1 The Same Old Story

To see one Tim Duncan game is to have seen them all. You will be treated to a fusillade of bank shots, all fired with the same high, mechanical release. There will also be jump hooks, excellent post defense, effortless dissection of double teams and precise outlet passes in the mold of Walton and Unseld. The same craggy, white-haired coach will pace the sideline, frowning the same disapproving frown. Throughout, Duncan's expression will run the gamut from stone-faced to indifferent.

On a spring night in Oakland near the end of the regular season, Duncan scored an impressive 13 points in 11 minutes against the Warriors. Even so, there were no oohs, aahs or even boos from the Warriors crowd. During player intros Duncan received the kind of polite applause you might hear at the end of a poetry reading. He could have been any opponent.

It's a bit shocking, of course. Duncan is arguably the greatest basketball player of his generation, inarguably its most successful. Yet compared with his peers, he remains practically anonymous.

How can this be?

2 The Silence

"I have to warn you that I have a headache," Tim Duncan is saying in the lobby of a Denver Marriott. There is also the issue of time, he adds. The team flight was delayed getting in. Ice on the runway. Everyone's tired.

Plus, Tim's an island guy, and it's cold as balls in here.

Duncan stares down at me with his wide, flat face. Maybe we could just scrap the interview, the face says. Anyone who interviewed Duncan knows the drill: He talks only after games or practices, and then only for a few minutes and in tiny bursts of spectacular blandness. He is a man who has achieved so much yet continues to flee from the very thing so many others chase with a white-hot desperation: fame. Year after year Duncan has turned down interviews and endorsements that could have netted him millions. He hasn't feuded with teammates, used the media as a back channel to tweak his G.M. or forced out a coach.

In this case both Spurs p.r. man Tom James and an assistant coach had to vouch for me. Then James had to wait until the time was right to bring up the idea of an interview—on the road, when Tim would have an off day he couldn't spend with his wife, Amy, and their two children, which Tim prefers to do 100 times out of 100 during the season. Even then, it was unclear how much time, if any, Duncan would grant. He has a reputation to uphold, after all.