Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 5/24/12
Too bad for Tim Duncan the ghost of Michael Jordan defines any and everything that happens in the NBA. While Kobe chases MJ's ghost, it haunts LeBron James. Kobe desperately wants a sixth title and the right to stamp his name next to Jordan's. LeBron hosted a hypothetical victory party to announce his desire for not one, not two, not three, but seven titles so he can stamp his name above Jordan's. So what should we do with Tim Duncan's name, especially if his Spurs win a fifth title? Duncan is involved in a fascinating ghost story, too. He's chasing Bill Russell, the player more seasoned NBA fans revere as the greatest of all time, the player who is inarguably the league's greatest winner. I was raised by a more seasoned fan, my dad. He never bought into the Nike Air Jordan hype machine. My dad witnessed the Russell era. He saw the Celtics win 11 of 13 NBA titles during Russell's reign. He believes Russell was and remains the greatest to ever play the game of basketball. He ascribes my generation's general lack of agreement on this point to the corruptive power of advertising, the folly of youth and the fact we are too damn young to have seen him. There are highlights, yes. But what you see in 10-second grainy snippets are just that, snippets. What made Russell the best ever was how he played between those moments of excellence. His willingness to slide over for a double team, block shots like this were a stat that mattered and always battle for rebounds. His singular focus was winning, his excellence funneled into a team philosophy to accomplish that goal. My dad used to love asking, "Do you want to be a Wilt or a Russell?" typically with regard to schoolwork. He still asks that sometimes when we talk about journalism or parenting or tennis. This was his way of saying: Are you OK with being talented, or do you want to win? There is a difference. It is clearer the older we get. Jordan understood this better than almost anybody, but he also screwed us up. Too many young NBA players have convinced themselves that to "Be Like Mike" is a shoe deal, a slogan on a T-shirt and talent. They forget how hard he worked and how relentless he was. And we have been so intent on finding the next Jordan a player who scores and dominates like him that we overlooked the next Russell. Duncan has been playing relatively underappreciated in a time of Kobe, LeBron and DWade. "Most probably, I think he was overlooked because his greatest accomplishments were in the game's subtleties and in seeking to guarantee team victory in a society which tends to focus attention on the individual achiever," Bill Bradley wrote of Russell in "Life on the Run." This is Tim Duncan. He, too, is overlooked because he's OK with being a part of The Big Three instead of The Chosen One. Even casual fans know that if San Antonio were a law firm it would be Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. He is the biggest partner; yet he is willingly a partner. I should add a general disclaimer before going any further: I normally hate playing the so-and-so is the next so-and-so game. So I do not do this lightly. Nor do I compare Duncan and Russell simply because they are both quiet, thoughtful men. They are. Both had to go up against bigger, more physical centers and dominated anyway. But this is not why. It is the moments between the highlights. How Duncan plays, and how he wins is what makes him my generation's Russell. How can I equate Russell's 11 championships with Duncan's four or possibly five? Easy. Russell played in the NBA when there were eight to 14 teams. Just as significant, Russell played in the NBA when there was only one Red Auerbach and no free agency. During this era of professional basketball, one smart and committed man could dominate the league. Auerbach did that. Now there are 30 smart, committed and highly paid men trying to be the next Red Auerbach, and they have far less control over the players. Duncan and Gregg Popovich's four or five titles is every bit the equal of Russell and Auerbach's. Yet Duncan and his consistency, adaptability, longevity and NBA championships bore us for some reason. We say, in one breath, how great he is as this Western Conference Finals is set to begin yet we do not want to talk too much about him. He has never gotten the recognition he deserves not because the Spurs are boring but because of where they play. If Duncan had played in LA or Miami, New York or Chicago or Boston, or even Dallas, he'd have been bigger than Kobe-LeBron-DWade. Molly Ivins once called San Antonio "Monterrey North" while Mavericks owner Mark Cuban prefers to focus on "that ugly, muddy-watered thing," The RiverWalk. That it is the biggest tourist attraction in Texas says more about the state of attractions in the state than the little river that flows through the city. What they also have is one of the two best players Kobe being the other of the past 10 years. I do not need anybody to tell me this. I have seen Duncan live more times than I can count, and he plays the way my dad describes Russell. It is too bad for Duncan the ghost of MJ defines any and everything that happens in the NBA. Because when everybody wants to be like Mike, it is hard to know what to do with the guy who is like Russell. This is how Duncan has come to be underrated. There is no doubt, however, of the correct answer to "Do you want to be a Duncan or a LeBron?"
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