Rising But Reluctant Star — Tim Duncan, The Quietly Commanding 7- Footer Of The San Antonio Spurs, Just Might Confound Widespread Expectations And Be The Truest Symbol Of The New-Age NBA.

By Glenn Nelson
Seattle Times Staff Reporter

SAN ANTONIO – The future of the NBA isn’t wearing cornrows or dribbling the ball between his legs and whirling before flushing down on some chump while letting loose a primal scream. The future of the NBA isn’t in any rap videos or animated movies or futuristic sneaker commercials. The future of the NBA hasn’t been arrested for possession nor does he possess an arresting personality.

No, the future of the NBA is as subtle as a cut across the lane, receiving the ball as carefully as if it were hazardous waste, faking up and going under. He speaks softly and sticks big shots. He drips with sweat, not attitude. He is stony faced on the court, the picture of focus, not circus.

Most of all, Tim Duncan isn’t what you or the NBA or corporate America expected the post-Jordan breakout player to be. It seemed more likely that it would be checking-the-scene-with-a-gangster-lean Allen Iverson, yo-dog Kevin Garnett or Kobe-like-Mike Bryant. You know, the guys with megawattage or street appeal, or enough of both to capture the sacred demographics.

But none of those guys is this deep in the NBA playoffs. The one San Antonio teammate Mario Elie describes as a “laid-back island boy” is the closest of the young comers – just seven more victories – to a validating championship. In some ways, it is a scarier proposition for the league than the rappers or rap-sheet holders.

If Tim Duncan is the future of the NBA, then excuse us for yawning.

“The NBA is smart enough to embrace the excitement of Allen Iverson’s game, but they’re not about to hand over ambassadorship of the league to him,” says Ray Clark, managing partner of The Marketing Arm, a sports-marketing company based in Dallas. “A guy like Tim Duncan, they’re comfortable with, for now. But I don’t think Tim Duncan is an exciting enough player to reach the elite level, if he doesn’t win championships.

“I don’t think as many companies will gravitate to him as people think. I don’t think Tim Duncan can carry the league on his back, but I also don’t think he has to. We’re all wanting to position someone to do that because we’re used to Michael Jordan doing it. There is a wealth of exciting young players that are fun to watch. I don’t think the league needs another Michael Jordan right now.”

Michael Jordan, they are not getting, though Duncan is zeroing in on some very Michael-like accomplishments. The only player to be ranked among the league’s top 10 in scoring, rebounding, blocks and field-goal percentage, the 7-footer is expected to finish second or third to Utah’s Karl Malone in MVP balloting that should be released soon by the NBA. Last year, Duncan finished fifth in MVP votes and became the first rookie since Larry Bird in 1980 to snare first-team all-league honors.

If, at 23, Duncan can win the first post-Jordan title, it will give him a light-year’s head start on the rest of the pack. Maybe that will be enough to overcome the handicap of being as underwhelming as the Alamo, another San Antonio landmark that holds a significant place in U.S. history but takes about 5 minutes to tour. Some, as Sports Illustrated does this week, would trumpet Duncan as a triumph of substance over style, but this is an MTV, sound-bite society that no longer wistfully inquires, “Where’s the beef?” It also wants the fancy buns, special sauce and promotional tie-ins.

Even Lon Babby, an agent paid to promote and advocate Duncan, is forced to admit that with his client, “Maybe the message is just a little harder to get across.”

Not that Babby hasn’t been doing his job. Duncan has cut commercials with Nike, Sprite (with Grant Hill), Schick (with teammate David Robinson) and EA Sports. The NBA also engaged him in its post-lockout, Valentines-to-the-fans promotion. In other words, Duncan is as well marketed as any player in the league today. But who would know it? Even his teammates, who should be his most dialed-in following, don’t seem to be aware of Duncan’s growing ubiquitousness on the airwaves.

“You don’t see Tim in the public too much,” Elie says. “I guess he likes it that way.”

While that’s partly true, the Virgin Islands native also forces people to peel away too many layers to get to whatever style and personality lie at his core. Like many young people, he listens to hard-core rappers such as DMX and Nas, but those discs are ensconced in CD changers, not stacked on a shelf in his locker stall. Duncan also has two tattoos, both discreetly covered by his jersey.

Likewise, while the public perception of him is the emotion-less “Spock,” as Duke fans referred to Duncan when he played at Wake Forest, teammates know him as a “clown,” sporting a wit as sharp and idiosyncratic as his collection of knives and swords. Spur point guard Avery Johnson likes to tell the story of Duncan’s first NBA game, during the heat of which he asked Johnson what kind of music he likes.

Double-taking, Johnson replied, “What?”

“What kind of music do you like?” Duncan repeated.

“Gospel and jazz,” Johnson answered.

“OK,” Duncan said.

And that was that.

Johnson says the exchange caught him off guard but made him smile and relaxed, and he had a good game.

Duncan “thinks he’s a 7-foot Sigmund Freud,” teammate Malik Rose says.

Yet the analysis is hardly a two-way process. Duncan seldom shares with the public the sides of himself that his teammates see. When two out-of-town sportswriters requested interviews the other day, he performed what one Spur official termed a public-relations “pick-and-roll” – while Coach Gregg Popovich picked up the assembled media throng, Duncan rolled around the back of the pack to the safety of the locker room.

San Antonio’s cocoonish team culture serves to nurture Duncan’s demure inclinations. Duncan has to withstand little of the media hurricane because his teammates are among the most accessible in pro basketball. In addition to providing 7-foot-1, former MVP support on the court, David Robinson also bears the brunt of longstanding labels of underachievement and being soft that could otherwise attach themselves to Duncan.

And San Antonio itself is a sprawling but sleepy, small-market media center, tucked southern enough in Texas to mostly escape the notice of the otherwise all-seeing network peacock.

Playing hide and seek with the media could be a self-destructive game for Duncan. Newspaper and electronic reporters aren’t just the ones who anoint the game’s next saviors; they also vote for the major awards that help build a player’s marketability. Jordan was a master at playing both the game on the court and the one off it.

“I don’t think Tim really cares,” said Spurs guard Steve Kerr, who won three NBA championships with Jordan in Chicago. “Michael obviously was big into the endorsements and marketing. I think Tim just really enjoys playing basketball.”

If that joy is an undercurrent in Duncan’s game, it is not nearly strong enough to pull anyone in. When Duncan jerked a rebound from Malone, dunked and yelled earlier this month, it was such a jolt that the 35,212 who packed the Alamodome howled, “M-V-P! M-V-P!” While Duncan later admitted the chants made him “tingly,” it was a little like him admitting that dragging his sneakers on nylon carpeting gave him static electricity.

Duncan’s style otherwise is a study of efficiency and understatement. His skills are otherworldly for a man his size, but if he were 6 inches shorter he could be, say, Jaren Jackson. His game therefore isn’t very accessible. It doesn’t stir the imagination. The public doesn’t easily become enchanted with basketball’s giants, unless it believes the giants will read them a bedtime story or serve up an entree at Taco Bell.

“When a kid or adult is out playing basketball, they can try to imitate the exciting, flashy moves they see the little guys make,” says The Marketing Arm’s Clark. “But they can’t really imitate the post moves and dunks of the big guys. Fans don’t really gravitate toward the big men. Shaquille O’Neal has fallen out of the top 20 NBA endorsers. That really drives the point home.”

Still, there are those who say ruling Duncan out as the NBA’s Next Big Thing is assessing a new situation using old assumptions. This aberrant, post-lockout season may have been more than a hiccup in the NBA’s history. It may have been a major, necessary shift in response to changes in a society tired of riding the razor’s edge.

After a diet of quick hits, maybe the American public now wants big, safe and permanent. If so, then maybe it is indeed ready for Duncan’s Chevy truck, like-a-rock reliability. It is, after all, the way Babby has tried to position his client with long-term corporate commitments.

“I was one of the people who quickly anointed Kobe Bryant and was wrong,” says Rick Burton of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “But what if Kobe was ripe for the NBA world before the lockout, when it was still a game of the isolation players? I’m a big believer in millennium shifts, when things are changed dramatically by a symbolic moment. I think the NBA lockout, coinciding with Jordan’s retirement, sent a ripple that the league was about to be different.

“Now, is it possible that the next big player in the NBA is not going to be flashy, but a solid, rugged, everyday performer who is exceptionally gifted? Is it possible that we were looking in all the wrong places for our next hero? Duncan was Rookie of the Year last year, and nobody even knew it. He’s been under the radar the whole time. Suddenly, up jumps a guy who represents values we all secretly want.”

It is a confusing development, for Duncan is more defined by what he’s not than what he actually is. He is not flashy, or a flash in the pan. He is not cursed by bad habits, or bad judgment. He is not in your face.

He’s an about-face, actually. Ready or not, like it or not, the future of the NBA is here. He is just not anything you expected.

Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company

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