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Harris: Still time to appreciate Duncan

| Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 12:13 a.m.
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The Spurs' Tim Duncan reacts in the fourth quarter against the Grizzlies on May 25, 2013 in Memphis.

All the talk in the NBA playoffs this year surrounds immensely popular LeBron James of the Miami Heat carrying the league on his shoulders while selling shoes, sports drinks and cell phones during his pursuit of a second championship.

All the while, another unique but much-less-heralded player is vying for his fifth title. Say hello to San Antonio's Tim Duncan, a 10-time All-NBA selection who needs to win one more championship to equal Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers for most titles among active players.

For those who pay attention to the NBA only during the playoffs, this may be one of your last chances to soak up everything Duncan is about.

When Duncan plays, it's like watching a player from a different era. Want to know how the NBA looked 20 or 30 years ago? Watch Duncan.

If outgoing commissioner David Stern had made Duncan a centerpiece of his marketing strategy when Duncan was terrorizing opponents during his prime, the league would be a better place.

Like Duncan, centers would enter the league with at least a rudimentary understanding of how to play with their back to the basket, and they would have been taught how to bank the ball against the backboard.

If the NBA had made Duncan a role model for its players, maybe we wouldn't be subjected to 7-footers dribbling between their legs at the top of the key — when they aren't hoisting 3-point shots.

Duncan represents everything the NBA used to stand for. He helps basketball fans remember why they once loved the game.

The consensus No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft out of Wake Forest, Duncan would have been the first player selected in the 1995 and '96 drafts had he opted to leave college early, said former Lakers executive Jerry West.

Yet Duncan remained in college his final two years because of a vow he made to his mother, who died of breast cancer when he was in ninth grade. Duncan promised he would graduate from college, a far different path from the one taken by top draft picks nearly two decades later. Players now eagerly follow the one-and-done route, detouring for the NBA after only one year in college, ready or not.

“Timmy and I were driving to the airport to Los Angeles where he was going to receive the Wooden Award for the best player in college basketball,” Maui Invitational chairman Dave Odom, who recruited Duncan to Wake Forest and molded him into a future Hall of Famer, recalled of a conversation the pair had in 1997. “I told him, ‘People are going to want to know why you decided to stay at Wake Forest and turned down enough money to sustain your family for the rest of their lives.' He said, ‘Coach, I have always felt, why should I do today what I'll be better prepared to do a year from now?'

“That was so profound,” said Odom, who coached Duncan all four years at Wake Forest. “I've never forgotten it.”

Duncan doesn't sell as many shoes as James, but he isn't hurting financially with more than $200 million in contract earnings. And James will have to play a long time to catch up to Duncan, who led San Antonio to four titles from 1998-2007.

Duncan has played 16 seasons, averaging 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game — and 22.3 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the postseason.

His play has risen spectacularly this postseason. He led San Antonio in both overtime wins over Memphis in the Western Conference finals, scoring six points in the first overtime and seven points in the second overtime of a game in which all five starters were benched in the first quarter for poor play.

In that game, Duncan passed Wilt Chamberlain for second place in NBA playoff career double-doubles with 144.

“When you coach a player like Timmy, you teach him a lot, but you learn from him, too,” said Navy assistant Ernie Nestor, a member of Odom's staff at Wake Forest. “Tim has great competitive composure. He's had that approach since he was a freshman in college.”

When Duncan was asked recently what continues to drive him at age 37, he didn't say money, endorsements or solidifying himself as the greatest power forward of all time.

Winning another championship is his motivation.

“Shaquille O'Neal notwithstanding, big guys don't sell shoes. Tim doesn't want to do those things. He's all about winning,” Odom said. “He understands you make enough money to last a lifetime. Trying to get commercials to make a little more money means nothing to him.”

The NBA needs more Tim Duncans to connect its glorious past with the present. Better to appreciate Duncan now while there's still time.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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