Ball Don't Lie

Is Tim Duncan a role model for today’s young stars?

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Kevin Durant kindly asks Tim Duncan if he may drive past him (Larry W. Smith/ Getty).

We are currently in a new era for NBA superstar agency, one where the best players in the league regularly take control of their own destinies and aggressively lobby for trades or change teams in free agency. Depending on whom you ask, it's either a massive problem for players to hold so much power or a necessary development in a league where fans pay to watch the game's best.

In this new world, certain guys stand out. One of those is quiet giant Tim Duncan, once the league's best player and now just a very good big man for the still-excellent San Antonio Spurs. Over the course of his 15 seasons, Duncan has rarely complained about anything regarding his position with the Spurs (although he hasn't ever really had to). That makes him an outlier. On Saturday, Harvey Araton wrote about Duncan's relationship with Gregg Popovich for The New York Times:

Such is life with No Drama Duncan, who has become such a predictably understated fixture for this franchise that on some days he might as well be one of the basket stanchions. He has never sought attention or glory. When he considered leaving San Antonio as a free agent in 2001 — for Orlando — he did so without fanfare or folly.

Ultimately, Duncan stayed in San Antonio, where he lives year round, and seems overwhelmingly likely to finish his career as that rarest of N.B.A. commodities: a leading man who never forced change on himself (to another city) or on the franchise (by demanding a new coach). [...]

When Duncan was asked if any of the young N.B.A. power brokers — for instance, Dwight Howard, who reportedly went backdoor in an attempt to oust Coach Stan Van Gundy in Orlando while refusing to commit to the franchise beyond next season — had ever sought his counsel on the benefits of laying deep roots, he shook his head and said, simply, "Nope."

Told of the exchange, R. C. Buford, the Spurs' general manager, laughed and said, "Very few people can have a conversation with Tim that would last long enough for them to get that much out of it."

What Duncan has done in San Antonio is very special, something akin to the experiences of Larry Bird in Boston or Magic Johnson in Los Angeles, except at a time when it wasn't expected of superstars. He deserves our praise—not just for his demeanor, but for helping turn a small-market franchise into one of the league's most enviable organizations.

So why, exactly, don't more players use Duncan as a role model? On Sunday, Matt Moore tried to answer that question at ProBasketballTalk, wondering why staying quiet, doing a job, and winning titles isn't enough for some guys. He came to a reasonable answer: that Duncan actually has had an effect on young players, with guys like Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant generally staying humble and not making much of an issue out of their futures. (Whether they do so in a couple years when they first become unrestricted free agents is anyone's guess.)

Matt makes a good point, although it's important not to look at Durant and Rose as clones of Duncan so much as players who've been influenced by him. In Araton's article, Duncan comes across as quiet but also not especially interested in developing a media presence or strong personal brand. Durant and Rose are quite different, gladly acting as linchpins of their shoe companies' national ad campaigns and even trying some acting roles. They care about celebrity and fame. What sets them apart from people like Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony is that they've gone about achieving that level of public attention with a more measured approach. In a way, humility is their brand.

Duncan has cared so much about the trappings of his success. Durant and Rose have learned from him and the respect he has earned, but they haven't used his career as an outline. Instead, they've taken pieces of it and combined them with the modern star's desire to become a cultural icon. Duncan isn't a role model for them, but they have followed him. As with most developments of this sort, he's been a building block for those who have come after him. He's not a relic of a past age, but an example to be followed or disregarded depending on what the situation requires.

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