There's no Hoosier heartland in Duncan's background, no housing projects or city streets or any of the other roots so familiar to the athlete narrative. Duncan grew up in St. Croix, raised by a loving jack-of-all-trades father and a mother whose mantra was, "Good, better, best/Never let it rest/Until your good is better and your better is your best." He watched his mother, Ione, die of cancer when he was 14, weathered Hurricane Hugo in the house his father helped build and left a promising swimming career to play basketball. To this day he is an island guy to the core. He once tried to change his residency to the Virgin Islands, so that the taxes on his salary could help out his home territory. It worked, Duncan says, for roughly two years. "I thought it was great," he says.
The U.S. government didn't.
Here is a partial list of the NBA players who dunked more often than Tim Duncan this season: Gordon Hayward, Landry Fields, John Wall, Byron Mullens, Trevor Booker. In all, 63 players threw down more often. Even when Duncan did put one down, it was invariably a one-handed job, raised above the rim and deposited with something close to disdain. In fact, you could make a credible argument that, with the exception of Larry Bird, no player in NBA history has been more successful while blessed with fewer hops.
16 The Subtlety
On the other hand the stuff Duncan is good at really, really excites NBA assistant coaches. The corollary to this, of course, is that most Americans aren't NBA assistant coaches. Assistants will go on about the way he can pass out of the post to his wing shooters with his eyes shut, the way he faces up one foot farther from the basket than most big men, the way he blocks shots without jumping, the beauty of his bank shot (a shot the rest of the country has made a tacit agreement only to use in H-O-R-S-E) and countless other small but important details.
Here's Warriors assistant Mike Malone, one of the game's best defensive minds: "Tim loves the left block, going middle, turning over his left shoulder, getting to his righty jump hook. So, obviously if you can, you want to turn to the baseline, which is his countermove. But then when he faces up, he's so good at that bank shot, and if you get your hands up, he's going to come up and draw that foul. You have to be ready to contest, but if you have your hand out, he's too smart! You have to do your work early, take away the middle and still give some help from the nail, some double team help. And try to push him out a little farther. Don't let him get two feet in the paint so he can get to his righty jump hook. Be physical, try to send him baseline. Get a late contest."
And? "And it still doesn't work," Malone says. "It's like Kobe. You can say, 'Make Kobe go left,' but he still scores going left."
17 The Myth
Two weeks ago, before Game 1 of the series against the Jazz, Popovich was asked whom he'd be starting at center, and he answered, "Tim Duncan, like we have for the last 15 years." And thus the lamest ruse in recent NBA history finally came to an end. After two decades of being called a power forward, of showing up on All-Star ballots as a power forward, of engendering debate about whether he's already the greatest ever at the four, the Spurs have come clean. Tim Duncan's a center. Always has been.