x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Celebrity status is spurned

Despite booking their spot in the Western Conference finals with ease, Tim Duncan and San Antonio Spurs drift under the radar. Audio interviews

The San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan has helped his side to the Western Conference finals for a showdown with Oklahoma City Thunder.
The San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan has helped his side to the Western Conference finals for a showdown with Oklahoma City Thunder.

Do people like sports or stars? One exceptional basketball team out there can make you wonder.

Certainly one segment of humanity likes sports. It likes the strategies of games and appreciates prowess wherever it sprouts.

Apparently another layer of humankind will watch sports, but only if infused with stars or star clubs.

For just one example of this phenomenon, fling out the 2004 Champions League final between Porto of Portugal and Monaco of France, which lost almost one-fifth of its television audience off the previous year because it lacked any team from England, Spain, Italy or Germany.

The nerve.

With the UAE some 10,725 kilometres from the nearest NBA club, you may know little about the San Antonio Spurs, even though they lurk two series wins from an ironclad claim to one of the greatest eras ever.

Absurdly they have won all eight games in the play-offs thus far, won 18 successive games since April 11 and won very little chatter as everyone chirps about Miami, Oklahoma City, two teams from Los Angeles and sometimes, one old codger of a team from Boston.

Another title this time would give San Antonio five titles over a 14-year span, the others coming in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007.

From my informal survey walking around the streets and malls of the UAE, you are much more likely to walk around in a Kobe Bryant jersey, or a LeBron James, or a Dwyane Wade, a Paul Pierce or a Kevin Garnett, than a Tim Duncan.

In fact, I have yet to see a Tim Duncan.

Then again, Duncan nestles into a rare niche: he is among the greatest who ever played, but he is not a star.

Stardom requires some willingness, and he has never showed an ounce of flash or panache. He is a one-man, 6ft 11ins (2.11m) testament to the attention-deficit disorder of humanity, or to its tedium surfing all its hundreds of television channels. He long has been uninterested in "look at me". Again, the nerve.

About the only tangential detail widely known about him is that as he grew up in the US Virgin Islands, he was a swimmer with Olympic daydreams until Hurricane Hugo destroyed the pool where he trained, forcing him into basketball. That story has been public for so long - since the mid-1990s - that it is almost excruciating to repeat it anymore. I just winced typing it.

By now 36, he has remained a pillar throughout the various incarnations of the Spurs' tranquil majesty. If you scan the list of the NBA finals games with the lowest television ratings since 1981, every one of the bottom 14 included the Spurs. The top one, in 1998, featured, of course, Michael Jordan. Stars.

That said, the Spurs again had the highest regular-season local TV ratings for the second successive year, so they are a Texan passion pocket that does not transcend generally.

What's odd about all of it is that the 2012 Spurs are fascinating.

Somehow, five years after their last title, and however many years after most anybody who pondered them considered them waning or waned, they have come out on the other end, aglow.

They have followed a four-season finals drought with the same old leading triumvirate of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aged 36, 30 and 34, but with a fresh sheen. As they get set to play Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City, they contribute utterly to the advance delectability of that series.

They shoot three-point shots. They play rapidly. They always seem to make the pass to the right place, even if you have to like an actual sport to relish anybody always making the pass to the right place.

"We're a deeper team," said the fittingly under-appreciated coach Gregg Popovich, a great coach but not a star coach, and San Antonio's coach since 1996 or, in coaching terms, forever.

They have cobbled together a curious and motley supporting cast. There's Danny Green, the anomaly of the good four-year college player who makes it in the NBA, drafted 46th in 2009.

There's the rookie Kawhi Leonard, drafted 15th in 2011, then traded pronto from Indiana to San Antonio. There's an undrafted American guard who played in Turkey, Spain and Italy (Danny Neal), a French NBA journeyman rebounder who played in France (Boris Diaw) and a Brazilian NBA newcomer who played in Spain (Tiago Splitter).

Go ahead, then, sport geek, look it up. When the Spurs won the championship in 2007, they got 59.7 of their 95.7 points per post-season game from the big three, or 62.4 per cent.

This time, they're getting 48 of their 102.5 points per post-season game from the big three, or 46.8 per cent.

It's a case of excellent, sumptuous basketball, but to get into it, of course, you might have to like the sport.

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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