His popularity there, and across Argentina, is such that he spends most of his time at his parents' home, inside. To go out is to be mobbed by fans, to feel like "one of the Rolling Stones," as he says. So he hangs out, lies low. Seeing him there, eating lunch with his parents, he doesn't look that far removed from the spindly teenager who was forever in the shadow of Pepe Sánchez, his friend who was the local star growing up. Ginóbili still can't believe his good fortune, or his fame. After lunch he takes a reporter upstairs to his room. The walls are covered with posters of Michael Jordan.
June 2007. The Spurs are in the Finals for the third time in five years and the Big Three is operating at the height of its collective powers. Under the tutelage of shooting coach Chip Engelland, Parker has added a midrange jumper. Ginóbili is healthy and at his reckless best. And Duncan is, as always, the anchor, covering for his teammates on defense, swinging the ball on offense and depositing one line drive bank shot after another off the glass. Theoretically, the trio should be popular. Parker is the dream boat, squiring a beautiful actress. On the court he is a blur, zipping around big men like they are traffic cones. Ginóbili is the slashing dunker, fond of uncorking wild behind-the-back passes. Whether you like fundamental basketball, timely assists, acrobatics, deep threes or hero ball, Ginóbili offers something for everyone. His influence will be seen in the years to come, as more and more players mimic his elongated Eurostep drives.
And then there's the 6'11" Duncan, the unrequited love of assistant coaches the world over, a big man so technically sound, so completely rational in his play, that his greatness can be difficult to discern. There's nothing sexy about not leaving your feet on a shot fake, or making the correct pass to the wing out of a double team, or showing-and-recovering on a screen. Unless, that is, you find studied excellence to be sexy.
It takes all of four games for the Spurs to defeat the Cavaliers and their 22-year-old phenom, LeBron James. In doing so, San Antonio scores more than 85 points only once. Outside San Antonio the public is indifferent. Apparently, all this winning is boring. Duncan is boring. Defense is boring. The TV ratings are abysmal.
No one on the Spurs cares one bit. It is their third title of the decade.
Let's move ahead now to February 2012. Things have changed in San Antonio. Though the Spurs are consistently successful in the regular season, they have yet to return to the Finals. New role players have come and gone but the Big Three remains, a nucleus that gets more rickety by the year. Ginóbili is a part-time player now. Duncan has spent years battling various injuries, forcing Pop to limit his minutes. (Occasionally Popovich lists his center as DNP-OLD when holding him out of games.) No one expects them to make the Finals anymore. The end is in sight.
So here is Duncan, perched on a brown couch in his room at the Denver Marriott. He has spent many years trying to live up to his reputation as the league's most boring player, and he has been largely successful. He's more reflective now, though, more willing to take stock. He talks about how his "mortality as a player" is not known. "We all try to hold on to the game as long as possible," Duncan says. "Do it as much as you can until you can't do it anymore. Some guys, it's taken away from them before they're ready."
Fifteen years into his career, Duncan has had nearly 120 teammates. He was particularly close to some, including Daniels, Rose and Bruce Bowen. But there are none he respects like Parker and Ginóbili. "Manu's a different breed," Duncan says. "He's the ultimate competitor. He doesn't care if you're down 20. If he's on the floor, he's trying his damndest to do everything he can to win."
To Popovich the three men have become like sons, if wildly different ones. He refers to Duncan as being like a "soul mate," and talks about how they've been an integral part of each other's lives for what feels like forever. "The same thing has really occurred with Manu and Tony," Popovich says. "Just because of the time spent. I mean, Jesus, Tony was 19 when he came in. I've been mentoring and talking to him about life all this time. When you're that close to people for that long, you develop a relationship that's loving and trustful." As for Ginóbili, Popovich remains in awe of what he's accomplished. "With Manu, he's like Michael and Kobe minus the same level of talent. There's a lion inside his chest like those two guys, and you respect the hell out of that. He amazes me on a daily basis, what he does. How did he figure this out? How did he become such a great player, growing up so far away from what you call city basketball or big-time basketball? It's crazy."
Three months later, propelled by a rejuvenated Duncan and a healthy Ginóbili, the Spurs will make the Western Conference finals for the first time in four years, then take a 2--0 lead on the Thunder. There are visions of another championship run, of one last stand. In the end, youth will win out. Oklahoma City wins four in a row to advance. The window closes another inch.