Twenty years ago, when the NBA was such an undesirable product that its championship games were broadcast only on tape-delay in the east, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird set the league on a course that made it an international cultural force beyond anyone's wildest expectations.
Today's NBA, while nowhere close to being in that kind of trouble, is in need of an overhaul. The league doesn't need a savior, but it does need a point man for its renaissance. And that would be San Antonio's Tim Duncan.
He's 23 years old, has already been the centerpiece of a championship team, carries no discernible baggage, and is the model of class and comportment. Even though he was voted MVP of the NBA Finals, when the San Antonio Spurs were called to the stage to be honored as champs here in Madison Square Garden late Friday night, Duncan deferred to his elders David Robinson, Avery Johnson and Mario Elie before accepting congratulations himself.
I'm glad the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA championship, maybe even a little relieved, because the culture of basketball needs a winner that isn't filled with players who talk trash or publicly curse the people hired to do their public relations work. And while men like Robinson, Johnson, Sean Elliott, Elie, Jaren Jackson and Steve Kerr have been that for many, many years, it's Duncan who will be the public face -- even the international face -- of his team for years to come.
"I think he's an incredible example to younger kids," Elliott said in the wee hours of Saturday morning, in the wake of Duncan leading the Spurs to the franchise's first championship. "He's not flashy. He's not in your face. He just quietly goes out and plays the game with a lot of style and a lot of class. And he's fundamentally sound. He can shoot the ball. He can put the ball on the floor. You see a lot of guys that come out [of college] these days, they don't have a quarter of the talent this man has. Not only that, he's humble about it. You just don't find packages like that every day. I think we're extremely fortunate to have him."
While we had to suffer through the Los Angeles Lakers virtually every weekend on national television, people who study the league got hip very quickly to Duncan and what his presence will mean to the league. "It's not just his skill level," Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "I think it's his maturity, knowledge of the game, that he cares about winning. You can just watch a guy play and know if he's truly into winning or not. That guy's truly into winning. I think from where I stand he'd be just as happy winning and scoring fewer points if that's what it took to help the team win. So to me, not only is he the best player, but he's somebody that obviously San Antonio is going to have for a long time and the league can build around because of his unselfishness."
Most kids who have grown up as young basketball gods would never do anything as uncool as taking photographs of championship night. They'd hire somebody to do it -- arrogantly figuring there would be so many more, why take photos of something that'll roll around every spring? Duncan snapped away innocently, as if title night were prom night. "Just making records for myself," he said. "I know it's a blessing to get where I am now. It's a blessing to do what we did this year. There's no guarantee I'll ever get back. So I'm documenting this time."
The immediate test for Duncan is to survive the attack of the hype. Because he's handsome, incredibly well-spoken and about as mainstream as an athlete can be, Duncan will be pursued for celebrity-endorsement work more than any 7-footer in history. But it's important for the basketball public, and corporate sponsors, to understand Duncan isn't Michael Jordan. He isn't even Kevin Garnett. He is no ham. Maybe he'll evolve into celebrityhood, maybe not. "That's not me," he said the other day. "I'm not that crossover entertainer. I love playing basketball. I know it comes with the territory, all this stuff. And here and there I'll do some stuff, endorsement-wise. But I'm not someone who goes out and has to do a movie this summer, or anything like that."
The older guys like Duncan because he's a ballplayer first, a gym rat. That's how he got that bank shot from 18 feet. That's how he developed that jump-hook. That's where he got the reverse pivot, and the spin move, the fadeaway jumper, the three-point range. Gym rat. Just as kids imitated Jordan for 15 years because he was the best, perhaps now Duncan's cool: his studied professionalism, his footwork, his positioning to get a rebound. Hey, we can hope, can't we?
"I've got one word," Elie said, trying to sum up Duncan. "Special. I've never played with a guy [this good] in his second year in the league. He doesn't play like a second-year player. When you see a 7-footer hitting 20-foot bank shots, the guy's a special talent."
Two years in the league, 23 years old, and already a championship. It took Jordan seven years. Took Isiah Thomas eight. Took Jerry West a dozen. Do we think Duncan isn't going to become any better? Think of how his game will mature now that he doesn't have to spend years facing the aggravating question of, "Do you worry about playing your entire career without winning a championship?"
It's always fascinating in sports, particularly in championship moments, to observe the phenom on one hand, and on the other a guy who wakes up every morning wondering whether he has a job. The Spurs have plenty of both in their locker room. In one corner, there was Jaren Jackson, with his eighth NBA team. "I want to let any publishers out there know, I've got a story to tell," he screamed. "I've got a lot of history, a lot of places I've been. It would be a great book, a big seller. I need somebody that will sit down with me and tell it. CBA, WBL, I've been all over. I've got rings all over the place, but this -- I JUST WON AN NBA ONE!"
It's a desperation Duncan will never know, a journey he'll never take. He won't have to ask for a publisher, or a ghost writer. It will all flow to him, beginning right now. And if the NBA is lucky, Duncan will handle the hype as well as he's handled everything else. If the NBA is even luckier, every young player in the league, every kid on the playground in search of a role model, will be watching even more closely.