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S.L. Price
December 15, 2003
Two-time MVP Tim Duncan doesn't like to sound off or even share what he's really thinking. But the NBA's master of the mind game has one obsession: He needs to win at everything he does
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December 15, 2003

The Quiet Man

Two-time MVP Tim Duncan doesn't like to sound off or even share what he's really thinking. But the NBA's master of the mind game has one obsession: He needs to win at everything he does

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But the game between the U.S. and the Virgin Islands is another matter. Tim has never been more conflicted. There's something disturbing about getting ready to destroy the team he once dreamed of playing for, the people he grew up with. He has already flip-flopped once, saying he wouldn't suit up, and then, the day before tip-off, decided to play. But now, the afternoon of the game, Duncan has changed his mind again. The V.I. team, missing three of its best players, has been pummeled daily in the tournament. During warm-ups, with the undefeated U.S. squad at one basket and the win-less Virgin Islands team at the other, Duncan is shooting when he notices the islanders filing slowly off the court to their locker room. He stops, holds the ball and watches until every player is out of sight. He looks as if he wants to go with them. Just before tip-off, after the teams exchange gifts, Duncan smiles and shakes hands with as many V.I. players as he can. Then he tells Calvert White, the one he's known the longest, that he's sitting this one out.

The U.S. wins 113-55. Duncan refuses all interviews afterward, issuing a typically dry statement about this being "the best gesture to make" and "the right thing to do." He doesn't mention his mom's voice ringing over the water or the summer days spent pounding nails with his father or Hugo's terrifying howl or all those pickup games in St. Croix during which he discovered who Tim Duncan was. He doesn't mention loyalty. He doesn't use the word love.

"Now everybody knows Tim Duncan is from the Virgin Islands," Clenance says later that night. "Now they know that he's proud of that. This is the only way I know Tim to do things. Talk is cheap. This was the ultimate statement he could make today—and he didn't even open his mouth."

The silent man makes everybody nervous. It's an old saw of negotiating that the less you say, the more your opponent reveals. Duncan lives this. There are players who babble and bait him, none more than Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, whose athletic gifts as a 7-footer match (or even exceed) Duncan's. Yet Duncan never speaks on the court. "Emotion doesn't work for me," he says. "If I get too high or low, something always happens. If there's 10 seconds left and I hit a shot and I'm jumping up and down and high-fiving everybody on the side? It's a guaran-damn-tee that they're going to hit a shot and the game's going to be over. And I'm going to look like an ass."

But then there's the quality that separates Duncan from all the sweet-tempered giants who never panned out, the tiling that makes him one of the greatest players ever: He enjoys what happens when he doesn't speak. It gives him control and, paired with his skill, frustrates his victims, shames them, beats them mentally as much as physically. Duncan isn't like Shaq, wearing out the opposition with his bulk. He's Garry Kasparov in hightops, a former psychology major who delights in the power of his silence. "You destroy people's psyches when you do that," he says. "You absolutely destroy them. They can't get inside your head. They're talking to you, and there's no response other than to make this shot, make this play, get this rebound and go the other way. People hate that."

When, during college, Duke center Greg Newton ripped Duncan for being "passive," "soft" and "babyish" after one game, reporters dutifully trotted to Duncan for a response, sure that he would rise to the bait. The insults were just too blatant. "He's a great player," Duncan said calmly, and Newton has been living down the comments ever since.

When Duncan distances himself from even his peers, it is as calculated as it is effective; it creates mystery. "People don't know anything about me," he says, "and it's good." Nearly any conversation with Duncan is on his terms. When Odom started pitching the 16-year-old Duncan on the merits of Wake Forest, he found himself competing with a football game on TV; holding his temper over such rudeness, Odom plopped himself down next to the screen so Duncan would be forced to glance at him during timeouts.

"[His aloofness] drives people nuts," Amy says, "and the fact that he knows that gives him the power. In our personal lives, neither of us is confrontational, but he knows that not saying anything, or saying, 'You're right,' infuriates me. It's very difficult to win an argument with Tim."

Ever. Remember: Duncan's a winner. That may sound elementary, but it's not. An athlete's drive often rises from sources far from competition—from rage or poverty or violence or Daddy's leaving home, from the desire to be famous or loved. The game is almost incidental. Duncan comes from none of that. His body made him a good player, his work ethic allowed him to improve, but it's his basic need to prevail that made him excel. For Duncan, everything but the competition is incidental. He actually hated swimming; only the prospect of competing at the meets kept him going. He has resisted all thought of leaving San Antonio because its remoteness keeps the ancillary aspects of stardom to manageable size. "Everything I do is basic, and that doesn't sell," Duncan says. "I don't have the icing. My icing is, I just want to win." Such simplicity is boring to some, but for those watching closely, "there's a purity there," Odom says, "that's almost surreal."

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich saw that and used it. His greatest achievement may be that, before last season, he divined Duncan's deepest appetite and used it for his own purposes. With David Robinson slowed by injuries and without a firebrand leader like Avery Johnson, the coach pushed Duncan to break free at last of his own reticence. He insisted that Duncan be the one bucking up teammates with a word or a touch, the one working officials, the one suggesting plays and keeping order on the court. But Duncan resisted; he called himself "a blender, not a leader." Only when Popovich asserted that the team couldn't win otherwise did Duncan buy in. "That's the one way I could get it across," Popovich says.

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