 36 YTS Points

Tim-Duncan-oil-portrait
Tim Duncan - by Michal Dye

Some guys talk about how much losing upsets them, how it eats at them, how it makes them lose sleep and drives them to the point of insanity. Duncan just keeps winning.

"It makes last year okay."

Right there, those five words encompass everything you need to know about the great Tim Duncan. Though the public at large will never know it or understand it because he's let that side of him slip exactly once during the entirety of his wondrous career, Duncan has always burned to win, every bit as maniacal and sociopathic as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods or anyone else that the infernal, endless economy-driven hype machine celebrates ad infinitum.

You don't play this long, sacrifice this many years, if you don't have a single-minded devotion to winning. You don't drag around one leg for over a decade, playing with the equivalent of a high heel shoe on your left foot, if you're not consumed by it. You don't drop so much weight in one offseason (to the point that if you stood next to your career-long rival Kevin Garnett a stranger would point to you as "the skinny one,") this late into a career, just to give your knee a fighting chance, if you're not an obsessive.

People don't think of Duncan as pathological the way they do those others because he doesn't feel the need to take all the shots. You don't read or hear stories of fights in practice or different people whispering behind his back about what an insufferable teammate he is. You never, at any point, got the sense that he views those he played with as a necessary conduit to his personal glory, a "supporting cast."

In those ways, yes Duncan is different. But when it comes to drive, accountability and pride, he's just as sick as the others. Every bit as sick.

There are great players, perennial All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers, but then, in an exclusive club there are the true immortals of the game, the ones you can't leave out of any conversation. They carry themselves so regally that once they see the finish line of a season, the idea of being a runner-up doesn't cross their minds. You mention names like Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and inevitably phrases like "will to win" or "refuse to lose," get tossed around. I don't even think it's that complicated. I don't believe conscious thought even comes into play. My hunch is that it's more along the lines that for a select few individuals, the statistical likelihood of finishing second best doesn't ever enter their minds. It's not that they can't picture or accept losing, it's just that they can't fathom it.

Jordan was a perfect 6-0 in the Finals, with a cumulative record of 24-11. Duncan, of course, is 5-1, and 23-11 overall. He was seconds -- a rebound away -- from being undefeated on the ultimate stage, a Finals MVP over the highly-favored LeBron James and the Miami Heat at 37 years old. He had 30 points and 17 rebounds in that fateful Game 6 at Miami, when it looked to all the world that he was giving every last drop in the tank to carry the Spurs home, saving nothing for the swim back of a potential Game 7. And then, refusing to give in to dejection, despair or "Father Time," he scored 24 more points and gathered 12 more rebounds two nights later.

The one and only time his face and his emotions betrayed him, moments after the shocking realization set in that he had failed after coming so close to reaching the mountaintop, missing a bunny layup over the smaller Shane Battier that could've tied the game with less than a minute to go, Duncan didn't know what to do with his limbs, with his hands, with his brain. He slammed the floor in disgust. He enveloped his head in his enormous hands on the bench. The post-game hugs and handshakes and congratulations went by in a daze. He answered the questions asked of him, looking ashen and grieving. Maybe it means nothing and maybe it means everything, but the look and bearing Manu Ginobili had after Game 6, that haunted, "dead man walking," shoulder-slumped gaze of the defeated, Duncan only had that after it was really over, after Game 7. It seemed to actually take him by surprise that they lost.

Where Duncan chose Russell's path more than contemporaries like Jordan or Bryant is that he never worshiped the false idolatry of the almighty box score. From the very beginning he learned at Wake Forest that as great as he was, he'd need help to win anything of significance. He was raised in the individual sport of swimming and his mother instilled within him a mantra so perfectly in keeping for the modern narcissistic superstar ("Good, better, best/Never let it rest/Until your good is better/And your better is best") that it reads like something out of a shoe commercial.

Despite that upbringing, once fate intervened in the form of Hurricane Hugo and Duncan took up basketball, the team concept quickly resonated with him. Almost from day one as a Spur he seemed to be thinking exclusively about the big picture, exerting just enough energy and influence to ensure the desired result and rationing fuel for what was to come. Every action was bare bones and minimalist, every leap a calculated risk. He eschewed the highlight play for the simple one and was more than happy when teammates out-shined him statistically in any given game, if for no other reason it gave the media someone else to chase.

Duncan's relationship with fame isn't easy to explain. His lack of mass appeal has little to do with San Antonio being a small market. Few remember now, but David Robinson was once one of the NBA's highest-marketed stars aside from Jordan and his spotlight only faded once he found God and Pop (in whatever ratio you deem comfortable) and Dennis Rodman started stealing his headlines. Similarly, Duncan too started off with a few national endorsements before it changed, as quick and abrupt as a bad bounce off the rim on a June night in Miami.

Early in his career Sport magazine asked Duncan to pen his own feature, and the result was so bizarre, so completely different than the usual, wooden, cliche-filled tedium, that it kind of weirded everyone out.

Consider, for example, this paragraph:

In fact, it's this "different" nature that will probably fuel my next endeavor, a clothing line bearing a new style for the new millenium. It's called Ultimate Rejects wear. Back at Wake Forest, I had a penchant (and still do to this day) of cutting off the sleeves of all my T-shirts and wearing my shorts backwards. I guess I've always wanted to be an original. One of my former coaches in college, Jerry Wainwright, came up with the name. One day at Wake, we were just messing around, cutting my sleeves off everything when he came up with this brilliant idea. He thought we should start a line of clothes where you don't really know what you're gonna get when you buy it. You know a clothing line with surprise blemishes. You might, for instance, buy a pair of pants, and have one long leg and one short leg. Or you might buy another pair that turned pink after you washed it one time. Perhaps another time, you would notice nothing wrong with your pants until you took them off and discovered it dyed your skin purple.

Marketers had no idea what to do with a superstar like this. In one section he comes across as goofy and in another completely dull. One instant he admits his stoicism is actually a deep-thinking psychological ploy and the next he writes that he's just naturally quiet and analytical. He ends the piece by ridiculing the whole idea of hype and branding and conformity, making fun of the consumers who'll help him become wealthy beyond imagination. That last paragraph covered similar ground to a chapter he co-wrote in academic journal at Wake Forest titled "Blowhards, Snobs and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism." It was a go-to manual for his career to come.

After that story, advertisers treaded carefully with Duncan and he with them. He fiercely protected his privacy. He and Pop together built a cocoon in San Antonio. Media obligations were kept at a bare minimum, all the state secrets were kept in-house and a communal culture started to form, in a state known for a rather famous one. Nothing got out that they didn't want to get out. Duncan was Popovich's top lieutenant, obeying all orders without question and suffering the occasional, none-too-gentle criticism without flinching when his hustle was questioned on an odd January night in Minnesota. It gave the Danny Greens of the world no cause to complain, ever, and over time it's proven to be a far more effective form of leadership to let Pop be the "Bad Cop," than the bullying, overbearing manner with which Jordan and Bryant got their points across with teammates.

In almost any other market and any other situation, the circumstances surrounding Duncan's private life early on in 2013 would've gotten out. In San Antonio he was protected from humiliation and scrutiny. It was made clear that questions couldn't be asked much less answered. He had represented and dutifully followed through in every exacting detail the fully-formed example of what Pop's wanted the Spurs to be that when the time came the organization came through and took care of him in his time of need, his secondary family there for him when his real one was fractured. If his personal situation wasn't difficult enough, he had to endure the hardest defeat of his career. Duncan seemed not just frustrated and upset by the loss but downright embarrassed by it.

I'm Tim Duncan. I don't lose in the Finals.

So, a year later, when the Spurs picked themselves off the mat it should've surprised absolutely no one that it was Duncan who delivered the finishing blow to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, in the same building where they ended his season in 2012. And it was absolutely no accident when Duncan delivered a matter-of-fact prediction of what was to come in the Finals.

He played dumb afterward, but Tim Duncan is too smart to sell dumb. There was no way he, Ginobili or any of these Spurs were going to let one bounce get between them and the trophy again and the margins of the games were proof of that.

Maybe to casual fans Duncan comes off as robotic, bland or even the "B-word" dreaded in San Antonio: Boring. Maybe some think of him decidedly a rung below LeBron, Jordan or even Kobe. Maybe they think of him as so-so, or just okay.

2013 may be okay now, but Duncan has always been something entirely different from okay.

We're never going to see another one like him.