The San Antonio Spurs and the Ironic, Fraudulent Personality Myth

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The San Antonio Spurs and the Ironic, Fraudulent Personality Myth
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Who says Duncan never shows expression?

Now that there's an air of inevitability surrounding the San Antonio Spurs' fifth championship, to the point where even the sports fella has finally noticed, there have been all kinds of articles written about them of late, chiefly Chris Ballard's excellent profile of Tim Duncan in this week's Sports Illustrated.

Ballard tackled the popular perception that Tim Duncan, his game, and by extension the Spurs are all boring, skillfully explaining the distinction between a person not having any depth to him and choosing to not make that depth public fare.

The last few lines of the story are the most telling:

Doesn't he care about how he's viewed, how he's remembered?

Duncan thinks for a second, pulls on the sleeve of his silver Spurs sweatshirt. "Why?" he says. "I have no control of that. All I can do is play and try to play well. Winning should be the only thing that matters. I can't manipulate how people see me."

But that's not true at all, he's told.

He considers this, then frowns. "I mean, I guess I could. I could be more accessible and be the darling for everybody. I could open up my life and get more endorsements and be out there and be a fan favorite. But why would that help?"

He pauses for a moment. "Why should it?"

Follow up articles, such as this one by SBNation's Andrew Sharp, in which he argued that the Spurs are still boring to him despite their more wide-open offensive style of play (an article overflowing with hypocrisy and contradictions if you know anything about the Spurs at all, by the way); and this one Hoopspeak.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss, in which he claims that the Spurs don't do enough to promote themselves or the game, served as rebuttals to Ballard's piece.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
What do you mean I have to do a sideline interview with Ric Bucher?

Alex Dewey of GothicGinobili.com wrote his rebuttal to those rebuttals, with similar sentiments echoed by a poster going by the name "Edg5" over at Poundingtherock.com (a Spurs blog).

So many viewpoints and rhetorical questions dealing with whether Duncan and the "robotic" Spurs and they all seem to come back to the same three arguments, namely: 1) Do these guys have personalities that we just haven't discovered? 2) Was it selfish of them to "hide" it from us? and 3) What does this have to do with basketball?

The short answer to all three questions: You don't care.

The longer, more complicated answers, in order.

1) The Spurs' dominate the NBA in personality just as much as they dominate in basketball.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a Spurs fan and have been since 1989. I like to think I "know" these guys a little bit, even if that's a total myth in itself.

That being said, as someone who closely follows the league, I'm comfortable that the Spurs aren't one-dimensional boors, even if the perception of them exists that coach Gregg Popovich is running them through monotonous drills for 18 hours a day like Ivan Drago's government-sponsored support staff in that "Rocky IV" training montage.

Ballard touched on this in his piece, but Duncan is a fascinating character, one who's developed friendships with many of his teammates both current and former, and is renowned by those close to him for his sense of humor.

Unlike most athletes who get their degrees in some nonsense major like "Recreation," "Sports management" or "Physical Education," something closely tied to their athletic vocation, Duncan got his in psychology, and spoke to Ballard about the psychological power of not speaking, of not reacting at all, to opponents' trash-talk.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
How can you call me a flopper in a series with Chris Paul in it?

Tim Duncan would've dominated the World Poker Tour.

Still, Duncan, a St. Croix-born competitive swimmer turned basketball phenom because of Hurricane Hugo; a family man who loves video games, paintball, Dungeons & Dragons, renaissance fairs, muscle cars and the Chicago Bears, is a fellow you can have conversations about all sorts of things if he felt like speaking to you.

(But he doesn't, sorry.)

The snarky, acerbic and sarcastic Popovich is a well-read oenophile who speaks multiple Eastern European languages, was trained during his Air Force days to be an intelligence expert (i.e. a spy) and has spent a good chunk of his professional career under the tutelage of NBA iconoclasts Larry Brown and Don Nelson.

He's better informed on politics, both domestic and global, than most CNN employees (and all of the Fox News ones) and has based his coaching mantra on the writings of 19th century Danish social reformer Jacob Riis. 

From a basketball standpoint, he's completely changed his philosophy from a grind-it-down, defensive, throw-it-in-the-post-every-time style to one where the Spurs play at a faster pace than just about everybody and run some variant of the pick-and-roll and the motion offense on every play.

I mean, what could you possibly talk to that guy about?

(Not a whole lot, unless you catch him on the right day in the offseason and you come well-recommended.)

Why Do You Find the Spurs Boring?

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Then there's Manu Ginobili, as unique in his skill-set and the way he sees an NBA floor as any player since Pete Maravich, yet just as odd for his unselfish and unassuming nature given that he's an international superstar.

 

He routinely, freely admits to reporters when he's played poorly or made a playoff series-altering bad decision. He thinks nothing of telling them when his confidence is down, when his shooting form is off or when he's feeling physically worn down.

He absolutely means it when he doesn't care if the get many shots or points as long as the team wins, and indeed Ginobili's always shined the most in games where others have struggled. 

More than that though, Ginobili, a guy who's routinely on the NBA's All-Interview team despite being a non-native English speaker, is a math and science nut, an Internet geek, a TV nerd, and someone who's more open about his family life than most athletes, often sharing pictures of his infant twin sons on Twitter.

Ginobili also pens monthly columns in an Argentine newspaper, where he shares more information about himself and the Spurs, in Spanish, than Popovich is probably comfortable with.

Tony Parker, meanwhile, is a fellow whom you may remember put out a few rap albums (mostly in French) a few years back. They weren't terrible, for an athlete. He was also famously married to Eva Longoria for awhile.

Think about that though. He got Longoria, after she was a star of one of the most popular shows on TV, to fall for him. That's a hell of an accomplishment. Parker's a future Hall-of-Famer, but with all due respect, being a point guard in San Antonio does not make him the Joe DiMaggio of his generation.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Am I the only one who's noticed Parker's resemblance to Mr. Bean?

The guy must be one heck of a charmer to land Longoria, who was anything but desperate for male attention back when they started dating.

 

Nowadays the mature-beyond-his-years Parker owns his own team in the French League and hosts his own weekly radio show broadcast in France. Like Ginobili, Parker is also pretty candid in his native tongue.

Throw in two more foreigners in big men Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter; Stephen Jackson, whose mental instability and ups-and-downs in the league are well-documented; and Matt Bonner, genuinely one of the funniest guys in the league, and the Spurs are not lacking for guys you can talk to about things outside of basketball.

 

2) You don't care about any athlete's personality, and certainly not one on the Spurs.

When you think about the NBA, both currently and historically, who do you think about?

Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant.

How many of these guys truly have what one would define as a personality?

Will Leitch of Deadspin fame examined this topic in his essay "You're More Interesting Than an Athlete, Really," in his book God Save the Fan. The gist of it was that to get to the professional level most athletes have to be such slaves to routine that having outside interests are unusual, and almost seen as counterproductive.

Leitch argued that even outside of their jobs, the like-minded locker-room culture roots out all traces of individuality from athletes, to the point where they all tend to dress alike, listen to the same types of music, buy the same types of cars, hang out at the same types of clubs and enjoy the company of the same type of women.

Basically, Leitch's hypothesis was that interviewing one athlete is to interview all of them.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
You will find Stephen Jackson interesting, or else.

As far as the NBA goes, both Bryant and Michael Jordan are known for their maniacal hyper-competitiveness. Jordan's manifested itself in the need to win at everything, from golf to blackjack to catty Hall-of-Fame speeches.

Bryant, over the second half of his career, has taken to freely peppering his interviews with expletives, as if to calculatingly show you how he doesn't care about anything besides greatness, not even common courtesy.

Kevin Garnett has taken a similar tack, in that people make the mistake of assigning him a personality because he uses a certain 12-letter expletive with the frequency the rest of us use on words such as "the" or "and" while playing basketball.

Garnett seems to have fooled the basketball-watching public (and perhaps even himself) into believing that his gutter-mouth is proof of how competitive he is. If that were true and Garnett really does want to win more than Duncan does in some measurable way, he's done a poor job of it.

Johnson had a great smile and was a fun-loving guy and a wonderful teammate by all accounts. If he ever said anything interesting during his playing career, I missed it.

Bird was well-known inside the game to be a masterful trash-talker, and while it's true his background and the things that have shaped him are fascinating, he had no interests or hobbies outside of the game and shied from publicity every bit as much as Duncan did.

So did Derek Jeter, but nobody has made a fuss over that.

The guys who truly showed personality, like Charles Barkley or Allen Iverson, were criticized during their playing careers as not taking the game seriously enough, for not sacrificing enough of themselves to win.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Diaw: Inspiring fatties across the world.

Even O'Neal, a guy with four titles, is largely viewed to this day as a goofball/lazy oaf who wasted much of his talent because he was unwilling to do the requisite work in the off-season. He had a larger-than-life public persona, but also a darker side too that often clashed with coaches and poisoned locker rooms.

San Antonio's other Hall of Fame big man, David Robinson, whose character on and off the floor is beyond reproach, had heaps of critics before Duncan entered his life.

They said that the well-rounded renaissance man Robinson, who was into science and computers and music, wasn't as passionate enough about the game. Later, when "The Admiral" discovered religion, they said it made him soft. (As opposed to Tim Tebow, where it gives him superpowers.)

There's no doubt a young Duncan saw how little good it did for Robinson to reveal his self away from the game, and it may well have influenced his decision not to.

As for the selfishness of the Spurs not promoting themselves more, the main reason both Duncan and Popovich have eschewed larger fame is mainly because they don't think they're worthy of it. They understand that interview requests and public desire to know about their inner thoughts and feelings all stems from within the context of their public profession. 

The way Duncan and Pop view the world, no one would care about them if they were a 6'11 therapist or the coach at Division III Pomona-Pitzer, even though they'd be the same people.

They don't think of their professions as any more important than most and certainly less so than some. They're befuddled by the importance and attention a segment of society chooses to place on them, almost embarrassed by it.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Matt Bonner is hilarious without even trying to be.

Really, they're doing the best they can to be polite and not call you a loser outright for caring about a bunch of strangers playing a game, so be grateful for that.

 

3) You don't care how the Spurs play basketball.

It's hard to hold back laughter when so-called analysts write about the monotony of Duncan's game, as though the NBA has a long and rich history of acrobatic superstar centers. Outside of Hakeem Olajuwon, and perhaps Robinson, what big man ever thrilled anyone with their grace and agility?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar threw in that same unstoppable sky-hook roughly 15,000 times.

Patrick Ewing made a career of 18-foot jumpers and lumbering forays across the lane for his half-hook, in which the refs always charitably ignored his third step.

O'Neal dunked and dunked and dunked some more, as if the act of someone 7'1" being able to do so was supposed to impress anybody.

Duncan, whom O'Neal christened with the "Big Fundamental" nickname, has more post moves, a bigger overall arsenal of weapons at his disposal, than anyone since Olajuwon, but ironically, he's labeled as boring in a league where 80 percent of the centers can't score outside of two feet.

The common fan cannot relate to or appreciate NBA bigs; like Wilt Chamberlain said, "Nobody roots for Goliath."

Fine, so take Ginobili then as your savior. The dichotomy in his game has always been that he's got every basketball nuance, every fundamental from John Wooden's coaching manuals both in terms of individual and team play, down pat, yet he still makes everything look so herky-jerky and unorthodox.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Duncan continues to smack Griffin around like a red-headed stepchild.

Ginobili's always got the devil of improvisation whispering to him on one shoulder and Popovich's rigid X's and O's screaming on his other, and he spends the better part of 25-plus minutes each game listening to one or the other.

 

Sometimes, he chooses chaos and the results are cover-your-eyes disastrous. Other times though, it turns out that the unconventional choice was the right one and that's when he produces moments of art.

He's mostly dismissed as a Euro flopper, which would be fine and dandy if he were A) European B) half the flopper some of his thickly-muscled contemporaries are or C) not the long-time darling of the NBA's ever-burgeoning stat geek community.

Finally, there's the quicksilver Parker, who despite not being a high-flying marvel like a Russell Westbrook or a Derrick Rose, continues to score more points in the paint than any guard year after year, due to his knack for getting to the paint with his feints, hesitation moves, cross-overs and his uncanny ability to bank in layups from either hand at any angle, not to mention his filthy teardrop. 

Television executives don't ask questions. They don't critique your taste. They just find out what you like and act accordingly. Arrested Development and The Wire were brilliant shows that no one watched, so they were gone quickly and not repeated.

American Idol continues to crush in the ratings, so television keeps cranking out different variations of karaoke competition.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images
What David Stern sees in his nightmares

The World Wide Leader won't ever question why you respond to the LeBron James hysteria in all its plodding, isolation-driven "my turn, your turn" glory. It won't ask why you still respond to the Lakers and Celtics brands, even though both of those teams play at a pace that makes baseball seem like drag racing.

The executives won't ask you if you're a xenophobe, if you're biased toward big-market teams or if your basketball sophistication extends no farther than the tomahawk dunk.

They just react to what you tell them with your eyeballs. It's not personal, Spurs, it's business. You don't care.

You. Don't. Care.

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