The Anti-Stylist

Tim Duncan is the greatest player of his generation. There is nothing else to say, really. And this is part of the problem.
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The stylish ones wear you out. Tarantino traffics in provocation. Adler moves recklessly dream-like from one image to the next. Carruth is operatically autistic. Van Gogh was mania and oils. Joyce was obsessed with the limits of what his intelligence could create. Pryor was so neurotic it hurt. Gucci cares about work, not its product. Milch’s genius is sudden like a rainstorm. Brando holed up in a mansion of his own self-regard and went insane.

Then there’s Tim Duncan, who proves there is no such thing as normal by demonstrating the deep weirdness of aggressive normality. When he wasn’t placidly dominating basketball games, he was draped in some TJ Maxx’s Big ‘N’ Tall number, living out the parts of a character’s life that an author skips over. Duncan gives off the impression, intentionally or otherwise, that he has spent the past two decades playing, practicing, and folding laundry. We’ve heard he’s a paintballer and a sword owner-level dork, but that’s the full extent of his eccentricity. He was an evolutionary Kareem on the court—an agile, stoic stork of a man, devastating in an understated way—and his off-court persona was like a seven-year-old’s idea of an adult.

Any athlete so accomplished and so quiet is bound to get canonized. The scowling fathers of the sportswriting world bathed Duncan in praise. Some of this was founded—his teammates really did seem to love him—and some of it was pure projection, or an on-deadline grouch using Duncan as a cudgel against more flawed and flamboyant stars. Now and forever, Duncan is synonymous with class, a vaguely defined trait possessed by players who are graceful and dead-ass boring. One day, a six-foot-seven mute golem will win a Finals MVP and go down as the classiest to ever do it. Until then, Duncan holds the title.

We have a complicated relationship with style. Most people seem to hate it. They like it in abstract—no one says they prefer ordinariness to flourish—but in practice, nothing catches venom like art that’s ambitious or strange. Have you ever played Supersilent for a room that isn’t full of music critics? Mainstream culture is composed of stories we can follow, hooks we can sing along to, cameras that move in the usual ways, and language that looks like what we’re used to reading because, generally speaking, folks don’t seek out jarring experiences. They allow their expectations to be upset only within exceedingly narrow parameters.

Tim Duncan has never upset us, excepting the times his Spurs beat our favorite teams. There isn’t even anything objectionable about his game itself. His movements weren’t violent. He didn’t release the ball from unforeseen angles or perform any peculiar rituals at the free throw line. He was a glacier with a bankshot. One of his main strengths was defensive positioning, which literally means he got to the correct places on the floor and then stood there with his arms over his head. His post-ups were pretty in the way that a well-wrought staircase can be pretty. He would put up thirty-six points in a playoff game and we’d wonder what kind of wood he was made out of.

Nearly all the masters have style. Hemingway’s plainspoken prose is a put-on way of making fantasy seem real. Studs Terkel, maybe, reached the highest artistic heights you can achieve with straightforwardness. Style doesn’t have to be difficult—Scorsese isn’t a hard filmmaker to figure out—but it is necessarily confrontational; it is audience lapel-grappling and a dictation of terms. It raises the barrier to entry; it makes people more prone to revile you. You are always on the edge of being exhausting.

Duncan isn’t widely beloved, but he is universally well-liked. Iverson is lots of things. Where can you top out, in people’s estimation, if you never piss anyone off? Is it better to be unknowable than hated? Tim Duncan is done with basketball, and there is a lot to say about that, but there isn’t much to say about him, because he didn’t let us in and didn’t make us curious about what he was keeping from us. He was calmly great—as great as just about anyone—at a sport that facilitates flair and panache in a league that (sometimes just barely) tolerates jerks and showmen and headband-clad Hamlets. He left unassumingly, as the best player of his generation, and that is the end of it.

His career, now complete, reads more like an almanac than a novel. It’s a record of events. It only sort of has a protagonist. Its plot is all facts. It’s a landscape as a pair of legs understands it: something that has been traversed. Style can be alienating, but its complete absence produces the same effect. Tim Duncan started out exhausting and stayed that way for a long time.

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