18 The Big-Man Bias
It's an accepted truth: The only reason most big guys get into the game is that when they're young, someone grabs them on the playground, says, "You're tall, so you need to play basketball." Then that person shoves a ball in their hands. It's why you see so many indifferent big men even at the NBA level, players such as Joe Barry Carroll and Eddy Curry and Stanley Roberts, even Andrew Bynum. As a result, fans become conditioned to expect mediocre effort from the game's biggest players.
Ask those who know Duncan what drives him, however, and they all say the same things: He loves the game. He cares just as much as the little guys do. It's one thing to claim to love the game and another, as Ferry says, "to make the sacrifices that are necessary to win." They point out how Duncan lost those 15 pounds in the last couple of years to protect his knees, at an age when most 7-footers only get stockier (and indeed, to see him in the locker room with his shirt off, devoid of body fat, is jarring). They talk about how, in contrast to David Robinson, who was lovable and smart and marketable but never could remember all the plays, Duncan "knows every play from front to back, position one through five." As longtime assistant coach Mike Budenholzer says, "Tim could coach the team if he needed to."
19 Mind Games
His on-court demeanor is so reserved that The Onion once ran a story titled, TIM DUNCAN HAMS IT UP FOR CROWD BY ARCHING LEFT EYEBROW SLIGHTLY. This impression is intentional, it turns out. Duncan has said he uses silence to "destroy people's psyches." He explains, "The best mind game you can run on someone is just to keep going at them and at them until they break." Don't respond, don't show emotion. Just keep playing. "Eventually," he says with a grin, "you'll piss them off."
20 The Anti-Marketing of a Superstar
There are no shoes. No line of wicking shorts. No, well, anything. Lon Babby, Duncan's longtime agent and now G.M. of the Suns, says that Duncan "turned down almost all of it" when it came to opportunities. "It just wasn't that important to him," Babby says. "I had to make sure I was doing what he wanted, not what I wanted."
The result is that it can be awfully lonely to be a Duncan acolyte. Ever seen a Duncan jersey outside Texas? Know any non--Spurs fans who'd call him their favorite player?
When this last question is posed on Twitter, a virtual scavenger hunt ensues. Dozens upon dozens try to help. They respond that they once knew this guy who had a friend who really liked Duncan, or that Duncan was their favorite player from 1997 to '99, or that Duncan is, like, their third favorite player and does that count? Then, finally, paydirt. An NBA fan in Canada, one in Cleveland and one in New York. I query them with e-mails, ask why they love Tim. An interesting theme emerges: In Duncan, they see themselves. They talk about how he's "old school," how "he's an introvert like myself" and how "he does his job and goes home."
Which is to say that Duncan is sort of like us. And what kind of hero does that make?