MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Tim Duncan has a tattoo of a wizard on his chest. I did not know this. Apparently it's not a secret, but I'd never heard of it nor seen it. Then he took off his jersey at the end of the shootaround Saturday morning before Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. Huh. A wizard.
The wizard is holding a basketball.
Duncan put on a fresh shirt, pulled off his basketball shoes, looked around for a bag to stash the dirty stuff. Ten feet away, his teammate Tony Parker answered reporters' questions. It was understood that nobody would ask Duncan any questions. He's not mean about it. He just has to be in the mood. He is rarely in the mood.
Before that, as the Spurs practiced, you could never have picked him out as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He didn't dunk. He didn't make 30 jumpers in a row. He didn't take the morning off and heckle from the sidelines. He mainly stood in a circle with his teammates and shot free throws, the circle rotating after every two shots, the same drill 8-year-olds do on a peewee team.
Even when athletes seek out the camera and are in our faces all the time, it's hard to say we know them. Sometimes beneath the surface is just more surface. But we really don't know Tim Duncan. He keeps his life off the court private. He turns down most endorsements. He declines soul-searching interviews. The vast majority of what we know about him, we know from watching him play basketball. More than any other modern athlete, Tim Duncan is what he does.
So the morning of a playoff game, here's one thing he does.
He is hanging out under the basket, talking to a couple of teammates. He's smiling, laughing, loose. As he talks, he takes the ball in his left hand and flips little half-hooks toward the basket. He does this for about 10 minutes.
He never once looks up at the rim.
He never misses.
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It turns out that, sometime that same morning, the San Antonio Express-News broke the story that Duncan and his wife, Amy, are getting a divorce.
The papers were filed in March. But the paperwork was under their initials instead of their names. You could piece it together, though. The initials matched. So did their wedding date in 2001, and the years their son and daughter were born. There was also a note about giving "T.T.D." extra time to respond -- spelled out as 30 days following the Spurs' last playoff game.
The Spurs' spokesman confirmed the divorce later Saturday. He also said Duncan would not be talking about it. That was a given.
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We've grown so close over the years, it's sort of like a marriage in a way, where everybody's got to give and take, and you've got to compromise. And the bottom line is, we're very good friends, we respect each other, enjoy being around each other.
Sometimes real life overtakes the story you have in your mind. I came to Memphis to watch Duncan and Popovich because I think they're one of the great love stories in sports.
They've been together 16 years as player and coach -- the longest of any player-coach duo in the history of the NBA. No coach and player in the NFL or NHL have lasted that long together. Only a few in Major League Baseball ever have. Honus Wagner and manager Fred Clarke were together on the Louisville Colonels and Pittsburgh Pirates for 19 seasons. Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox were together on the Braves for 18, although Chipper missed one of those years with an injury.
Duncan has spent his whole pro career with Popovich. Popovich has spent all but one year of his pro coaching career with Duncan. The general rule is that Pop will only open up if he's talking about Tim, and Tim will only open up if he's talking about Pop. But here, in the playoffs, neither one is saying much. So I watch them. And I notice two things.
One, they barely speak to each other, at least in public. During the practice I watched, their entire communication was a nod to each other as Duncan left the floor. (Another quote from Popovich: "He doesn't even really talk to me that much anymore, we've been married so long.")
The other thing was just before the game started that night. Teams often huddle up just before tipoff, or chest-bump, or go through their elaborate high-five rituals. But the Spurs go around hugging one another. They're big hugs, sincere-looking hugs, end-of-the-class-reunion hugs.
It's too weird to center all this on love, especially the love story between Tim and Pop, when Duncan's real marriage is falling apart. But one thing that attracts us to sports is the feeling that a team can become a type of family, and that the quest to do something great can create a kind of love between teammates. We look for parallels in other people's stories to help make sense of our own.
The Spurs have won four titles with Popovich as the coach and Duncan as the star. But the two of them have also had a stable and healthy relationship at the highest level of pro sports for 16 years. In some ways, that's more remarkable.
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His highlight reel is really no highlights at all. It's an endless series of leaners off the glass, flat-footed tip-ins, line-drive jumpers that bang the rim and fall softly through.
Other players do things that feel like bursts from a fire hose. Duncan's career is a steady rain. But rain is what fills up the reservoir.
Duncan is 22nd in points all-time, 13th in rebounds, eighth in blocked shots. In the playoffs, in those same categories, he is sixth, fifth and first. He has been All-NBA first team 10 times, All-Defensive first team eight times, MVP twice. The first championship he won with the Spurs was in 1999. Most of the other players on that team have been out of the league for 10 years or more.
His career averages are 20.2 points and 11.2 rebounds. In 14 of his 16 seasons, he has finished within three points and two rebounds of that average. Water finds its level. Tim Duncan finds 20 and 11.
The two years he fell off those career averages were the two seasons before this one. He dipped to 13.4 points and 8.9 rebounds in 2010-11, then 15.4 and 9.0 in 2011-12. By the end of the 2012 season, he was 36. It only made sense. Even the most extraordinary machine wears down.
But last summer he dropped 15 pounds to ease the load on his knees. Popovich rested him from time to time during the season. Most notably, he sent home Duncan and three other starters before a game against Miami. That drew a $250,000 fine from David Stern. Duncan played 69 of 82 games this year. He was sharp and rested for the playoffs. If Stern fined the Spurs every time Duncan sat out, and this was the result, I suspect they'd write the check and smile.
Still, Duncan -- 37 now -- is an old man in the NBA. One thing about old men is, it takes them a while to get started in the morning. He comes out for the opening tip against Memphis' Marc Gasol, and then he steps away. The other players are ready. The ref is waiting to toss the ball. Duncan stares out into the stands for a few seconds. It's a little awkward.
He loses the tip, and his first quarter is terrible. Duncan fouls Zach Randolph. He bricks a jumper. Tony Allen steals the ball from him and goes in for a layup. Then Mike Conley, Jr. steals it from him. Memphis goes up 16-5 in the first seven minutes. Popovich calls a timeout and pulls all five starters. The noise in the Grindhouse is at space shuttle liftoff levels. Memphis has never been this far in the playoffs. The Grizzlies almost won Game 2 in San Antonio. It makes sense that they would blow the Spurs out in the first one at home.
The Grizzlies lead by 18 near the end of the first. Memphis legend Jerry Lawler, in his wrestling gear, appears on the video screen to lift the fans even higher. They're so hyped the second and third quarters fly past like a sugar high. When it finally levels off, the lead is down to one.
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Tim Duncan has chosen to speak with his play. By most accounts, he's simply a private man who doesn't want to share his business with the world. He's probably not fond of the typical NBA media scrum, which is like the rule about business meetings: Every time another person shows up, the collective IQ drops 10 points. (Popovich's answer to one question at the shootaround: "That's a great theoretical point if you're writing an article. But it makes no sense in the real world.")
We don't think enough about it from the other end of the telescope. How would you hold up if did your job every day in front of thousands of people? How anxious would you get if you were a natural introvert and everybody wanted to talk to you? How would you react if the failure of your marriage were national news?
Tim Duncan has not given us enough of a grip to hold onto. That makes it hard to love him. It also makes it hard to smother him.
What's left is on the court.
The game is fantastic, and it goes to overtime. Duncan wins the tip. The ball comes back around to him and he nails a 19-footer. After Randolph ties it, Duncan sweeps down the lane and banks in a layup as Gasol fouls him. He makes the free throw, and a minute later, he sets a screen on Conley that frees Tony Parker for an open jumper.
The next time down the floor, with the Spurs up six, Duncan gets the ball in his favorite spot -- the left elbow. He squares for a shot, and the defense moves toward him. Then he looks over at Parker in the left corner. Stares hard at him. Waits for the defense to rotate that way.
Then, still looking at Parker, he fires a pass to Tiago Splitter under the basket. The entire arena is faked out. Splitter makes a little jump hook, the Spurs go up eight, and Memphis never gets close again.
Duncan finishes with 24 and 10.
The star of the game usually goes to a separate interview room to meet the media. Duncan does not come. Manu Ginobili comes instead. But Duncan does say a few words in the locker room.
"I thought I was a lot more hesitant throughout the game, for whatever reason," he says.
"In overtime, I just got it and shot it," he says.
"It'd be fun to get it done again," he says about playing for another title.
His quotes add almost nothing. And that's exactly the point.
The storyteller's first rule is Show, don't tell. Tim Duncan doesn't need to say a word to show his love for the game. He doesn't need to explain how you can build towering greatness out of the same small things done night after night, year after year. His actions speak. Just watch the wizard.
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