Iâ€™m going to bring an NBA legend into the room, and I want you to close your eyes while I describe him.
Compared with the rest of todayâ€™s superstars, heâ€™s a giant. Mostly heart and will, but durable as a Ford â€“ designed to play, engineered to last.
In his prime, he was an unstoppable force who ate rookies for breakfast and the leagueâ€™s best for desert. Run into one of his picks and you would feel a thunderous jolt, often knocking you straight to the floor.
He busted through trillions of double teams, almost as if he was trying to break the world record for bruises. All while stuffing the stat sheet on a nightly basis, yet most of his contributions couldnâ€™t be measured by a meager statistic.
Youâ€™re thinking Shaquille Oâ€™Neal, right?
This guy had a charisma, poise and an elegance to his game absent to an entire generation of NBA fans. He could carry an offense, a team and a city by himself.
In fact, he has for his entire career. One night he would torch an opponent for 30-plus points, and the next he would punish them with his relentless defense and authority on the glass.
He had post moves that you canâ€™t even perform in a video game, moves that have made the best defenders look foolish.
Youâ€™re thinking Kevin Garnett, right?
Much like Garnett, this guy seemed to be appreciated only by the fans who saw him night after night. He was shy with the press, but always honest as the day is long.
He was derided for his plain attire and simple demeanor. He was the same man, whether in front of the camera, or in line at the movies.
He stayed true to his teammates, coach and fans â€“ a rarity in sports today â€“ but most importantly, his family and friends. He was always Batman without Robin.
And he never let the fame, the money or the accolades â€“ and there have been many â€“ change him.
Youâ€™re thinking Patrick Ewing, right?
The only thing bigger than this guyâ€™s smile was the bulge in his eyes after making a big-time shot. He has the joy of the game engrained in his blood, and he knew how to spread it.
For more than a decade now his team has built around him, forced to compile a roster of low draft picks because of its high success rate. All with the same coach â€“ unheard of in todayâ€™s win-now sports mentality.
He had the game to win the most coveted awards, yet the humility to share credit with everybody else in the room.
Okay, it has to be David Robinson, right?
Close, but wrong.
Now open your eyes and look up, way up.
Heâ€™s Tim Duncan.
That changes everything, doesnâ€™t it? You see a tall, lanky and tan â€“ not black â€“ player lacking anything resembling muscle definition. There are no cornrows or tattoos, jewelry or fashion accessories, just a man with a plain and simple look to go with his plain and simple game.
It bugs you, right?
You think boring and dull and characterless.
But what you should be thinking is greatness, legend and underrated.
But how can a player whose first professional decade includes four championships, three Finals MVP and two regular-season MVP awards to go with nine first-team All-NBA selections be underrated?
With so many TV and radio shows, columnists and the blogosphere, not to mention every fan posing as a GM, itâ€™s virtually impossible to rate anything correctly anymore.
When Duncan entered the league the Internet was still learning its true power, sportswriters werenâ€™t screaming on TV, and radio hosts and columnists were confined to talking about their local teams.
So while Duncan was constructing a Hall of Fame resume down in San Antonio â€“ one of the smallest professional sports markets – during the prime of his career, he flew completely under the radar of most. And now, at the tail end of his basketball life â€“ his talent deteriorating by the day due to the extensive mileage on his legsâ€“ is seen as overrated by those who never experienced his true greatness.
We underrate and overlook Duncan because he has always been the player high school coaches and scouts watch with pen and paper, preaching his work ethic and fundamentals while we drool over Blake Griffin on our iPhones and iPads.
Sure, Duncan doesnâ€™t have Shaqâ€™s sense of humor, KGâ€™s menacing demeanor or Dwight Howardâ€™s freakishly athletic body, but for more than a decade, Duncan has defined endangered NBA commodities â€“ continuity, loyalty and comity â€“ in a sport that has converted to celebrity worship, and has bested them all.
Think of it this way. Tim Duncan is hip-hopâ€™s The Roots, of the NBA. Much like the NBA, hip-hop is dominated by the alpha-male machismo: Rappers telling you theyâ€™re the best because they say so â€“ much like the NBA was during the prime of Duncanâ€™s career.
It was the race for the best highlight reel and not the best game. As the late John Wooden would say, â€œDonâ€™t confuse activity for achievement.â€
But by carrying on the legacy of groups like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, (i.e. David Robinson and Patrick Ewing), The Roots make it clear that just because theyâ€™re smart doesnâ€™t mean you can kick their ass.
The Roots make hip-hop thatâ€™s artful, unconcerned with the alpha-male machismo and unafraid to show its intellectual side. They are so important to the overall well being of hip-hop, if they didnâ€™t exist, we would have to invent them.
Duncan is the equivalent of that to the NBA.
We talk about how the great players make other players better â€“ a prerequisite for the superstar label â€“ but not many are considered to make their coaches better, let alone Hall of Famers.
â€œI mentioned how coachable he is and how he accepts what we do,â€ Gregg Popovich said in an interview with ESPN. â€œThat’s what he’s meant for us. He’s like the silent leader and the rock of the program. So I always have that to depend on, and he always has my back.”
Wait, what? Having the coaches back instead of talking behind it? (Insert Wade, LeBron and Bosh reference here).
Popovich, whose resume consisted of an NBA record of 17-47 before the arrival of Duncan, has been the beneficiary of 800-plus wins and four championships since, not to mention a soon-to-be spot in the Hall of Fame.
Sometimes you don’t need complex metrics to determine an athlete’s value, to his team or to his sport. You simply review the critical segment of the critical game and look for his fingerprints.
And for the last 14 seasons, Duncanâ€™s have been all over the NBA.
Everyone is obsessed by whatâ€™s on the outside of the man, not the inside. They see a man lacking all of the NBA â€˜starâ€™ requisites: a body covered in ink, trash talking, throwing teammates under the bus and akin to a real housewife of who-cares-where off the court.
Never a word of praise for his loyalty, and respect for the game. Never a mention about a superstar who has stuck with one team, one woman his whole career.
You see him, but you donâ€™t see him.
Maybe we should keep our eyes closed?