I just received an urgent phone call from one of my Rec League Basketball teammates. He was frantically trying to figure out if we won or lost the game we just finished about an hour ago. My reaction was not even that of surprise or curiosity or even bewilderment.
Let me set the scene here: I’ve known this teammate my whole life and have probably spent upwards of 200 hours on the court with him. A talented player for sure, blessed with the some of the quickest hands I’ve seen and a sweet shooting stroke from behind the arc; he is the type of player you hate playing against and love having on your team. Off the court, well let’s just say we wonder what he is thinking most of the time.
His question did not catch me off guard; frankly, it was not even out of the norm for this player. Whether we won or lost just was not that big of a deal in his life—he honest to goodness just forgot. Now, to me this is just complete lunacy. After all, winning and losing are the two most important aspects of a box score, right? I get out there every week and love playing basketball, but honestly I am the most miserable human being if we lose. Does not matter if I dropped 20 points or blocked 10 shots; I just want to win.
The satisfaction of walking out of that gym with a win, and simply knowing that you and your teammates were just better than opposition is a phenomenal feeling. This is the way of life on every level of basketball—from jayvee hoops all the way NBA—winning signifies a major accomplishment. Some players are more accomplished than other because they were the best of a generation: Bill Russell with 11 rings, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 6 rings, and Michael Jordan with 6 rings. Others just happened to be in the right place at the right time: Tom Heinsohn with 8 rings alongside the indomitable Russell (and most of the role players from the Celtic dynasty of the late 50’s and 60’s), Robert Horry with 7 rings from three different teams, and Steve Kerr with 5 rings, three from Jordan and two more with a player many are already beginning to forget—Tim Duncan.
Nothing about Duncan’s game is flashy or breathtaking, but he powered the San Antonio Spurs to four titles in eight years. He is seven feet tall, but yet rarely throws down a dunk considering this immense size. Regularly and methodically, all he does is win (copyright: Skip Bayless). Currently riding an 18-game winning streak and leading the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals, Tim Duncan has no peer. Not Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing or even Shaquille O’Neal, a man who intersected the majority of Duncan’s career.
When debating the greatest players of all-time, usually Duncan and O’Neal receive a lot of airtime together. Shaq thrust himself into the limelight from Day One in the NBA, whereas Duncan preferred to spend his time off the court in less crowded settings to say the least. Shaq made rap albums and movies; Duncan invited his coach go swimming in his native St. Croix. On the court, both almost immediately were successful, but in vastly different ways. Only Duncan’s first NBA Championship can even really be compared to Shaq’s. David Robinson was just at the tail end of his prime by that point and had enough left in the tank to help power the Spurs to their first title in franchise history. After that, the team was 100% Duncan’s, and three more championships followed.
Shaq on the other hand always had a dominant sidekick playing alongside him. From Penny Hardaway helping to carry the Orlando Magic to the 1995 Finals to Kobe Bryant winning three titles next to him with the Los Angeles Lakers to Dwyane Wade willing the Miami Heat to the 2006 Finals, Shaq always had plenty of help. Along the way, Shaq also managed to make a lot of noise for the franchise that employed the Big Diesel. Shaq constantly feuded with teammates, coaching staffs, and various levels of management throughout his 19-year NBA career.
The true contrast though is what both players have done with the skills and abilities they have been blessed with. Nobody in the NBA has done more with less than Tim Duncan. He is not overly fast or athletic, but has used his high basketball IQ and elite post moves to average 20 points and 11 rebounds for his career. Shaq on the other hand was blessed with an amazing sense of balance and sneaky quickness despite his 325+ pound frame. Dominant and relentless, but only when he wanted to be—and therein lies the problem.
Tim Duncan wanted it more than Shaquille O’Neal. Winning appears to be the most import thing in the Big Fundamental’s life. I am not saying that Shaq would ever finish a game and call up Kobe to ask if they won because he forgot, but you don’t think that once he was showered and changed, O’Neal was at peace leaving the arena and heading out into the night?
All the nonsense from Shaq off the court helps to overshadow this truth about his career. People remember the funny quotes and the raps about Kobe and the crazy pregame dance moves, but forget that if Shaq had given 100% instead of about 80-85%, he would have gone down as the greatest Big Man ever, aside from Russell. We have our happy memories watching the joy on his face after throwing down that lop pass against the Blazers and watching his massive hands grasp the Larry O’Brien Trophy and Finals MVP Trophy with a big smile on his face and can even see his oversized, comical figure on TNT’s in-studio show during the playoffs, but just remember: he could have been so much more.
Duncan on the other hand left everything; repeat everything, on the court. When was the last time you heard a story about Duncan doing something ridiculous in his spare time? When is the last time you even heard Duncan speak? Four championships should speak for themselves, but how many times can we really be expected to watch the same spin move for a right-handed hook shot off the glass? For the reasons that nothing is memorable about Duncan’s game will be the reasons I will always tell younger NBA fans about how truly great he really was. You knew what you would get every night from #21: fantastic leadership, top notch post-D, and, yes, that same old spin move off the glass. And Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will continue to get that level of production from his almost unnoticed superstar throughout the remainder of these playoffs because that is what epitomizes Duncan’s career—consistency. Despite people not caring or noticing or whining about how boring Duncan appears to be, he will put up the same numbers and do whatever it takes to help his team win.
I told my father yesterday on the way home from work that I was considering writing my next column on Tim Duncan. My father (who can be described as an average basketball fan and can at the very least carry on an intelligent NBA-related conversation and know what he is talking about) responded in this way:
“Tim Duncan? Is he still active in the NBA?’
My point exactly.