There's a new face on the NBA, and it's not a smiling one. Or even a frowning one. Or a tongue-hanging-out-of-a-mug one. It's kind of expressionless, with no more range of emotion than the average cigar store Indian's. When aggrieved, San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan can make his eyes get big. He's got that over wooden statues. But if he's capable of registering anything beyond mild annoyance, he has yet to display it. The NBA's new face is one, principally, of apparent indifference.
But you'd better get used to it, because this is what the NBA's going to look like for a long time. Duncan is only 23, and if he gets even a little bit better—and his progress has been such that he figures to get a lot better—he's going to own the league. This isn't particularly good news for the NBA, which likes its heroes a little more animated than Duncan is, but there's only so much style you can get away with before there's an inquiry into substance. Duncan, who may have no style, is all substance.
Take the Western Conference best-of-seven semifinals, in which Duncan's Spurs swept the Los Angeles Lakers, concluding with a 118-107 victory on Sunday at the Great Western Forum. For excitement you had Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal grunting and sweating under the basket, rising for some fierce rim-rattler that was going to echo in your head long after the game. Or you had shooting guard Kobe Bryant breaking down the defense with some move he invented on the spot. Yet, as much fun as those two were to watch, they didn't get the job done, did they? Shaq became a liability late in every game because he couldn't make even half his free throws. (He missed 32 of 61 in the series.) Meanwhile Bryant was as likely to dribble straight out of bounds on some bent-for-hell fast break of his own devising as he was to shake down a three.
For getting the job done, you had the vastly more imperturbable Duncan, who averaged 29.0 points in the four games—including 37 points on Saturday (a 103-91 Spurs win) and and 33 on Sunday. That he did it without a smile, a smirk or even a raised eyebrow (his eyes got big two-three times) is going to disappoint all those folks looking for marketing angles. His face isn't built to sell shoes, promote the NBA or otherwise heat up the economy. But what are you going to do about his game? As the Lakers discovered, you can't ignore it just because it hasn't got commercial or sex appeal.
Just get used to it, that's all you can do. "This was no breakout series," cautions Duncan's coach, Gregg Popovich. "He's pretty much been doing this all year." Most of last year, too, when he was anointed NBA Rookie of the Year after averaging 21.1 points and 11.9 rebounds. Since supplanting longtime Spurs star David Robinson as San Antonio's go-to-guy, Duncan has been the NBA's most efficient 7-footer.
So why haven't you heard or seen much about him? The problem, besides Duncan's pointed disregard for attention from the fans and media: He doesn't give the impression that he's doing anything especially important. "And then," says forward Robert Horry, "you look up at the scoreboard, and it's Lakers 20, Duncan 22. He's not like Shaq or Kobe, who can take out the crowd with a dunk or a drive. He's got a lot of weapons. Too many."
Duncan has long arms, loves to bank shots off the glass, is deft in the low post and can pop a 15-footer in your face. "I hate those long arms," says Horry.
If his performances are somehow too low-key to excite the masses, maybe these numbers will prove titillating: Duncan was the only player in the league to rank among the top 10 in scoring (sixth), rebounding (fifth), blocked shots (seventh) and field goal percentage (10th). The Big Easy is what teammate Mario Elie calls Duncan. Either that or the Quiet Assassin. So what if he doesn't smile?
In fact, as the other Spurs are desperate to announce, Duncan is anything but easy or quiet off the court. He does smile, they say. The player who was so inscrutable that Duke fans called him Spock when he played at Wake Forest is a practical joker, it's said. "Well, not a very good one," says his best friend, Antonio Daniels, a Spurs guard just two years into the league, like Duncan. "I wouldn't say his humor is dry, either. It's more a cheap-shot humor. But it's funny!"
It's as if there has been a team effort to construct an alter ego for Duncan, whose composure has come to seem as other-worldly as Spock himself. He may not be quite as "wild and crazy" as Daniels insists, but there's reassuring evidence he's not as restrained as he appears. He always wears his practice shorts backward, he has a tattoo of Merlin on his chest and a joker on his back, he has a knife collection, and he thinks of himself as a guard. Real wild stuff!
Duncan won't contribute to this resume of idiosyncrasy, preferring to speak in vague generalities about his life, keeping a distance from his public. Told that Daniels thinks of him as a "big kid," Duncan dismisses the idea. "I behave like a kid just enough, no more." he says. "When I'm away from basketball, I'm the biggest kid. I do a good job of keeping myself sane. But on the other hand, I'm more of a solitary guy, glad to be left alone."
This squares with what appears on the court but not with what is heard off it. "Solitary?" says Daniels. "He busts into my room on road trips, and if there's a basketball game on, he makes me turn to wrestling. We're in each other's rooms hours a day, watching TV and laughing."
According to forward Malik Rose, Duncan is a sort of dime store psychologist who walks from player to player wherever the team happens to be, trying to root out each guy's unhappiness. "He tries to probe my psyche?" says Rose. "Please! I was at Drexel [an inner-city college]. That might work with Antonio [who attended, er, rustic Bowling Green], not me." The Spurs, evidently, get a different face than the rest of us do. "Just 'cause he can do a 360 with a straight face doesn't mean he's not fun," says Rose.
Inevitably, Duncan's composure comes to be regarded as a lack of commitment, which gets all his teammates in an uproar and even causes Duncan's eyes to get big. "It's just my natural composure," says Duncan, mildly irritated. "That makes me soft?"
Elie, who joined San Antonio this season after spending five years with the Houston Rockets, where composure is highly unnatural (ever see Charles Barkley with a straight face?), was unnerved at first and, after the Spurs got off to a 6-8 start, piped up about Duncan's softness. "Thought opponents were moving my man around too much," says Elie, who has since come to understand, especially as San Antonio finished the regular season with a 31-5 run, that "there is nobody more focused or fiercer than Tim when it comes to basketball."
Duncan's lack of visible excitement doesn't mean diffidence either. He came into a lineup that already featured one of the NBA's alltime nifty 50—Robinson, No. 50 himself—and quickly established himself as the Man. "Tim doesn't defer to anybody," Popovich says. In short order the Admiral was sent below decks, where he has been baking pies in the ship's galley, and Duncan became everybody's first mate.
That this worked has more to do with the Admiral's demeanor than Duncan's. His role reduced, his minutes and shots decreased, Robinson nonetheless has come to grasp the beauty of his and Duncan's two-pronged attack and no longer worries about his scoring average, which went from 21.6 last year to 15.8 this season. "It was frustrating at first after a lifetime of getting all the shots I wanted," says Robinson, a 10-year veteran. "I've taken a different, not lesser, role. Now I set the tone, get the rebounds, block the shots. You know, Bill Russell didn't argue with Red Auerbach about how many points he was supposed to get."
Unlike Robinson to this point in his career, Russell won a lot of NBA titles. Robinson, who sacrificed himself through much of the Lakers' series (he was in constant foul trouble, hammering Shaq), understands what Duncan brings to the Spurs. "I haven't spent one minute talking to either about his role," says Popovich. "They just want to win."
It may be unfair to contrast the Spurs, with their dispassionate duo, and the more flamboyant Lakers. It's not as if Los Angeles is all style and no substance. O'Neal has to be the hardest worker in the league. And Bryant, who at times seems to be dallying on the margins of egocentric basketball, is improving as a team player. When observers complain that he's clueless, it's hard to argue against them, except to say, You should have seen him last year. For all the faults of Shaq and Kobe, their talent is a bromide that settles many a front-office stomach.
Yet one of those front-office stomachs, the one belonging to Lakers executive vice president Jerry West, was pretty upset following Sunday's loss. L.A. had a confused season, as any season that included Dennis Rodman would be, but its strong finish in the regular season and its waltz past the geriatric Rockets in the playoffs' first round promised better than this. Or seemed to. Realistically, it was put to West, might this have been just about what you expected? "Maybe," he said.
Los Angeles made one wild move after another this season, with owner Jerry Buss insisting on Rodman, who predictably lifted the Lakers and then just as quickly set them back down. There was the firing of coach Del Harris, who was succeeded, on an interim basis, by assistant Kurt Rambis, and a blockbuster trade that brought sharpshooter Glen Rice to L.A. to take pressure off Shaq inside. "All this," says Rambis, who was very much interim after this series, "and the games just kept coming at you."
Against San Antonio the Lakers made one gaffe after another, the worst in a winnable Game 2 at the Alamodome. While leading the Spurs 76-75 with 8.9 seconds left and a foul to give, they let Duncan have a nine-footer. "We know that talent doesn't always win," says West, "but you like to see some good decisions at the end of games."
The Lakers might yet survive the managerial muddle and make all their high-priced puzzle pieces fit. They have too much talent not to win, and just in case they still don't, they'll be the more interesting team to watch for years to come. There's something to be said for charisma. It will always play to the most people. But what the Spurs seem to be teaching us is that charisma might not have the longest run. Stone-faced kids with soft bank shots might win the day, or more of them anyway.