Tim Duncan always seemed to care about basketball more than he cared the NBA. His work lay within the 94x50 floorboards of the the court. Anything outside those parameters was never of much interest to him.
The nature of his retirement was in lockstep with his playing days: all facts, no spectacle, and a conspicuous disdain for stagecraft. The San Antonio Spurs released a press release announcing Timmy’s playing days were behind him. All we got from him was a 150-word letter that arrived two days later and a radio interview with a local station in the Virgin Islands, where he grew up and learned to put the ball in the hoop.
So, when we talk about Duncan, it’s always in contrast to his contemporaries. When he eschewed the media spotlight and left money on the table in contract negotiations, it only helped the Spurs because some human being with everyday insecurities and the reasonable desire to make a competitive salary needed that incentive to join the Spurs and stick to their team concept.
Duncan is pit against the marketing, showboating and the oft-begrudged self-styled branding we see in so many other athletes. Duncan vs. LeBron will always play as Built vs. Bought, old-fashioned grit vs. ugh, millennials-and-their-shortcuts, more than as a debate over their respective playing styles.
It’s here that three enduring traits of myth-making converge. First, is the insistence that those who hunger for the spotlight must have craven, selfish motivations. It’s an old contradictory American ethic, etched into mythology by Plato: you can only be a philosopher-king if you don’t want to be a philosopher-king. It’s crystallized by the early politics of the country (definitely not our current politics), when candidates did not "openly" "campaign" for the presidency. The best quality a leader could have then is a nauseous reaction to the idea of being the leader. Denigrating the spotlight is an attractive, easy way to pander and signal some vacant virtue. It’s the equivalent of asking fans of daytime TV what Kylie Jenner’s REAL job is, anyway?
Second, we like to ascribe values to icons and then pit those values against values we deem lesser. So many sports conversations are a proxy war that way.
The third thing is a more elemental and ugly American urge: an unspoken discomfort with seeing famous black people exercise their right to accumulate more power. Not to paint Duncan’s general quietude as compliance. He was one of the most outspoken opponent’s of the NBA’s racist dress code when it was instituted in 2005. He objected not in a strident way, but in the manner of guy with a low tolerance for bullshit would. We can appreciate the asceticism with which Duncan generally carries himself while also acknowledging that the way LeBron, or Carmelo Anthony, or Blake Griffin carry themselves is just fine, too.
The antics of those guys are often processed as attention-seeking, but even the classification of their actions as "antics" is wrong-headed given the society that is taking shape right before our eyes. In fact, since celebrities are operating in a free-market economy ruled by social media persona-building, branding becomes a rational capitalist imperative. Sure, you can still register LeBron’s singular quest to monetize every part of himself as a vapid desire to get rich, or just find it super corny.
But when an athlete leverages his magnetism to support a sociopolitical cause, loaded ideas of greed and cravenness go out the window. When LeBron and his brand-conscious buddies Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo took the stage at the ESPYs donning black suits and urging athletes and others in the crowd to get educated on the issues of gun violence and racial profiling ravaging the country, the size of their spotlight mattered a great deal. If you have something to stand for besides yourself, self-promotion can double as a moral imperative.
You might consider the ESPYs speech more as a continued production of those players’ outsized brands than their utilization, and you’d be right to do so. It was a low-risk public relations coup. But LeBron couldn’t have pledged $87 million to send kids in Akron to college if he didn’t reap every possible monetary benefit from his stature as the world’s most magnetizing basketball player, whether its a maximum contract from the Cleveland Cavaliers or his lifetime contract with Nike.
If Tim Duncan’s aversion to the spotlight was the yin to the average star’s yang and the internal balance that made the Spurs hum, then the opposite must also be true. The precise PR calculations of guys like LeBron and Carmelo made it possible for the league to grow while Duncan occupied his preferred place in the shadows.
Say what you will about the oversized contracts doled out throughout this year’s free agency, but the banana-boat crew and their ilk are creating revenue and interest in a league that once meandered in the middle of the global sports scene. As the league grows, so too does the salary cap. In some ways, the LeBron’s of the league have always put money back into Duncan’s pockets.
Just as Duncan likely wouldn’t care for a magazine spread, he probably doesn’t particularly care for the adulation he received upon his retirement. Duncan merely does Duncan. You imagine him waking up in the morning at complete ease with himself, unencumbered by the flashy stuff that allures the rest of us.
Duncan could shelve his baser instincts because, as far as we can tell, he’s never had any. But it’s possible to honor that without sideswiping every other superstar in the league. There’s more than one way to be great.
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