Tim Duncan's 20,000th point was as restrained and nondescript as most of the other 19,999 NBA points the San Antonio Spurs forward had scored. He chased down an errant pass at the top of the key. He was open 18 feet from the basket. He took his time, set his feet, faced up and shot the ball just as the defender, Houston Rockets forward Chuck Hayes, vainly closed in. The ball cleared the front of the rim, spun hard into the back of the hoop and battered its way through the net, like a police officer breaking through a criminal's wooden door.
Duncan's face showed no emotion. He could have been holding a full house or a pair of deuces—there was no telling. Duncan has celebrated four championships. He has quietly dominated games for 13 seasons. He is known to complain about referee no-calls, but the face rarely breaks and displays what's going on inside. After he scored his 20,000th point (and 20,001st), he jogged back to defend while the crowd at the AT&T Center stood and applauded. At the first timeout the fans stood and cheered again. Duncan offered a quick wave of gratitude. Then, of course, he talked with teammates yet again about picks and rolls. He was glad to have it over with.
Has American sports ever had a player all at once so great and so unknown? When Duncan made that shot against the Rockets last Friday night, he became the fourth player in NBA history to score 20,000 points, grab 10,000 rebounds, block 2,000 shots and dish off 2,500 assists.* Now, admittedly, there isn't any special magic in that particular bouillabaisse.
*The other three on the list are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal. It should be noted that Artis Gilmore also attained those totals in a career that was partly spent in the ABA. Gilmore is spectacularly underrated; he should be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But in a way, that odd collection of numbers might be the best way to get close to Tim Duncan's impact. Since the league's popularity jump in the mid-1980s, the biggest NBA stars have all had a can't-mistake persona. You could not help but recognize Michael Jordan's killer instinct, Magic Johnson's showtime moves, Larry Bird's grim tenacity, Shaq's brute force, the precise choreography of Stockton-to-Malone.
What do we really know, though, about Tim Duncan? We know that he's quiet, that he shuns attention, that he donates much of his time to charity. We know he likes bank shots and video games and that he lost 20 pounds this off-season to help his mobility. (He turns 34 in April.) We know he stayed at Wake Forest for four years (and got his psychology degree). And we know, from his mostly unrevealing website, SlamDuncan.com, that his mother used to repeat a nursery rhyme to him as a boy.
Good, better, best.
Never let it rest.
Until your good is better.
And your better is your best.
Duncan has spent a career living a nursery rhyme. He's good, better, best, night after night, month after month, year after year—a December Tuesday in Phoenix, a March Saturday in Atlanta, a Game 7 against Dallas. The consistency is more than admirable; it's downright eerie. Duncan was the NBA's first overall pick in 1997, and the Spurs have won between 53 and 63 games in each full NBA season since. Duncan himself has always averaged at least 18 points a game and only once averaged more than 24. He always blocks two or three shots a game, always averages about one steal, is good for three assists a night.
He has been basketball's metronome. Has there ever been a more uninspiring and yet apt nickname than The Big Fundamental? Duncan gets the ball on the left block—his hoops home—spins right for a turnaround jumper, turns left for his half hook, ducks under for a three-point play and steps back to make the 18-foot jumper. You do not have to know anything about basketball to know that LeBron James or Kobe Bryant is the best player on the floor. Appreciating Duncan takes more work.
Consider Duncan's noteworthy night, which ended with a 116--109 Spurs loss. It was astonishing how often I simply forgot that Duncan was on the floor, and it was tempting to think that he had an unremarkable game; only the box score showed that he scored 25 points, grabbed 14 boards, added two assists and blocked a shot. The play-by-play chart showed that with the Spurs down by seven late in the fourth quarter, Duncan scored the team's last 11 points in a desperate attempt to bring San Antonio back. He's one of the 10 best players in NBA history, and he's as good as ever. But you have to pay attention.
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Duncan has been BASKETBALL'S METRONOME. Has there ever been a more uninspiring yet apt nickname than The Big Fundamental?
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW