CLEVELAND – Down the hallway marched Tim Duncan past midnight on Thursday, those massive hands cradling the Larry O'Brien trophy. People pushed to the sides, allowing him through the crowded corridor, when suddenly, the most selfless star in basketball felt a tug on his arm.
"Please?" Bruce Bowen said, reaching out.
For a moment, Duncan clutched the sterling silver and 24 karat gold overlay tighter, but he didn't dare deny the San Antonio Spurs' dogged defender. "Here," Duncan said, deferring it to Bowen, the way that he defers everything here. He's the reason the Spurs' dynasty isn't stumbling toward a last gasp but threatening to thrive for years.
"He's the best power forward to ever play this game," his old teammate, David Robinson, declared outside San Antonio's locker room. "He's the reason this all happens. In the history of this game, there will not be many to compare with Tim."
In this 83-82 Game 4 victory on Thursday, Duncan caught Shaquille O'Neal with his fourth title. Yet, he surpassed Shaq long ago as a champion. O'Neal has never taken care of himself, nor his franchise, the way that Duncan does. Winning matters to Shaq, yes, but it consumes Duncan like no one of his time. Shaq will always be the most beloved, the most popular. He made movies. He rapped on CD's. When the NBA was desperate for his charisma, he was a cartoon character that made him bigger than life.
Yet, Duncan has turned into his generation's champion for the ages. After three straight, the Lakers could still be winning titles in this decade. But with hubris and greed, Shaq and Kobe Bryant tore the franchise apart. As much as Bryant deserved a decided share of the blame, much of his rage was justified with Shaq's refusal to stay in shape and stay on the floor.
In so many ways, there will never be another Duncan. Everyone groans about him, rolling eyes at the Big Fundamental and dreading these NBA finals when, with that sullen puss, he would methodically grind teams into submission. Perhaps it'll take Duncan until he's gone to be truly appreciated. The thing is, he doesn't care. He'll never care about all the trappings that come with success, and that's the reason he'll never allow these Spurs to be consumed, and ultimately, devoured by them.
In the sport's culture now, success is measured with shoe commercials and video game covers. Duncan doesn't have an entourage, nor wear sunglasses indoors like LeBron James. He walks around with a knapsack, looking like a grad student on the way to the library.
In the NBA, Duncan, 31, is chasing a legacy, chasing history, when so many of his peers mindlessly chase the vapor of fame.
"In terms of humility, he's a different animal in today's world," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. "I'm not sure the systems that are in place now allow someone to grow up that untainted. In that way, you may never see another like him."
Duncan's is a different world, where his sensibilities, his priorities, have come to cuddle the Spurs with the New England Patriots as pro sport's model franchises. Duncan is the Tom Brady of the NBA, or maybe, Brady is the Duncan of the NFL. Nevertheless, Brady watched Duncan courtside at The Q for Game 4, and goes to training camp needing his fourth Super Bowl title to catch Duncan.
That Tony Parker won the MVP of these finals is a testament to his resolve and resourcefulness, yes, to the push, push, push of Gregg Popovich. What's more, it happened because Duncan allows it to happen. After the game, Duncan told Parker that he was proud of him. Funny, but when everyone kept telling Parker that he would be the MVP of this series, he kept deferring back to Duncan. He's our MVP, Parker would say. All we do is revolve around him.
"I feel very privileged to play with him because he's a superstar, and very unselfish," Parker said. "He gave me the opportunity to play my best basketball at the right moment."
If only Duncan knew that Parker and Manu Ginobili were on the way in 2000, maybe he never would've considered leaving San Antonio. Even now, the Spurs still breathe a sigh of relief that he never left in that free agent season. For as much as everyone wants to bestow genius on Popovich and Buford, they're always the first to tell you that that so-called genius is merely a product of the bouncing balls in the 1997 draft lottery. They've got Duncan, and they're forever indebted.
And to think that Duncan could've left the Spurs in the autumn of Robinson's career, and delivered that franchise back to the dark ages. Grant Hill decided to leave Detroit for Orlando that summer and relentlessly recruited Duncan to join him.
Seven years ago, Spurs owner Peter Holt would sit in his office, waiting for Popovich to call with word of Duncan's decision.
Orlando or San Antonio?
Hill or Robinson?
Doc Rivers or Popovich?
"Did I think we were on the brink of losing him?" Holt said Thursday night.
Before Game 4, Hill, working for television, stood courtside and insisted that, "I think Tim was close to doing it." If nothing else, Duncan is the most loyal of stars. He had a title in '99 with Popovich, and ultimately trusted his coach that he would find a way to reshape a contender around him in the post-Robinson era.
Now, Holt insists that these Spurs won't go the way of the two dysfunctional dynasties that preceded them, the Bulls and Lakers. The owner rolled back his head in laughter over the suggestion that he would ever choose to end this run with Duncan as the cornerstone.
"Not with me," Holt said. "Not as long as I'm owner."
He recalled the way that Chicago broke down its team. "Crazy," he said, "I'm not doing it. We're going to all die together."
The way that Holt did with Robinson, he's determined to go the distance with Duncan. There will be no trade on the downside of his career, no value brought back when San Antonio could transition quicker into a post-Duncan future. "I hope he'll retire a Spur," Holt said.
Duncan plans to play for years, and the way he keeps himself in shape, San Antonio can go on winning championships. Now, he's caught Shaq with four and chasing Michael Jordan's six now. Together, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will get it. On the way out of the interview room, on the way out of his fourth championship season, Duncan met LeBron James beside the interview podium, the sunglasses meeting the knapsack.
"The league," Duncan was heard to tell James, "is going to be yours soon."
And then, Tim Duncan clutched his Larry O'Brien trophy, and started down the hallway, past Shaq and on his way to Jordan. He looked like he'd never let it go.