In my life I’ve only had a handful of favorite NBA players, usually they don’t overlap. A favorite is, after all, a favorite. All shared a few characteristics in common. They played the game the right way, they played it well, they conducted themselves professionally, they were intense and refused to back down. And yeah, they won.
The first was Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. The second was Larry Bird, also of the Boston Celtics. Third, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. Fourth and most recently, Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. No new player has emerged but I would have to say that Steph Curry is close, very close.
Here’s something I wrote a couple of years ago about Duncan as he neared his retirement, which occurred after the 2016 season.
The things we talk about in newsrooms would surprise those who believe we spend our days weaving intricate plots conceived to bend the pliable public to the irresistible force of our steadfastly liberal beliefs. Via this conspiracy theory we conduct elaborate meetings in which actual news issues are discussed in depth, opinions shaped and actual strategies developed for molding the minds of each and every American.
As cringe-inducing as this would be were it true, the truth is even more embarrassing. Newsroom topics of discussion normally follow these – or very similar – paths.
— Availability of free or low-cost food.
— The space-time continuum as it relates to the films of Quentin Tarantino.
— Properties that comprise a can of Vienna sausages.
— Assorted trivia.
— Oldest nabs ever consumed.
— Anything having to do with sports, not including soccer, but with the provision that professional wrestling could be discussed as long as someone prominently mentioned Ric “The Nature Boy” Flair.
At the Jacksonville Daily News when I worked there from 1992 to 2007 the pattern was the same. Some things we talked about in passing. A few we discussed ad nauseum. In the late spring and early summer of 1996 and 1997 the most persistent topic of conversation in the category of sports was the future of Wake Forest basketball player Tim Duncan.
Would he turn professional and not play his final college season?
Would he be a top five draft pick?
And, most importantly, could he make it in the NBA?
Hard as it is to believe today, that was an actual and very serious debate back then as Duncan moved from his sophomore to junior to senior seasons in Winston-Salem, quietly leading the Deacons to ACC Tournament championships in back to back seasons. A shot-rejecting beacon on defense, he logged double-figures in points and rebounds so consistently it reached the point of utter banality. He was the stone-faced star of a historically middle-of-the-pack ACC team and seemed oddly content while doing so.
About the only thing he didn’t accomplish in college that players of potential legend do was win a national championship. It wasn’t for lack of effort. Indeed, in reference to Question No. 1, he did, in fact, play four years in college, perhaps the last player of his possible draft stature to do so.
There were three distinct camps when it came to evaluating what kind of pro Duncan might be.
The first believed him vastly overrated, probably too soft to play on the next level. He was judged by this group to be a dud on every level with the personality of Styrofoam to boot.
The second believed him capable of being a serviceable player, but nothing very special. A typical near-seven-footer who might play 10 years or more in the league for a variety of teams, perhaps being a factor for one or two of them. He didn’t have much star power. Couldn’t put fannies in the seats. Boring, but wouldn’t hurt too much. Safe.
And the third thought he could be the next Bill Russell, a defensive-oriented franchise-altering force who had a chance to be among the league’s elite. Might even win that elusive championship if all things fell right.
The debate could grow animated during the evening hours, when the sports guys meld with the nighttime news shift and the talk skews a tad looser and a lot more ribald. Positions were solidly staked out. I remember one described Duncan’s game with derision as “babyish.”
That was the one point I was willing to contest.
“Maybe,” I remember saying at the time. “But probably not.”
Usually I’m not one to gush over what a prospective college or pro player may or may not do. There’s far too much guesswork involved. I tend to avoid declarative predictions of future greatness or abject failure. I was burned too often early in life. I watched in shock as Rod Griffin, one of the greatest ACC players of his generation, fall short – overmatched by the NBA.
But I had seen enough to know a few things.
So I fell in the third camp. I thought Duncan had a chance to be a great pro – maybe even a tremendous one for the ages. But I didn’t believe him to be the heir to Russell. Not at all. He reminded me more of Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And I told them so.
“Duncan,” I said, “is the first player to come along that reminds me of Kareem. I won’t say he’ll be the next Kareem because who knows? Kareem’s one of the three greatest players in history. Nobody’s the next Kareem.”
“But he reminds me of Kareem. I think he could be great and stay that way for a long time. Doesn’t mean he will, a lot of things have to go right. But he’s got the chance.”
In college Duncan was fundamentally sound like Jabbar. He had no bad habits, like Jabbar. He had long arms and legs, like Jabbar – and like Jabbar moved with a certain poetry of motion that indicated an athlete who had played games beyond basketball and understood the demands of a gangly frame and how to harness it. I suspected Duncan’s past as a swimmer helped him immensely in that area. Duncan developed his offensive game, wisely and with intelligence like Jabbar and a also like Hakeem Olajuwon. And Duncan, like Jabbar, had a certain intensity softened by aloofness. He was hard to get at for a reporter or fans. Both are inscrutable and oddly inaccessible without menace. Highly educated, Duncan holds an advanced degree in psychology.
Five championships, three finals MVPs, two league MVPs and14 all-star games later, my opinion hasn’t changed. He was the heir to Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He’s not the scorer Jabbar was, but Jabbar isn’t Duncan’s equal in rebounding. Otherwise their careers parallel in interesting ways.
One thing did go way right for Duncan, San Antonio was the NBA draft lottery winner that year. It was an anomaly. It should’ve been the moribund Celtics. San Antonio tumbled from the league’s upper echelon into the lower division largely because of injuries to key players, one in particular. Duncan got picked by a team that didn’t need him to be great right away – even though he clearly was. Jabbar wasn’t so lucky. He had to lift a sad Milwaukee Bucks team to respectability and then a title. And Duncan was joined with the right coach and the best possible time.
Watching Duncan romp like a kid through the five-game demolition of the previously invincible Miami Heat I was once more reminded of Jabbar, how much fun he had playing those last few seasons for the Lakers with Magic Johnson as clearly the second or third option. There was a joy in Jabbar’s game then that was always missing before. I see that same joy in Duncan today.
And to my longtime friend and former Daily News colleague Mark Riggs, I’ll probably never stop saying “I told you so.”