Tim Duncan's 20,000th point was as restrained and nondescript as most of the other 19,999 NBA points the San Antonio Spurs forward had scored. He chased down an errant pass at the top of the key. He was open 18 feet from the basket. He took his time, set his feet, faced up and shot the ball just as the defender, Houston Rockets forward Chuck Hayes, vainly closed in. The ball cleared the front of the rim, spun hard into the back of the hoop and battered its way through the net, like a police officer breaking through a criminal's wooden door.
Duncan's face showed no emotion. He could have been holding a full house or a pair of deuces—there was no telling. Duncan has celebrated four championships. He has quietly dominated games for 13 seasons. He is known to complain about referee no-calls, but the face rarely breaks and displays what's going on inside. After he scored his 20,000th point (and 20,001st), he jogged back to defend while the crowd at the AT&T Center stood and applauded. At the first timeout the fans stood and cheered again. Duncan offered a quick wave of gratitude. Then, of course, he talked with teammates yet again about picks and rolls. He was glad to have it over with.
Has American sports ever had a player all at once so great and so unknown? When Duncan made that shot against the Rockets last Friday night, he became the fourth player in NBA history to score 20,000 points, grab 10,000 rebounds, block 2,000 shots and dish off 2,500 assists.* Now, admittedly, there isn't any special magic in that particular bouillabaisse.
*The other three on the list are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal. It should be noted that Artis Gilmore also attained those totals in a career that was partly spent in the ABA. Gilmore is spectacularly underrated; he should be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But in a way, that odd collection of numbers might be the best way to get close to Tim Duncan's impact. Since the league's popularity jump in the mid-1980s, the biggest NBA stars have all had a can't-mistake persona. You could not help but recognize Michael Jordan's killer instinct, Magic Johnson's showtime moves, Larry Bird's grim tenacity, Shaq's brute force, the precise choreography of Stockton-to-Malone.
What do we really know, though, about Tim Duncan? We know that he's quiet, that he shuns attention, that he donates much of his time to charity. We know he likes bank shots and video games and that he lost 20 pounds this off-season to help his mobility. (He turns 34 in April.) We know he stayed at Wake Forest for four years (and got his psychology degree). And we know, from his mostly unrevealing website, SlamDuncan.com, that his mother used to repeat a nursery rhyme to him as a boy.
Good, better, best.
Never let it rest.
Until your good is better.
And your better is your best.