IMAGINE a parallel universe in which Tim Duncan is the most popular player in the NBA. The streets would be dotted with black number 21 Spurs jerseys; sportscasters would refer to him, shorthand, as T-Dunc or Tim-peccable; a sports drink would pump the jingle "I want to get to the rim like Tim!"; and across the gyms and blacktops of America teenagers would catch the ball on the left block, mechanically turn, fire up a bank shot and then yell, "I just went TD on your a--!" He would have his own best-selling highlight video (Come Jump-Hook with Me), and instead of sticking out their tongues, youngsters would mimic the Duncan Stare after making baskets.
But, of course, that is not the case. Rather, Duncan is referred to as a superstar primarily by the few companies that he does represent, a not-so-klieg-light coalition of the ad community that includes H-E-B stores, a video game called Backyard Basketball and forever-destined-to-be-a-soccer-company Adidas. Some commentators, especially those named Skip Bayless, argue that Duncan is not a superstar because he is not exciting to watch.
Regardless, there is no disputing that Duncan is less visible, and less popular, than most NBA stars. Despite being a two-time league MVP, owner of three championship rings and an all-the-time All-NBA selection, he will never be as recognizable a star as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson.
Why is this?
Let's start with the obvious. He wasn't born on the U.S. mainland (he's from the U.S. Virgin Islands); he plays in a small market; he plays the least-flashy position in the NBA (calling him what he really is, a center); he shows no emotion on the court or with the press--"a paragon of anticharisma," as S.L. Price called him in a laudatory SI Sportsman of the Year feature in '03--and he doesn't make highlight-worthy plays, at least as judged by those tape-winders at sports networks.
Of course this is exactly why many basketball aficionados love Duncan. He functions as a filter of sorts; if you are a true fan, you will appreciate the soundness of his game and find the beauty in his bank shot, his drop step, the way he rarely leaves his feet on defense. He is the anti- Vinsanity. New Jersey's Vince Carter is a player whose attributes are so wildly obvious and acrobatic that his myriad deficiencies are harder for the novice fan to spot. More than that, a player such as Carter--a perennial vote-leader in the All-Star balloting--is good at the things that are easiest for a casual fan to notice: dunking, making crazy shots and, well, jumping really high.
There's an even simpler reason why Duncan is not more popular: He doesn't want to be. That's why he offers up meaningless quotes in a monotone voice, why he turns down offers to flex his biceps on magazine covers, why he is perfectly happy that you know next to nothing about his personal life. Think about it: He's one of the best, if not the best, player in the NBA. He's winning championships, he's being paid like a sultan, and he's playing for the best organization in the league. What's another $10 million in endorsements going to do for his life? How are more screaming fans going to make him happier? Why would he want to be a superstar, if what we really mean by that is a marketable superstar? It may seem unlikely in celebrity-saturated America, but Duncan is opting out of the culture of idolatry. And in spite of his amazing set of skills, that may be the most remarkable thing about him.