Do not cry for Tim Duncan.
Even if he wins this NBA title, Duncan will be applauded and appreciated only for a while, same as the other titles. It certainly won’t last long.
And when his career does end, it’s inevitable by now: He will be underrated forevermore, his highlights archived but never viewed, his greatness easily forgotten.
Not right, necessarily.
Fair enough, though.
That’s what happens when you are a historically great player who simply does not inspire.
As someone who has had no interest in sharing his time, passion and wisdom with the world, Duncan chose this path. If you don’t open up and give of yourself when you’re in the spotlight, then there are certain things you just aren’t going to get.
Just ask Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s all-time leading scorer who closed himself off so much that he now stands as the consummate example of a player who will never get full credit for what he accomplished.
There is a public predisposition against those who are abnormally tall and are not particularly flashy. But to remember the feats of great athletes of any shape or style, we need more from them than success. We want to feel excitement, fall into their stories and believe we can do more because they overcame their odds.
Over his outstanding 16-year NBA career, Duncan hasn’t let us in to understand how or why he has been so outstanding.
Without the explanation, well, he doesn’t stand out at all.
“As I go through my career and through these games, that’s not anything I ever look up or think about,” Duncan said at the pre-NBA Finals media availability. “Will it matter at some point? Maybe it will, but I have nothing to do with how people see me at that point. I’m just here to enjoy it and do the best I can.”
Typical Duncan detachment. Even in explaining why he doesn’t engage us, he doesn’t engage us.
So Duncan just goes on shooting the ball from his favorite spot at the left elbow, even though from the stoicism on his face, who knows if he loves the bank shot any more than the running hook. Or if he loves anything, ever.
For sure he delivered on the court again Thursday night in the NBA Finals opener: 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocks as the Spurs won in Miami. It was the only time a player as old as Duncan, 37, has posted a 20-14 game in the NBA Finals except for when Abdul-Jabbar did it in the 1985 NBA Finals.
And with the Spurs now in favorable position, expect the talk only to increase about how if Duncan wins a fifth NBA championship, he’ll have furthered his legend in this game.
In a record-keeping way, for sure. In a broader sense, no way.
Even if he loses this series, Duncan is already an undeniable winner in every way as a basketball player. Yet because we fail to understand his fire, all we can do is accept his results that never resonate.
Let’s be honest: Has Duncan ever been a big part of anyone’s life outside of San Antonio? How much have you even noticed him the past six years, when the reality is that Tony Parker was already NBA Finals MVP for San Antonio’s last title in 2007?
Check the index in the back of Chris Ballard’s 2009 NBA book “The Art of a Beautiful Game” and you’ll find six pages with direct references to Duncan, and two of them were only about noting that he threw the kick-out passes for Steve Kerr three-point shots.
Kobe Bryant had 140.
Ballard, a Sports Illustrated writer, nevertheless endeavored to write a magazine feature about Duncan a year ago, and as much as Ballard tried to humanize Duncan, that piece focused as much on Duncan’s reluctance to cooperate as anything. Sports Illustrated called it “21 Shades of Gray.”
For all the focus on fundamentals when it comes to Duncan, here’s the first one:
He has made a basic choice not to consider you at all.
So why should you consider him?
One of the few stories people have heard by now about Duncan, though many younger fans might not have heard it because he sure isn’t going to revisit it, is how his mom died of breast cancer the day before he turned 14.
Her death is what moved him to become more of the introvert we’ve seen throughout his career.
In the 2004 book “Tales from the Wake Forest Hardwood” by Dan Collins, Duncan is quoted as saying: “My mom dying is what did that to me. I love my dad, but after my mom died, I never listened to anybody pretty much. It wasn’t that I was a pain or a problem child or anything. I just got my own views and I went with them. It’s something that from that point on, it was clear to me I had to do what I wanted to do.”
So Duncan made his choices and reaped his benefits, specifically uncommon privacy and the freedom to focus on his craft. He has done it his way, and it has been perfectly respectable.
But Duncan was never going to get all he deserved by doing it this way.
His legacy will pay the price, as it should.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing