Tim Duncan has procured the Kobe Bryant stamp of approval.
Though without him his Los Angeles Lakers fell to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Black Mamba harbors no resentment toward The Big Fundamental. Quite the contrary, in fact.
"I think what he’s done, I think he’s a great example for kids who grow up playing the game and understanding and learning the fundamentals and the work ethic," Bryant said of Duncan in a recent interview with Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Why is Bryant so supportive of Duncan? Because deep down, they're one and the same—winners.
A fifth ring for Duncan will spur further debate as to who the greatest player of his era is. Arguments can be made for numerous other players; but when the dust settles, there are really only two who stand alone, together.
Duncan and Bryant entered the league around the same time, the latter making the jump from prep to pros a year before the Spurs drafted the former out of Wake Forest in 1997. Since then it has been Bryant who has garnered more attention.
Five championship rings are enough to warrant additional eyes, just not this many. Bryant's effervescent attitude often made him the center of attention. From feuds with Shaquille O'Neal to trade requests to incomparable pride that was often depicted as arrogance and pretension, Bryant had our attention.
So did Duncan.
Closing out his sophomore season with a title, going on to win three more and establishing himself as the greatest power forward to ever play the game, Duncan wasn't an afterthought. He also wasn't Bryant.
Never in a million lifetimes would Duncan have requested a trade. Or butted heads with David Robinson. Or feuded with Tony Parker. Or been considered a team cancer.
Quietly brilliant—that was Duncan. It still is Duncan. But for the first time, he and Bryant are one and the same.
To this day, Duncan still isn't studied the way Bryant is. A fifth ring would advance argument behind him as the greatest player of his era, over Bryant, and still he wouldn't be spoken of as much.
Again, Duncan is quiet. There's no need for conversation. He lets his play do the talking.
Of course, some degree of discussion, of debate would still ensue. Which Bryant loves.
"There’s all this competition about who does this generation belong to, in terms of Tim and myself, and I enjoy hearing those conversations," he said.
But it's more than that.
Bryant is drawn to competition. He lives it; he breathes it. While this accounts for some of his fondness towards Duncan, it's not all of it.
Bryant respects him. He cheers for him. And why? Because the significance behind what Duncan has the opportunity to prove isn't lost on him. Nor should it be lost on us.
Like it or not, Bryant and Duncan's generation is filtering out of the league. Most are already gone. Neither of these two was supposed to be playing at such a high level for this long. They're operating on borrowed time that was lent to them by those who are already borrowing time. That's how crazy this is.
To see a 34-year-old like Bryant average 27-plus points and six assists per game before going down with a ruptured Achilles is incredible. To see a 37-year-old like Duncan post 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds a night and close out the year with the sixth-highest PER in the league is astounding.
Now Bryant wants to see more of it.
"As a competitor, that’s what you want to see," he explained. "People get caught up a lot in the results and this, that and the other, but I really can appreciate from afar what players do to get to that level."
Should Duncan help lead the Spurs to victory over the Heat—should a 37-year-old beat a 28-year-old LeBron James-led team—our perception of the NBA and its inhabitants will change, even if only slightly.
If Duncan and the Spurs can do it, why can't Bryant? Why can't the Lakers? Who says the LeBron James and Kevin Durants need to dominate the league?
A fifth title for Duncan is a statement. For him, for Bryant, for their entire generation.
It's the greatest power forward of all time becoming even greater. It rekindles a debate that was never discussed enough to begin with, and it gives hope to aging stars like Kobe Bryant, like Kevin Garnett, like Steve Nash.
"We’ve been saying the Spurs have been done for how long now? As a Laker fan, we thought we put the nail in the coffin back in ’08," Bryant admitted. "Like, that was it, and they just keep coming back."
Duncan isn't just playing for a fifth title or to prove doubters wrong. He's playing for Bryant and all the aging studs who want to keep coming back, who want to keep winning—even though they're not supposed to.