TIM DUNCAN IS THE NBA’S GREATEST DREAM and its worst nightmare. At only 23 he is arguably the league’s most complete player, the only one this season to rank in the top ten in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage, and blocked shots. Last year, as a rookie, he helped lead the San Antonio Spurs to the biggest single-season turnaround in NBA history. This year he helped lead them to their first championship in their 26-year history and was named the championship series’ most valuable player. The seven-footer plays solid, fundamental ball, shoots a sweet bank shot, passes like a quarterback, and can shut down any man at any position. He does it all quietly and methodically. He’s an unselfish team player.
And in a league desperate to find the next Michael Jordan, Duncan is about as exciting as a Boy Scout. Neither he nor fellow nice guy David Robinson puts fans in the seats (except at the Alamodome)—this year’s NBA Finals had the lowest TV ratings in almost twenty years. On the court Duncan never talks trash, pumps his chest, or yells at the cameras. Indeed, he usually wears a mask of stony concentration, head bowed, eyebrows up, and forehead furrowed. Off the court his passions run to swimming and video games. In truth, he’s kind of a square. Within moments of the Spurs’ thrashing of the New York Knicks, while Duncan’s teammates threw themselves into each other’s arms, he stood in the whirl of the action with a portable video camera, making home movies. He doesn’t like to talk about himself. He is wry, shy, and brainy—a nice guy on a nice team in a city that rarely gets any respect. The problem is that sports fans, to say nothing of the NBA and NBC, want gods, or at least showmen, not regular guys.
Such expectations don’t seem to bother the low-key Duncan. Maybe it’s his upbringing. He was born in the Virgin Islands and was a champion swimmer until 1989, when Hurricane Hugo destroyed his community pool. He then picked up basketball, and also a nickname: Mr. Clumsy. That didn’t stick long. He worked hard at his game and wound up at Wake Forest University, where he was the consensus NCAA player of the year in 1997. The Spurs made him the first pick in the draft after their worst season ever (when Robinson was out for most of the season). Now there’s talk of a dynasty.
Can Duncan play the savior role again—for the NBA? Not on his own. Basketball is big-money entertainment, a spectacle; it needs athletes to make spectacles of themselves. And that’s something Tim Duncan just can’t do.