The photographer was encouraging David Robinson and Tim Duncan to relax in front of the camera. Do what comes naturally, he was telling them, move around, make a little conversation. He suggested that Robinson, the San Antonio Spurs' nine-year-veteran center, pretend to explain something to Duncan, his rookie teammate. So Robinson began chatting quietly to Duncan about the first subject that came to mind. If you listened closely, you could pick out enough key phrases ("laws of motion...approaching the speed of light...gravitational pull...") to tell that this was not some chalk talk about the finer points of low-post defense. Robinson was giving Duncan a quick discourse on Einstein's theory of relativity. "The scary thing," says Gregg Popovich, the Spurs' coach and general manager, "is that Tim probably understands what David's talking about."
Duncan and Robinson clearly communicate on a higher plane, and not just because Robinson is 7'1" and Duncan only an inch shorter. In addition to being the most athletically gifted pair of 7-foot teammates in the league, they're surely the most cerebral as well. "Tim has an incredibly quick mind," says Robinson. "You show him something once and you'll never have to show him again. He absorbs things immediately."
Maybe it's because of their intellects that the two aren't especially interested in attempts to hang a hokey nickname on them. Twin Peaks has been mentioned, and in a reference to Robinson's Naval Academy background and Duncan's classy court demeanor, some have suggested an Officer and a Gentleman. Because of their shot-blocking ability (at week's end Robinson was ranked seventh in the league, with 2.78 blocks per game, and Duncan 10th, with 2.44), others think they should be called the Swat Team.
Robinson and Duncan would rather be called members of a championship team. That possibility grows more realistic with each game, as Robinson, a seven-time All-Star, comes ever closer to his old form after missing all but six games last season with a strained lower back and a broken left loot, and as Duncan, the first pick in June's draft, becomes increasingly familiar with the pro game. They have already elevated the Spurs—who should have been renamed the Scars last year when a remarkable string of injuries caused them to finish 20-62, 39 games worse than the season before—to contender status. San Antonio was 6-3 through Sunday, with Robinson and Duncan combining for an average of 42.1 points and 24.4 rebounds per game. The consensus among friends and foes is that the duo is capable of even bigger things, especially Duncan. "Once he gets 20 or 30 games under his belt, Tim's going to dominate people," says Spurs forward Monty Williams. After facing Duncan in the preseason, Houston Rockets forward Charles Barkley was similarly impressed. "I have seen the future," he said, "and he wears number 21. He's even better than I thought he was, and I was expecting good stuff."
Duncan accepts such compliments the same way he reacts to almost everything, with all the outward excitement of a man picking up his dry cleaning. It's not that he lacks enthusiasm—he's simply serene and comfortable with himself. "He's not impressed with this NBA stuff," says Popovich. "He's not even impressed with him-self. If you knock his shot into the stands, or he knocks your shot into the stands, there's no difference in his demeanor. He goes down to the other end of the floor and does what's appropriate."
That's not to say that Duncan is humorless. While Robinson was giving him that impromptu physics seminar during the photo session, Duncan asked, "So how does this relate to Shaq coming down the lane?" He drew laughs before a practice last week by imitating the way point guard Avery Johnson had hopped around and argued a referee's call the night before. He also thinks on his feet quickly enough to avoid the traditional rookie treatment from his teammates. Returning from a game in Toronto, the Spurs were at the baggage claim when Popovich informed Duncan that, as a rookie, it was his job to grab the bags. Duncan went into a pantomime of a dutiful first-year player, scurrying over to the carousel and pretending to unload the gear. His teammates were laughing too much to object to the fact that he never lifted a single suitcase.
Duncan is slightly quirky—he collects everything from switchblades to samurai swords because, he says, "I just like sharp things"—and disarmingly humble. Mention that he used to be called Mr. Clumsy when he began playing basketball, on the island of St. Croix, and he'll say, "Used to? I still am, are you kidding? Clumsy is my middle name."
He's also completely confident. It's no coincidence that there's a NO FEAR decal on the back window of his black Yukon truck, although it is a bit of an overstatement. Duncan admits to being afraid of heights and sharks. "But that's it," he says. "Nothing else. And I don't think I have to worry about facing either one of them in the NBA."
The only concern about the Robinson-Duncan partnership was that the players would get in each other's way on the court. Like a pair of jets, they might be magnificent alone but not when they had to share the same airspace. They quickly erased those doubts. "As soon as we saw his feel for the game, how good a passer he is, how he's as comfortable facing up out on the wing as he is posting up down low, we knew he and David were going to be good together," says Johnson. "It almost doesn't matter which one you call the center and which one you call the power forward because they can do both jobs."
Even when they do get in each other's way, their athleticism makes things work. When San Antonio guard Jaren Jackson had the ball on a fast break in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers last week, he looked up at a sight that can only be seen at a Spurs game: two 7-footers streaking down the floor, ahead of the defense. Duncan and Robinson were so close together that when Jackson threw an alley-oop pass, they looked, for a split second, like a pair of outfielders about to let a pop fly drop between them. At the last instant Duncan reached out, grabbed the ball and dropped in an acrobatic layup.