The selfless superstar

Adrian Wojnarowski
The Vertical

SAN ANTONIO – As Jerry Sloan watched his players drop deeper and deeper into disarray in Game 1, it wasn't the scoreboard that troubled the coach as much as his Utah Jazz's conduct on the court. They would make a mistake and one would snap on another, roll eyes, scrunch a face, and the suggestion was unmistakable to him.

Everyone was passing the blame, refusing consequences for the corrosive basketball to start Sunday.

Across the past decade in the NBA, coaches have tired of telling teams this, but Sloan needed to do it again in the opener of the Western Conference finals.

Hey knuckleheads, watch Tim Duncan, will you?

"They (threw) a pass over his head, and he took responsibility for it," Sloan said of Duncan and his San Antonio Spurs teammates. "And our players wanted to make the fault for somebody else."

Duncan is playing the best basketball of his life again, and yes, of course, here we go again, America groans. The Big Fundamental. Blah, blah, blah. Beginning with Duncan's peerless performance, this 108-100 Game 1 victory over the Jazz stands a testament to the staying power of this franchise and its superstar. He had 27 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks, and an Eastern Conference scout studying him courtside said simply, "He's never been better, never been more dominant, in his career."

Yes, the Spurs are still boring. They're still leaving America angling for Shaq Fu, or the go-go Suns, anyone but San Antonio, the dynasty destined for its fourth championship in a decade. They'll never be the people's choice. They'll just be a modern dynasty for all time.

They have a general manager, R.C. Buford, with the eye to find the perfect complementary parts across the globe – Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and now Fabricio Oberto.

They have the top executive and coach, Popovich, who is on his way to the Hall of Fame with three titles.

Mostly, San Antonio has Tim Duncan.

"Unlike a lot of superstars these days, he's willing to put his ego aside for the betterment of the team," Michael Finley said.

Francisco Elson, who arrived this season from Denver, believes that, with the way Duncan understands basketball, the way he prepares every game, "he would make a great coach some day." Only that'll never happen. For that job, he'd have to answer too many questions, lord over too many players so unlike him.

Someday, Duncan, 31, will retire and that'll be that. Knowing him, he'll be gone and never look back.

Between then and now, Duncan and these Spurs won't save basketball's decline in civility, the Me Generation's takeover. We're past that. With three championship trophies on the mantle, few still try to emulate Duncan, the franchise's embodiment. Kids don't wear his jersey and don't try to perfect his bank shot. Truth be told, the Spurs have probably never been as popular in this culture as when Bruce Bowen kneed Steve Nash in the groin and Robert Horry cross-checked him into the scorer's table. That's how it goes.

When these playoffs are over, everyone will know the MVP in this league. It won't be Dirk Nowitzki, nor Nash, nor Kobe Bryant. The league MVP will be Duncan. Again. And good luck trying to get Duncan to talk about it. Anyone else, and they would be telling you all about how they've been constantly overlooked in San Antonio, how it was a crime that Denver's Marcus Camby was voted the league's defensive player of the year, and that how despite declarations made elsewhere, no one has ever truly dethroned him as the best player in the sport.

"If it's possible to be the most appreciated and the most taken for granted, that's what Tim is," Spurs assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo said. "We just assume every day that he's going to dominate both ends of the floor, take and make big shots. When we don't win, he's going to say, 'It's on me.' When we do win, he's not going to say anything.

"He's so consistent, so unassuming, you tend to forget how special he is."

Duncan has never had his coach fired. He's never had a public feud with a teammate. When he could've been the No. 1 pick as a sophomore, he stayed four years at Wake Forest. When he had a chance to leave San Antonio for bigger, splashier markets as a free agent, he re-signed to stay here.

The Spurs are the sport's model franchise because Duncan demands nothing less of it.

Think about this: In his decade with San Antonio, when have you heard a grouse out of that locker room? Ever heard a player complain about minutes? About how the coach uses him? About how little he's appreciated?

Around the Spurs this season, most believe that Ginobili would prefer to start, but he's accepted his sixth man role this season without a word.

Outside San Antonio's locker room Sunday afternoon, Carlesimo nodded his head and simply pointed back toward those concrete walls where Duncan was dressing.

"As great as Pop is, it starts with your best player," Carlesimo said. "You can't sit in that room every day with Tim, see the way he is, and be selfish or an ass yourself. When arguably the best player in the game is the way he is, how can you be any other way? And it would never be tolerated here."

As close as there's ever been to what happens almost every day, almost everywhere else in this league, came in Duncan's first months in uniform in 1997. A Spurs veteran approached Popovich about the kid getting so many shots. There were some teammates talking about it, the player told him. There could be some chemistry issues.

No, Popovich reportedly countered, there weren't teammates talking about it. Only that one guy and, sorry, but this was the way it was going to be here for a long, long time.

Funny, but when Popovich started coaching in the NBA, Sloan's Jazz were his own personal model; just how they played, how they carried themselves, how they competed. Those were the Stockton-Malone Jazz of the '80s and '90s, and amazingly now, Utah hasn't won a game in San Antonio since 1999. Now, the Jazz are the upstarts again, young and talented and on the rise. Sloan won't win this series, but he'll do his damnedest to teach some lessons for the future.

"We know who we are playing against, one of the great, great teams and you find out who you are," Sloan said. "We were looking for excuses. If one guy made a mistake, it was someone else's fault."

And so, Jerry Sloan watched that pass elude Tim Duncan's reach, and he couldn't help but get angrier with his own guys when the best player on the floor, the best in these playoffs, and maybe still the best player in this game, turned back and delivered that message of the ultimate franchise player: It's on me.