ON PASSING THE TORCH TO NO ONE (Occasional Sports Moments #24)

I’ll pay tribute to the swashbuckling spirit, which is also vanishing, some other day. For today, another ode to a stoic.

Or:

“When Tim Duncan retired from the NBA”

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I’ve been following the NBA since 1970. That means I missed Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell and saw Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson only in the twilight of their respective careers.

I caught most or all of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the still-going Lebron James.

If you asked me which player I would start a team with if my life depended on them winning a championship in the next five or ten or fifteen years, I’d pick Tim Duncan, who just announced his retirement after nineteen years, all spent with the San Antonio Spurs.

During that nineteen years, Duncan’s teams had the highest winning percentage of any franchise in the four major sports. This was despite being in one of the smallest pro sports’ markets (bottom ten percent); despite playing in a league which is built to reward large market teams like no other (outside San Antonio’s five championships, small markets have won a combined total of three titles in the last sixty years); and despite never playing with an in-prime teammate who was an elite all-timer. (Duncan did play the first few years of his career with an aging, past his prime, David Robinson).

I detailed some of Duncan’s unique greatness here (he did not win the championship that year but went on to win another the following year–it’s one measure of his greatness that he was 2-1 against LeBron in finals, and it was only an epic meltdown from Duncan’s Hall of Fame coach that kept it from being 3-0).

I put up most of what Duncan did in the linked post–the most impressive stats being leading those five small market teams to championships and leading four title winners in both scoring and rebounding, an achievement he shares with Jabbar.

But, impressive as they sometimes were, he was never about stats. All he ever cared about was winning–low post, pick-and-roll, run and gun, big stats, not-so-big stats, my best teammate is a center with creaking knees, a crazy swing-man who gives you twenty-five points with eight assists one night and five points with eight turnovers the next, a flashy point guard who can’t shoot or play defense.

Just win. Any which means. Any which way.

Let me enumerate just a few of those ways and means:

For nineteen years, defeat was his fault. Victory belonged to the team.

There was no fanfare. In the league that defines bling, he showed up to receive an MVP trophy wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.

When Kobe Bryant retired from the Lakers this year, he did it with a pre-season announcement accompanied by a rock star-style farewell tour, complete with gifts from all the teams he was visiting for the last time.

When Duncan retired today, in the middle of the off-season, he sent a text.

When Michael Jordan got tired of carrying the weight, he went to a bad team and settled for being an exhibition. Tim Duncan, playing longer, never got tired of carrying the weight. The Spurs won at least fifty games every year of his career except a strike-shortened season in which they won the championship.

Unlike Jordan and Bryant (and Magic and Bird and LeBron) he never ran off a coach, even though his coach made blunders that probably cost him two championships. Not only did he not run off his coach, he never said a bad word about him. He never said a bad word about that crazy swing-man Manu Ginobli either, even though Ginobli’s mental blunder in one playoff probably cost him yet another championship. None of the other players i mentioned, ruling in dynastic NBA cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago would have let any of that go.

Like I said. Defeats were his, no matter who caused them.

The result?

He got called boring. He didn’t care. He got jibed for failing to market himself. (As Garry Trudeau once said: “America is the only country where failure to promote yourself is seen as a sign of arrogance.”) He didn’t care.

Excepting Robinson, his Hall of Fame teammates will be there because they played with Tim Duncan. His Hall of Fame coach will be there because he coached Tim Duncan. That’s one of those “subjective” achievements that really isn’t subjective at all.

I can’t speak to hockey, but, in the three team sports I watch, only Duncan and Russell consistently raised the level of their teammates’ play to such an extent.

If mental toughness is the hardest to achieve (and it is), and mad consistency is the truest measure of that toughness (and it is), then, along with Russell and Chris Evert, Tim Duncan was, from first day to last, the toughest athlete to play a major American sport.

Like them, he will never quite get the credit for it. This is not coincidence, because, like them, he was a supreme stoic. Maybe the two qualities–stoicism and mad consistency born of attention to detail–stem from a basic personality type. I don’t know. But I suspect Timmy is the last of his type we’ll see rise to such heights. There’s too much pressure to conform to the preferred self-promotional style in this better world we made for his like, once common in type if not degree, to come round again.

He played beautiful basketball, much of it beyond the comprehension of the experts who spent two decades failing to make that beauty evident to the average fan.

He didn’t care about that either. Great as the basketball was–fun as the basketball was–I’ll miss that more.

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OH, SO NOW THEY GET IT…SURE THEY DO! (Sports Moment #6)

…Or pretend to, at least.

This week the San Antonio Spurs reached their fifth NBA finals of the “Tim Duncan Era.” The Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade (that’s DBCCB for short if you’re a newcomer here) at ESPN and the other usual outlets are suddenly doing things like wondering if Duncan is the equal of, say, Kobe Bryant!

I didn’t stick around for the debate between whatever intellectual titans actually engaged in this particular argument, just caught the teaser. Somehow, I doubt they called it the no-brainer it is.

Tim Duncan is the best player of the post-Jordan era and a top-ten all time.

He’s also probably the most underrated player in the history of American sports (off hand the only competition that comes to mind is Chris Evert but that’s another topic for another day–in any case the list is very, very short.)

Consider this:

In the history of the modern NBA, which effectively began when Bill Russell arrived in Boston in 1957 and ushered in the recognizably modern game, NBA titles have been won by “small market” teams exactly seven times. That’s seven times in fifty-six years.

Four of those seven titles were won by the San Antonio Spurs (currently the 24th largest market in a 30-team league). For the record, the others were the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, the Portland Trailblazers in 1977 and the Seattle Supersonics in 1979 (ah, the seventies!).

So to put it yet another way, since the beginning of the truly modern NBA (which began with the twin arrivals of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird–to major markets of course–in 1980), only four championships have been won by small market teams (four in thirty-three years) and the Spurs won all four.

Duncan led every one of those San Antonio teams–each of whom had the deck stacked even more thoroughly against them than the teams that won in the seventies–in both scoring and rebounding. The only other player who led four championship teams in the two most important statistical categories was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (As Lew Alcindor, he led the Bucks to their title, then repeated the feat for three of his five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.**)

(Just as an aside, Duncan and Jabbar also led their teams in blocked shots each of those four years–to my mind a more important, game-controlling statistic than the more popular “assists” category, which is rather randomly applied in any case.)

In addition to all that, Duncan never once played alongside a fellow twenty-point a game scorer in any of those championship runs. (Tony Parker had the best scoring season of any of his teammates when he averaged 18.6 in 2007–Parker also edged the now thirty-seven-year old Duncan as the team’s best scorer this year, so Duncan will not be in a position to break his tie with Jabbar when the championship series starts next week.)

Just to put that in perspective, [and granting that team scoring totals have come down somewhat over the years] Jabbar only failed to play beside at least one twenty-point a game scorer on one of his championship teams (and even then, he was abetted by Oscar Robertson and Bobby Dandridge who averaged 19.4 and 18.4 respectively–in other words, in the season when he had the least big-time scoring support, he still had two scorers as effective as the 2007 Tony Parker, the closest thing to a consistent big-time scorer Duncan played with during any of his championship runs.)

Bear in mind that Duncan did all this while routinely playing for something like half his market value–thus providing the only means by which his franchise could possibly pay the competitive salaries to other players that have allowed them to compete.

All of this has been accomplished so quietly that Duncan has rarely been mentioned as a truly era-defining player. Journalists–and not only the DBCCB membership–tend to be impressed by flash and stats. Duncan has never been big on either. Yes, he can fill a stat sheet, as evidenced above. But his career numbers aren’t eye-popping by any stretch and the myriad ways in which he effects and controls games are rarely if ever pointed out by commentators or morning-after talking heads. Whether they don’t know the value of making percentage plays that don’t show up in box scores more consistently than anyone who has played in the last forty years (the time period I’m qualified to pass judgement on–I missed Bill Russell sad to say) or simply think it’s not worth talking about–i.e. “too boring”–I don’t know.

Some of this might end up being discussed further if Duncan’s team manages to win a fifth championship in the next few weeks–especially if it comes at the expense of LeBron James and the Miami Heat. There are some who are saying that Duncan might, in effect, “take the leap” into the land of players who define the history of the NBA.

That’s nonsense. He took that leap long ago. Nothing has changed just because the people who get paid to pay attention to such things have finally decided to do their jobs. And I’ll put very long odds on ever seeing his like again.

[**NOTE: George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles in the pre-Russell era and he almost certainly led his team in both scoring and rebounding all five years. But rebounding totals were not kept as an official statistic during his first two title seasons. The only other players to lead championship teams in scoring and rebounding more than once were Shaquille O’Neal, who accomplished it three times with Los Angeles, Hakeem Olojuawan, who did it twice with the Houston Rockets, and Larry Bird, who, remarkably since he was not only a small forward, but playing on teams with Hall of Famers at center and power forward–the traditional positions for rebounding leaders–did it twice with Boston. As with Jabbar, O’Neal and Bird were, in all cases, assisted by more accomplished scorers than Duncan ever had. Olojuwan did do it once with less, or similar, support (the second time he had Clyde Drexler averaging over 20 a game).

Michael Jordan, of course, led six teams to championships in a large market (Chicago). It’s difficult to compare a swing man to a post player in terms of impact since he isn’t likely to lead a team in rebounding or blocks. But it’s worth noting that Jordan certainly had more scoring support. His number two man, Scottie Pippen, met or exceeded Parker’s 2007 scoring average in five of Chicago’s six championship seasons (and was only a fraction below it the other year). And no, that doesn’t make Duncan “better than” or necessarily even as good as Jordan or any of the others. But it does mean that whatever belated consideration he is getting when it comes to being mentioned in their company is long overdue.]