Back on April 23, Sports Illustrated writer Chris Ballard had a question for his sixteen thousand-plus Twitter followers:
Question for NBA folks: Know any non-Spurs fans whose favorite player is Tim Duncan?
— Chris Ballard (@SI_ChrisBallard) April 23, 2012
It got all of three retweets and three affirmative replies, which only confirmed the premise of what turned out to be an SI cover story on the Spurs unflashy, media-allergic star. In his story, Ballard writes, “Tim Duncan is the most successful player of his generation, maybe even its best, the foundation of yet another Spurs team built to win it all. So why haven’t you fallen for him? The reasons aren’t all black-and-white.” The cover also promises that Ballard’s profile is about “finally getting to know the greatest, least appreciated player of his generation.”
So do we?
Yes, though not so much because Tim Duncan talked. Just the fact that Ballard got an an interview was rare, and to the writer’s own surprise, it stretched from twenty minutes into more than forty minutes–which is still nothing. But Ballard turns a brief hotel elevator ride into a short, dramatic scene that highlights Duncan’s anonymity. The writer also gets good anecdotes from Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who recalls spending several days with Duncan in his hometown of St. Croix after the team first drafted him, current player Stephen Jackson, and ex-Spurs Danny Ferry, Steve Kerr, and Sean Elliott.
(The first wave of blog headlines about the story dealt with Ballard writing that Duncan “hates” Kevin Garnett “the way liberals hate Sean Hannity,” but even that did not come out of Duncan’s mouth directly.)
As Ballard notes, press-shy Duncan still prefers to let his play and numbers do the talking, including the fact that no other team in any of the four major professional team sports have a better winning percentage over the fifteen years that Duncan has been on the Spurs. He has had more than one hundred different teammates in that time.
Ballard discussed the process of writing a profile about a notoriously media-adverse subject in an SI podcast with Richard Deitsch. Spurs public relations man Tom James told him Duncan probably hadn’t done a sitdown interview in ten years, and that to get Duncan talking, “you gotta go with humor, or you’re done.”
“When he does talk, he’s great, and you wonder why he hasn’t shown this side to the public and the media all these years,” Ballard said in the podcast. But he came to realize Duncan just doesn’t need the attention or the money.
The equally no-frills Popovich also weighed in on the story via Twitter (satirical Twitter, that is):
Yes, I’m aware of the Sports Illustrated article with Tim. It will be addressed. Attention whoring has no place here.
— Gregory Popovich (@FakeCoachPop) May 16, 2012