In what are most likely Tim Duncan’s final few regular season games, he’s saying goodbye to the league in a manner that’s come to define his style: quiet solemnity and determination.
The San Antonio Spurs still have what hopes to be a lengthy championship run for Duncan to take his final bows, but the majority of opposing teams that Duncan has tormented in the past will have to bid their final farewell to arguably the greatest power forward who has ever played the game.
Comparing eras is always a foolish endeavor, for rule changes, team expansions, and sports nutrition and medicine are make the league forever malleable. Juxtaposing players at different positions in the name of spirited debate is also imprudent, no matter how ambitious the intentions are.
Is Michael Jordan better than Bill Russell? The question doesn’t sound as impossible unless paraphrased as “is the greatest shooting guard of the post-expansion 1990s better than a dominant center who entered as a rookie in the infancy of the league when there were only 8 teams and road trips were via busses instead of planes?”
Each decade or so of the league really exists independently of any past or future version of the association, both from a technological standpoint as well as a logistical one. It’s hard to quantify what Pete Maravich could’ve accomplished if the 3 point line was available to him.
Two players who have come to define the post-Jordan era are on their retirement tours. Kobe Bryant’s is more publicized, not just because he’s been more direct with his intentions, but perhaps because it’s only fitting for the guy who’s not only mirrored Jordan closer than any other would-be incarnate, but because he has also reaped the extravagant designations from 21st century mass media as the embodiment of what an iconic athlete behaves like.
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Both Bryant and Duncan are ultra-competitive, and have their equal share of triumphs on the court, but the ambience that Bryant has radiated during his career is once again exposing itself in his farewell tour.
There’s an old expression that says “no player is bigger than the game.” It sounds like a nice sentiment, but realistically it’s untrue. One has to look no further than the TV ratings of the NBA Finals in the immediate aftermath of Jordan’s retirement from the Bulls. It may sound cynical, especially to hardcore sports fans, but a large percentage of basketball viewers aren’t students of the game; they’re simply casual observers looking to be inspired or entertained for a brief moment as they turn on the TV or go to an arena.
The irony is that the players who encompass what it means to give their soul for the success of their team and to sacrifice individual accolades for the collective fulfillment of team prosperity are never elevated to “bigger than the game” status. This is due to a couple of factors; often the personality type susceptible to team sacrifice and ego-less pursuit of victory doesn’t have the bombastic personality or aura to enchant the casual fans who are often the ones who dictate what culture transforms into.
Jordan isn’t Jordan thanks to Sports Illustrated, but thanks to Time Magazine. Maybe Bryant’s off-court turbulences prevent him from becoming a paragon of his field in quite the same way, but it speaks volumes that a theater critic for The New Yorker is far more likely to associate the name “Kobe Bryant” with basketball than “Tim Duncan.”
The beauty of Duncan’s demeanor and general attitude is that he couldn’t care less about “cultural impacts” or “perception.” He only cares about winning. Any bi-products of winning that have been thrust upon him for nearly two decades are not embraced or esteemed, but tolerated.
The final verdict of these two legends will probably be handed down in the years to come. While Bryant may go down in history as a cultural icon, Duncan will probably be considered among that fringe population of basketball enthusiasts as the superior player. It’s a great debate to be had, because unlike most dichotomous discourses, there’s really no losing position. Bryant, Duncan, and basketball have all thrived from their mutually beneficial relationship.