Just one of the guys (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday June 6, 2007 2:06PM; Updated: Wednesday June 6, 2007 2:23PM
When Duncan was winning the first of his two successive MVPs in 2001-02, the Spurs were being blown out by the Lakers in the playoffs for the second straight year. It was valid then to question whether Duncan could become a leader; it isn't valid anymore.
"He's learned over the years that he's not a towel-throwing rah-rah sort of individual, so for him to lead that way would not work,'' Popovich says. "He has dug deep within himself to really figure out what kind of guy he is, and what he is is a guy who leads not just by example but by being supportive and empathetic, nonjudgmental with teammates.''
As hard as it is to discern from his stoic expression, Duncan is the emotional leader of a team that avoids the high highs and low lows by focusing in on the moment. Duncan does much more than serve as a model for his teammates to look up to; watch in between plays and you'll see him constantly ducking down to share encouragement with players who aren't nearly as talented as he is. He's assuring them that they can perform their jobs as well as he is performing his -- if not better.
"He'll reach a boiling point, or a point where he needs to be vocal when it's something that the rest of us are not doing well -- himself included,'' Spurs guard Brent Barry says. "It might be something where he's talking about what the bigs are doing against a certain team and you know, 'We've got to box out better.' It might be calling out something that he's doing. And the other thing is that Pop never hesitates to get on him either.''
By accepting Popovich's criticism and discipline, Duncan sets a high standard that all of his teammates must live up to.
"We don't have a lot of issues that other places have -- we're not concerned with guys getting here on time or missing practice or flying off and doing things,'' Carlesimo says. "His relationship with Pop is -- and you usually don't put an adverb on top of this -- incredibly unique. They push each other in a really good way. They have their moments like all players and coaches, but they trust in each other and believe in each other.''
Give and take has worked its way comfortably into their relationship. During Game 3 of the Western Conference finals at Salt Lake City, I noticed Duncan wandering into the coaches-only huddle that Popovich holds with his assistants before he addresses the players at the Spurs' bench. The next day Popovich told me that Duncan had come over to confirm that he would be reentering the game to start the final period.
"But usually it's humorous, which nobody would expect,'' Popovich says. "He'll be out there and we'll be talking about some things and he'll say, 'Oh, I'm glad I was here to hear that. That's life-changing,' or something like that. He'll come up with some statement and just joke. Other times he'll be serious, he just wants to hear what we're talking about. Other times he makes a serious comment about the pick-and-roll or what we can do.''
That night in Utah, after being told that he would be starting the fourth quarter, Duncan wandered over to the team bench and landed himself in Popovich's chair. He made some kind of comment and all of his teammates laughed. I imagine he was playfully mimicking Popovich, but I couldn't get anyone to tell me so.
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