Last week, Matt Moore from CBSSports.com wrote an excellent column on Tim Duncan. It's an examination, almost a celebration, of what winning a fifth championship would mean for his legacy. Another title would take him past Shaquille O'Neal and tie him with Kobe Bryant, and Moore argues that it may be enough to vault him into the all-time top five.
Moore compliments Duncan's complete game and generally waxes eloquent about his accomplishments, but there's one point he makes with which I disagree:
He is unreadable, he is indecipherable, the uncrackable safe buried under rubble at the bottom of the ocean. You're not getting at him and if you do, you're not getting in. And even then, it's not because of some deep, mysterious personality. He's locked away, but he's also, from every indication, simply not that complex. There is no sunken treasure.
While viewing the Spurs legend from afar all these years, I've always found him to be a fascinating character, multifaceted and complex, emotional and calculated. I feel compelled to challenge some misconceptions.
The fact of the matter is that as loathe as Duncan is to share his thoughts and feelings with the outside world, there have been dozens of instances over the years -- and new ones practically every day -- where his mask slips, if only for a moment, and he reveals a part of himself. It's all a question of what the cameras happen to catch on a given night and whether or not we're paying attention.
NBA Finals Game 5 Preview: Heat @ Spurs
After winning the last two in South Beach in convincing fashion, the Spurs return to San Antonio up 3-1, playing their best basketball of the season and looking to eliminate the Miami Heat in front of their home crowd.
Mostly, when Duncan gives us a nibble, it truly is accidental -- a fortuitous break borne of spontaneous emotion or something he does on the bench when he doesn't think the cameras are on him. But other times, Duncan sends out random signals to the world, maybe for his private amusement or even to gauge reaction.
First, the accidental stuff: the unintentional slips.
It's mind-boggling that the majority of NBA fans still think of Duncan as unemotional. He's racked up 10 technical fouls this season and 89 for his career, about 5.2 on average per season, leading the Spurs in that category just about every year the completely-insane Stephen Jackson wasn't on the club. Duncan complains vociferously about calls and non-calls more than any Spur and always has. He bugs out his eyes and screams profanities with the best of 'em.
Also, while he's not on to dance a jig and rarely mean-mugs for the camera, Duncan celebrates openly when the moment strikes him, like on his game-tying three in game 1 of the 2008 playoff series against the Suns, which sent that epic game into double-overtime.
Duncan celebration at :39 of this clip
Or when he emphatically pumped his fist after slamming home a gorgeous feed from Boris Diaw, to hammer the nail in Miami's coffin during Game 4 on Thursday night.
Or the way he gleefully reacted after an "and-1" during the middle of the third quarter of Game 6 last year, when he was having a game for the ages and it really seemed like they were going to close out the Heat in Miami.
The competition can also bring out the potty-mouth in Timmy. He's no Kobe or Kevin Garnett in that regard, but the cameras caught him telling Tony Parker to "torch those mother-blankers" in a playoff game at the Lakers last season and there was a similar sentiment after hitting a game-winner against the Clippers a month prior to that, a loud, "And-1 mother-hubbard" you could hear all the way from the rafters.
Sadly, the emotional moment Duncan's best known for (outside of getting ejected by Joey Crawford for laughing from the bench) is slapping the floor in utter frustration after missing a game-tying bunny layup late in Game 7 of the Finals last season. Duncan's dejection and inner turmoil was palpable and soul-crushing.
Duncan burns to win as much as anyone who's ever played, but his form of trash-talking, of getting into the heads of his opponents, is to not talk at all. No matter what people say to him, he just glares back, impassively, while continuing to kick butt. The refs may get a taste of his verbal wrath now and again, but his foes don't.
Many of Duncan's adversaries have grown accustomed to his unique method of psychological warfare, but none other than Ron Artest summed it up...
"I remember one time Kevin Garnett was mushing him, and shoving him in the face; and Tim Duncan didn't do anything, he didn't react. He just kicked Kevin Garnett's a--, and won the damn championship. You know what I'm sayin'? That's gangsta. Everybody can show emotion, dunk on somebody, scream and be real cocky; but Tim Duncan is a ... he's a pimp."
Perhaps the best example of Duncan's pimp-hand in action was the way he -- and to be fair, the Spurs bigs collectively -- so unnerved Dwight Howard last year that Howard got himself thrown out of Game 4 during San Antonio's easy sweep of the Lakers last season.
Duncan responded with the best "You mad, bro?" face ever.
While Duncan's emotional and competitive qualities are evident, he's less known publicly for his quick wit and his pranking of teammates. New Spurs quickly come to learn that the living legend they watched as kids can be as merciless to them off the floor as he is to opponents on it.
To see this side of Duncan requires a bit of digging. He's a guy who invites teammates to paintball tournaments in his backyard but rigs their guns to shoot wide while arming himself with latest welt-producing weaponry. A guy who introduced himself to his pro coach in his native St. Croix by having Pop taste a sugary shaved-ice drink he knew tasted disgusting. A guy who pretended to be drowning deep in the ocean while the two of them were out for a get-to-know-each-other swim. A guy who purposefully played up the "Big Shot Bob" nickname to reporters and delighted in calling Robert Horry, "Bobby," because he knew Horry hated it.
After vanquishing the Detroit Pistons in Game 7 of the 2005 NBA Finals Duncan deadpanned his way through a soliloquy about Horry, explaining how his good friend had built a career out of barely breaking a sweat from November through April and only showing up when the real games matter. All the while he pretended that he couldn't see Horry, waiting for his turn on the podium, standing just out of camera shot in the doorway. Finally, Horry heard enough and wandered into the picture, leaving Duncan to feign embarrassment and greet him with a, "Oh haaaay, Bob."
Then there's... whatever the heck this is.
Which brings us to the Duncan who routinely slams into old teammate, and Spurs color man, Sean Elliott during pregame layup lines. Every so often he throws a towel or a few basketballs at Elliott's head during the broadcast.
Elliott, in turn, makes fun of Duncan's age and his looks during the games and calls him "Tragic Johnson," whenever Duncan awkwardly tries to dribble up the court, looking to make a play.
Lest you think only Elliott suffers these indignities, that's far from the case. Any former Spur on the broadcast table, regardless of who they happen to be working for now, is in store for abuse. It doesn't matter if it's Bruce Bowen, Malik Rose, Avery Johnson, Steve Kerr or Brent Barry. Duncan messes with them all, on or off camera.
The most-publicized of all the pranks though, and one certainly not meant to be noticed by the masses, is the "cup game" between Duncan and fellow Big Three mates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, where the objective is to get one another to sit on a paper cup.
Here, Ginobili victimizes poor Duncan...
What cannot be argued is that Duncan's teammates, both old and new, revere him, from Stephen Jackson to Beno Udrih. A major reason both Parker and Ginobili -- dubbed by Duncan as French Boy and Crazy Boy -- developed as they did was to win Duncan's respect. Tim's also the main reason why the Hall-of-Fame backcourt have so few hairs left, as the giant's favorite form of in-game approval has is to rub his massive hands on their heads.
Duncan is why even someone of Parker's stature will allow himself to be dragged away from an on-court confrontation like a puppy being forcibly taken to the vet.
Duncan makes a point of "dapping" every teammate on the way to the tunnel after games and forms relationships with them all, from Parker and Ginobili to the last guys on the roster, cheering them on like a Bleacher Bum from the bench no matter how lopsided the score. He has the power to accidentally hurt a beast like Aron Baynes, and the influence to force the painfully shy Kawhi Leonard to the podium to face the press. During the fourth quarter of a blowout loss at Detroit during the team's annual "Rodeo Road Trip" Duncan spent a time out animatedly explaining the intricacies of one of Pop's plays to Shannon Brown, a guy on a 10-day contract who everyone knew would be jettisoned the minute Leonard and Ginobili returned from the injured list.
On the complete other end of the spectrum, Duncan played with his kids during halftime of Game 5 of the 2013 NBA Finals, at a time where you'd think he'd be more focused on the task at hand than anything.
These are things that Duncan just does, year after year, in front of everyone but not really for their consumption. He plays because he loves the game, loves to compete and love his teammates. Everything else is scenery and noise, an unnecessary burden.
Every now and then, the supposedly "unknowable" monolith says and does things for effect. Ask him a stupid question and he'll roll his eyes before answering. When a bunch of reporters rudely yell over one another for his attention, he melodramatically darts his eyes and head side-to-side with an unmistakable message that barks, "Will you please take turns like civil adults so we can wrap this up?" Pop steadfastly refuses to blame officiating for any loss and drills his charges to do the same, but on occasion Duncan will make sure to voice his displeasure with the calls with some answer designed to look like a throwaway line.
He may hesitate to share his opinions on most topics, but he didn't shy from saying that "FIBA sucks," after fouling out in a loss to Ginobili's Argentina squad during the medal round of the 2004 Summer Olympics. And he described former NBA commissioner David Stern's controversial dress code for the players as "basically retarded."
With Duncan it's rarely too emphatic and you have to learn to read between the lines. In Chris Ballard's wonderful profile for SI.com, he explained his philosophy as loquaciously as he ever will.
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?"
Parse the column carefully and you'll find all you need to know about the man. It's a rejection of big markets, of the concept of athletes "branding" themselves through wardrobes and social media platforms, and of fans and media who are more drawn to athletes words and antics than on-court accomplishments.
We're talking about a man who contributed to a published study titled "Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors," back in 1997. Duncan's chapter, which he co-wrote with three other Wake Forest psychology majors, was titled "Blowhards, Snobs, And Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions To Excessive Egotism." (h/t Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express News)
The man literally wrote his own manual for how to prepare for life in the NBA.
The more audaciously guys like Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade dress to games, the more Duncan doubles down on the flannel and dad jeans, completely comfortable in his baggy shirts and even more so in his own skin. So, yeah, you better believe Duncan knew what he was saying when he called his shot to TNT's David Aldridge after the Western Conference Finals.
He reiterated in the post-game presser that the Spurs wanted a rematch with the Heat all along. Like Kill Bill heroine Beatrix Kiddo said of her intended target, "I want him to know that I want him to know."
Mission one in beating LeBron James and the Heat is to play without fear, and Duncan's message was unmistakable: The Spurs are not afraid.
It may be impossible to fully "get" Tim Duncan. His words and actions off the court are just like his game. It looks so basic and fundamental and boring on the surface, but if you watch it night after night after night, like true Spurs nerds do, it's possible to understand he's operating on a whole other plane.
But I do agree with Moore that Duncan's pretty awesome.