The San Antonio Spurs are about to begin their 1999 playoff run and Tim Duncan could use a ring of orange safety cones around him. It's less than an hour before Game 1, and Duncan is in game uniform and his standard-issue NBA socks, standing in front of his locker. He bends his seven-foot frame slightly as he tries to drop a plastic sports-drink bottle into the heel of his left basketball shoe from about five feet high, and he's buggin' because he can't.
Why is he trying at all? Duncan hates such questions. For the same reason he got a tongue stud last summer. Ask why, and he says, "Why not?"
"You pierced? You tatted?" jumps in partner-in-crime point guard Antonio Daniels. They've been tight since rooming together at the '97 NBA rookie orientation, and when the Spurs acquired Daniels from the Grizzlies last June, Duncan was the first to call. Both peer at you closely, as if they're more interested in your reaction than your reply, which is no piercings, no tattoos. Daniels and Duncan exchange a glance. "Ohhhhhhhh," Daniels says, as if you'd just clanked two potential game-winning free throws. "You're conservative."
And Duncan, despite what you may have heard, is clearly not. But piercing his tongue hopefully took far fewer stabs than getting the bottle into the shoe. Time after time, Duncan drops the bottle, only to see it skitter across the locker room floor, his teammates blithely going around him as he chases after it. After the fifth miss he looks up with those huge E.T. eyes, grabs his tear-away warmups and, exasperated, yanks them open as if ripping them to shreds. Finally, on the eighth try, there is the solid thunk of bottle finding sole. "Hey, all that counts is the last one," he says before lumbering off to the training room to continue his pregame routine.
That combination of playfulness and persistence-along with an astonishing arsenal of post moves, unselfishness and defensive prowess-is why the Spurs are in the Finals for the first time in their 26-year history. Duncan is at the heart of this team because every Spur, in one way or another, can identify with him. He can go toe-to-toe cerebrally with David Robinson, Sean Elliott or Avery Johnson. He has some bulldog in him like Mario Elie, Jaren Jackson, Malik Rose and Jerome Kersey. He makes up for his lack of athleticism with precision, much like Steve Kerr and Will Perdue. And he's as much of a cut-up as Daniels or Rose.
When asked if this Spurs team can win it all, they all echo Tim's mantra: Why not? He has shown them it's possible to simultaneously bear down and not take things too seriously. If he has the quiet confidence that anything is possible, it is because, as Perdue says, he's "a 15-year-old in a 23-year-old's body."
And the Spurs needed to grow down. Before Duncan came along chasing sports-drink bottles, smirking behind sportswriters' backs and exuding a no-biggie 'tude, this team was mired in its tragic flaws. They took everything said about them to heart, trying so hard to dispel the criticism they'd perpetuate it instead. Pose a question and they'd analyze themselves into a funk. You know the rap sheet: Elliott couldn't pull the trigger in the clutch. Johnson would pull it, fire a few blanks and holster it. Robinson, conflicted between being competitive and being a good human being, could be pushed around.
Not annnnnyyymoorrre. If Duncan has heeded his teammates' suggestion that he was a tad too nonchalant in last year's playoffs (4-1 second-round loss to Utah), the rest of the Spurs are chalanting as never before. Robinson is exchanging shoves with Joe Smith and wagging a finger in referee Don Vaden's face. Elliott is burying a game-winning three-pointer as he pirouettes along the sideline against the Blazers. (First to hug him after the game? You guessed it.) Johnson is going 0-for-8 in the first half and still firing, making two huge second-half 18-footers in a Game 1 conference finals win. "Tim seems to believe this is our year," Rose says. "And if he believes it, we're all going to believe it."
The Spurs are entertained by Duncan's preoccupation with video games, sophomoric jokes and general insistence upon living "a stress-free life," as Elie puts it. But they also admire his composure and mental toughness on the court. When the Blazers threatened to extend the conference finals to a fifth game, it was Duncan who blocked a runner by J.R. Rider in the paint to protect a one-point lead, then padded it with a pair of offensive three-point plays, muscling his way around Brian Grant on one and Rasheed Wallace on the other.
Duncan has evolved into the team's emotional barometer and favorite kid brother at the same time. He had to wear ties in grade school in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and has such an aversion to them now he specifically bought a tab-collared shirt for draft night. He clearly remembers the last time he wore a suit-last year's All-Star Game-when he walked onto an elevator to find himself surrounded by veterans in warmup suits. His idea of a good time is chomping on sweet and sour strips (think fruit-flavored sugar linguine) and waxing Daniels at Tekken 3 on his PlayStation. The PlayStation and his Porsche Carrera are his favorite possessions. His standard dress is baggy jeans, baggy T-shirt and unlaced work boots. He calls a video-game maker his best endorsement deal because it sends him new games to test.
He trades quips with the ball boy or the video coordinator the same as he would Daniels or AJ. One second he is recommending a particularly toasty hot-water pad to Steve Kerr ("Awwww, Steve, you gotta try it"), the next he is describing in great detail racing trucks with Elliott and Perdue. He wears his practice shorts backward (he had a great workout after accidentally reversing them as a Demon Deacon freshman) and hugs the ball before every game and asks, "Where's Liky?"-Malik Rose-right before the Spurs run onto the court, even if Rose is standing right next to him.
Night life? Duncan claims he partied back in the day, but he goes for months at a time now without a sip of alcohol. He's perfectly content hanging at home with his two housemates, college sweetheart Amy Sherrill and Wake Forest buddy and business manager Mark Scott. Daniels recalls the one time they went out clubbing, in Vancouver, to celebrate Daniels' 24th birthday. "I looked over at him and said, 'You look funny.' " Daniels says. "He just didn't look right to me hanging out in a club."
If any team could appreciate a guy with disparate public and private personas, it's the Spurs. Johnson is acclaimed as a devout Christian, yet he'll curse like a sailor if his man gets a layup because Duncan or Robinson don't provide their prescribed defensive help. Mild-mannered Elliott has developed a race car-driving passion. Clean-cut Kerr finds dirty jokes on the Internet to tell.
Then there's Robinson, the mildest-mannered, cleanest-cut Christian of them all. He stoically battled through back pain to be the team's defensive stopper this season, a far less glorious role than being the offensive go-to guy. Then the NBA coaches goofed by voting Duncan onto the All-Defensive first team instead of Robinson. "Everyone on this team knows David is our best defender," Rose says. The Admiral joked about it, saying in a team meeting, "If he's first-team All-Defense, then let him guard Shaq!"
Robinson has accepted his altered role and helped Duncan grow into his in part because Duncan gave him the space to do so. Word is the Spurs knew there was a new commanding officer when the rookie Duncan schooled Robinson their first day of training camp together. But Duncan deferred to David all last season out of respect for time served. That's how the two came to walk side by side through a back tunnel on June 6 after sweeping the Blazers, arms around each other's necks, their roles momentarily reversed. Now it was Robinson whooping and shouting "Yes!" while giving Duncan an appreciative squeeze. Duncan beamed, simply happy he had a part in bringing the old guy such joy.
Duncan's kindred spirit on this team is not Robinson, though, but 50-year-old coach Gregg Popovich, the most iconoclastic cadet the Air Force Academy ever graduated. He shares Duncan's view of basketball as something to be passionate about, but not treated as a prime directive. Asked if he deserved more credit for the team's success, Popovich says, "The question never enters my mind. People who find cures for cancer deserve credit."
Two such minds can create some unusual dialogue. At one point this season, Duncan too easily allowed his man to get the ball with one foot in the paint. Duncan had no choice but to foul. Popovich waved him over to the sideline as the first free throw went up.
"Timmy, how we doin'?"
"Fine, how 'bout you?"
"Are we havin' fun yet?"
Duncan played along, inspecting the air above his head as if looking for confetti. "No, not yet."
"You think maybe if you three-quarter that guy, maybe touch him, he won't catch the ball so easily?"
"Hey, that's probably a good idea."
"Why don't you give it a shot." Pop turned away in mock disgust.
Duncan dutifully ratcheted up his intensity on the next few defensive stands, then jogged by the bench, patted Popovich on the butt and said oh-so-insincerely, "Hey, Pop, thanks for the support. Really fired me up."
Their relationship was forged when Popovich made a get-to-know-you trip to Duncan's home on St. Croix before the 1997 draft in which the Spurs held the top pick. They were scheduled to meet the first day at 10 a.m. Duncan showed up 40 minutes late, his boyhood buddy Rashidi Cleneance in tow, no explanation offered. Popovich let it roll, sensing that Duncan was putting his psychology degree from Wake Forest to work. So at the end of that first chat, when they agreed to meet at 6 for dinner, Popovich said, "Now, I just want to make sure I've got it right. Does that mean 6, or 6:40?"
Duncan grinned and got him back later. The two were at the beach catching rays when Duncan suggested they go for a run. After jumping into the surf to cool off, Duncan showed why as a kid he aspired to be an Olympic swimmer, putting several hundred yards between himself and Popovich in a matter of minutes. Popovich, landlocked for most of his life, had an eye out for shadows beneath the water when Duncan suddenly began splashing around as if he were drowning. By now Popovich didn't need to hear the ensuing cackle to know Duncan was goofing on him.
"That's just me," Duncan says. "I'm not serious most of the time."
But he showed Pop he knew when to be serious immediately after the draft, agreeing to play in the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league in Salt Lake City, the only No. 1 pick ever to do so. Duncan was instructed to work on his weaknesses-lefthanded jump hook, face-up jumpers, dribble drives-and not worry about the results. Observers, unaware of Popovich's instructions, saw Utah Jazz center Greg Ostertag dominate Duncan and began whispering "bust." Pop, seeing Duncan resolutely stick with the plan, knew he had something special. "If he throws someone's shot into the 10th row, he's not impressed with himself; or if he travels, he doesn't hang his head," Popovich says. "He just keeps competing. You can count on 10 fingers the guys you've seen over the years like that."
Equally rare is his postseason poise. Efficiency usually slides in the post-season, but Duncan's has improved-his regular-season negative assist/ turnover ratio has gone positive in the playoffs, and both his field goal (49.4 to 49.7) and free throw (69.0 to 72.7) percentages have risen. More important, he has won his personal battles, outdueling Kevin Garnett in Round 1, Shaq in Round 2 and Wallace in the Western finals. And now he has his rematch with the suddenly resurgent Knicks forward Marcus Camby, who outdueled Duncan four years ago when UMass knocked off Wake Forest.
Once off the court, anything goes. After closing out the series over the T-Wolves, Daniels and Duncan notice that Perdue and Rose are wearing similarly patterned gold and brown shirts. Rose is wearing his unbuttoned with a T-shirt underneath, and Daniels suggests that is so they don't look identical. Duncan then asks Perdue if he forgot his gold chain since Rose is wearing one. Rose dismisses them with a wave and escapes toward the door, but Duncan, cackling, calls out, "Don't leave your brother behind!"
Robinson, seated in front of the TV wearing a suit, is next. He's engrossed in a Lakers-Rockets game. Duncan stops directly behind him and, grinning madly, stares at the back of Robinson's recently trimmed 'fro, which apparently has been targeted for grief. Daniels silently joins in and Robinson suddenly senses the two pairs of eyes drilling the back of his skull and whips around.
"Y'all better get on out of here now!" he roars as Duncan and Daniels, laughing into their hands, head for the bus. A minute later Robinson is grumpily getting out of his chair, muttering, "Somebody got a brush?"
Memo to the people of San Antonio: Get over your football jones and authorize the building of a basketball arena, or you risk losing this on-court Merlin (right-pec tattoo) and off-court Joker (back of right shoulder). Duncan plans to test free agency rather than re-up this summer with the Spurs because he wants to see if the franchise will be forced to move to find a suitable building. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he says, turning genuinely serious for once. "I'm worried about the facility. I don't know if I want to be with a team that goes to St. Louis. I don't know if I like St. Louis."
Second memo to Alamoers: In an arena slightly cozier than your football dome, you might just get a closer glimpse of Duncan, which alone would be worth it. So build it and he'll stay. Why? You already know the answer.