Last night Tim Duncan, the best player in the NBA, won his second league championship and second Finals MVP award and lacked two blocks from notching a quadruple double in the deciding game. Jason Kidd of the defeated New Jersey Nets later said he told Duncan in their postgame embrace, “You’re the best on the planet.” Duncan’s also a solid citizen, a perennial All-Star, a college graduate, a repeat league MVP, and a funny and earnest interviewee—the most vanilla superstar drawing checks in the NBA today. Dennis Rodman was the player you loved to hate. Michael Jordan was the player you hated to love. Duncan is the player you’re mildly disappointed to find you don’t care about much either way.
What’s not to like about Duncan? Nothing, unless you count the fact that there’s nothing not to like about him. He’s notoriously well-behaved on the court, unemotive, nigh-robotic at times. Perhaps for that reason, he’s practically nowhere to be seen in national advertising, which includes lesser lights like teammate Tony Parker. Lately Nike has stopped sponsoring Duncan, presumably because it couldn’t disgorge $90 million onto high-school senior LeBron James without a bit of belt-tightening. Duncan just doesn’t have the kind of game that sells shoes except to that hopeless niche of kids who think new sneaks will help them issue crisp bounce passes and box out for offensive rebounds. Even the media are at a loss—a Sports Illustrated cover story a couple of weeks ago labeled Duncan “fundamentally sound” four times. Not to damn Duncan with more high praise, but did I mention that he skipped the third grade? Root for Duncan, and you might as well root for broccoli.
A 1997 Sports Illustrated feature told of an opposing college coach trying to psych up his team to play “the greatest player any of you will ever meet.” He told his men: “Someday your six-year-old will ask you for a Tim Duncan jersey for Christmas.” Actually, the tyke is more likely to ask for a Michael Finley jersey. As of mid-April, Duncan wasn’t in the top 10 in NBA jersey sales, though his station in San Antonio, one of league’s more obscure markets, surely doesn’t help. Tops was the No. 8 jersey of high-flying, Sprite-pitching Kobe Bryant, who has worked like hell to rough up his clean-cut image. Duncan, meanwhile, is as understated as ever, offering to help opposing players up off the court when they fall and ho-humming his way to 25 points and 15 rebounds a game in the playoffs.
Lower than Duncan’s “Q” rating were ABC’s Finals ratings, which are predicted to be the worst of the last 30 years. The shooting was, at long intervals, self-parody. Only twice in six games did a team score more than 90 points. New Jersey scored 77 points in Game 4 and won. It was no accident that Duncan turned out to be the MVP of this morass; he makes other teamsplay ugly, too. He collected 32 blocks in the series, a Finals record, while also leading his team in points, rebounds, assists, and favorable comparisons to Hall of Famers. With the retirement of Spurs center David Robinson, for whom the league named its citizenship award, Duncan’s raging blandness will stand out even more. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Barring injury or demonic possession, Duncan, 27, should continue his stoic romp through the league for the better part of the next decade, much to the chagrin of Western Conference forwards and network bean-counters.
I felt the vicarious sting of Duncan’s professionalism last month, at the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas. The big man blocked a garbage-time layup by Raja Bell with five seconds left against the Dallas Mavericks, and in so doing ensured the Spurs covered the spread. Few players bother to risk that play, when Bell well might score and make the defender look overzealous and thus undeniably uncool. Duncan makes that play because he’s an excellent shot-blocker (maybe the best ever in college); he attends to the pesky details, tipping unreachable rebounds to teammates and running screens to seal off defenders; and he’s a character guy, more concerned with how he plays than how he looks. In other words, he’s the consummate square, a great example of how discipline, dedication, and noble conduct can triumph over all, which is, speaking on behalf of crass and lazy people everywhere, a truly unendearing thought. Duncan is the kind of athlete your parents would love for you to grow up to be just like, and he’ll probably never live that down.