There's a new face on the NBA, and it's not a smiling one. Or even a frowning one. Or a tongue-hanging-out-of-a-mug one. It's kind of expressionless, with no more range of emotion than the average cigar store Indian's. When aggrieved, San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan can make his eyes get big. He's got that over wooden statues. But if he's capable of registering anything beyond mild annoyance, he has yet to display it. The NBA's new face is one, principally, of apparent indifference.
But you'd better get used to it, because this is what the NBA's going to look like for a long time. Duncan is only 23, and if he gets even a little bit better—and his progress has been such that he figures to get a lot better—he's going to own the league. This isn't particularly good news for the NBA, which likes its heroes a little more animated than Duncan is, but there's only so much style you can get away with before there's an inquiry into substance. Duncan, who may have no style, is all substance.
Take the Western Conference best-of-seven semifinals, in which Duncan's Spurs swept the Los Angeles Lakers, concluding with a 118-107 victory on Sunday at the Great Western Forum. For excitement you had Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal grunting and sweating under the basket, rising for some fierce rim-rattler that was going to echo in your head long after the game. Or you had shooting guard Kobe Bryant breaking down the defense with some move he invented on the spot. Yet, as much fun as those two were to watch, they didn't get the job done, did they? Shaq became a liability late in every game because he couldn't make even half his free throws. (He missed 32 of 61 in the series.) Meanwhile Bryant was as likely to dribble straight out of bounds on some bent-for-hell fast break of his own devising as he was to shake down a three.
For getting the job done, you had the vastly more imperturbable Duncan, who averaged 29.0 points in the four games—including 37 points on Saturday (a 103-91 Spurs win) and and 33 on Sunday. That he did it without a smile, a smirk or even a raised eyebrow (his eyes got big two-three times) is going to disappoint all those folks looking for marketing angles. His face isn't built to sell shoes, promote the NBA or otherwise heat up the economy. But what are you going to do about his game? As the Lakers discovered, you can't ignore it just because it hasn't got commercial or sex appeal.
Just get used to it, that's all you can do. "This was no breakout series," cautions Duncan's coach, Gregg Popovich. "He's pretty much been doing this all year." Most of last year, too, when he was anointed NBA Rookie of the Year after averaging 21.1 points and 11.9 rebounds. Since supplanting longtime Spurs star David Robinson as San Antonio's go-to-guy, Duncan has been the NBA's most efficient 7-footer.
So why haven't you heard or seen much about him? The problem, besides Duncan's pointed disregard for attention from the fans and media: He doesn't give the impression that he's doing anything especially important. "And then," says forward Robert Horry, "you look up at the scoreboard, and it's Lakers 20, Duncan 22. He's not like Shaq or Kobe, who can take out the crowd with a dunk or a drive. He's got a lot of weapons. Too many."
Duncan has long arms, loves to bank shots off the glass, is deft in the low post and can pop a 15-footer in your face. "I hate those long arms," says Horry.
If his performances are somehow too low-key to excite the masses, maybe these numbers will prove titillating: Duncan was the only player in the league to rank among the top 10 in scoring (sixth), rebounding (fifth), blocked shots (seventh) and field goal percentage (10th). The Big Easy is what teammate Mario Elie calls Duncan. Either that or the Quiet Assassin. So what if he doesn't smile?
In fact, as the other Spurs are desperate to announce, Duncan is anything but easy or quiet off the court. He does smile, they say. The player who was so inscrutable that Duke fans called him Spock when he played at Wake Forest is a practical joker, it's said. "Well, not a very good one," says his best friend, Antonio Daniels, a Spurs guard just two years into the league, like Duncan. "I wouldn't say his humor is dry, either. It's more a cheap-shot humor. But it's funny!"
It's as if there has been a team effort to construct an alter ego for Duncan, whose composure has come to seem as otherworldly as Spock himself. He may not be quite as "wild and crazy" as Daniels insists, but there's reassuring evidence he's not as restrained as he appears. He always wears his practice shorts backward, he has a tattoo of Merlin on his chest and a joker on his back, he has a knife collection, and he thinks of himself as a guard. Real wild stuff!