Inside Look at 21 Shades of Gray with Chris BallardPosted: May 18, 2012
Tim Duncan is the most successful player of his generation. In the 15 years since Duncan was drafted, no other team in the four major pro sports has had a better winning percentage than the Spurs. Now, Duncan is the foundation of yet another Spurs team that could win it all. So why haven’t the masses fallen for him?
In this week’s issue, senior writer Chris Ballard (@SI_ChrisBallard)breaks down the 21 reasons why Duncan, compared with his peers, remains practically anonymous. Ballard, who was able to spend some time with the reserved center, uncovers more than we have ever seen of Duncan, leaving readers with a better understanding of the man behind four NBA Championships. Chris spoke to us about this week’s feature.
Inside Sports Illustrated: Tim Duncan is notoriously a private person who is not usually generous with his free time with media. How did you convince him to participate in the interview, especially on a non-game day? What was the process behind it?
Chris Ballard: It wasn’t easy. As an organization, the Spurs are actively media-averse, and Duncan rarely if ever does sit-down interviews. In this case I contacted Spurs media relations head Tom James midway through the season and pitched the idea: an in-depth look at Tim asking why fans have never really fallen for him. I’ve known Tom for a dozen years and written about the Spurs before – including traveling to Argentina for a feature on Manu Ginobili – so there’s a level of comfort there. Still, both he and Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer had to vouch for me (Mike and I played on the same basketball team at Pomona College).
Once Tim agreed, the challenge was to try to get him to open up. James and Budenholzer told me to go with humor – that Tim’s a very funny guy with a dry wit, and that he shuts down if interviewers are too serious. So I made a list of questions that I could deploy if the interview got too quiet. For example: “Danny Ferry: one of the dirtiest players you ever played with or the dirtiest?” It was February at the time, in the midst of Knick-mania, so I also started by thanking him for taking the time to talk to me, and then said, “But what I really want to know is what you think of Jeremy Lin.” Like all other players at the time, he thought the hype was over the top, so he appreciated that.
Inside Sports Illustrated: When did you have the idea to write a feature on Duncan, and what is the one thing that you learned about him that fascinated you the most?
Chris Ballard: I got the idea in January. It felt like this might be his last, best shot at a fifth ring, and that he’d gotten to a point in his career where we were taking him for granted. The most fascinating thing I learned was how he and Pop bonded immediately – the two of them laying on the beach and swimming and hanging out for three days in 1997 – and how Pop called Tim his “soul mate.” That really struck me.
Inside Sports Illustrated: In the feature, you uncover an extremely close relationship between Duncan and head coach Gregg Popovich. In you years covering sports, have you ever witnessed a comparable relationship between player and coach?
Chris Ballard: Not personally. I imagine I’ve read about some – D’Antoni and Nash were quite close, for example. But nothing close to this. I’m not sure we’ll see anything like it again, at least in the NBA. There are too many reasons for coaches and players to be at odds.
Inside Sports Illustrated: The story details that many of his teammates regard Duncan as a personable and even funny guy. Did you experience that when you spoke with him? And why do you think he does not show that side of himself publicly?
Chris Ballard: Yes. I only spent limited time with him – the interview and a handful of games, before and after in the locker room – but he’s got a dry sense of humor that I found appealing. We ended up joking about a few things – Malik Rose’s defense, Ferry (obviously) and his dislike for the media. He’s an easy guy to get along with. As for why he doesn’t show it, there’s a quote from Steve Kerr that we ended up cutting for space, so it’s not in the story, but I think it sums it up best. “If he let anybody in to who he really is he’d be unbelievably popular,” Kerr said. “He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. But he doesn’t need it. He doesn’t want the attention and doesn’t need more money.”
Inside Sports Illustrated: In your opinion, can the Spurs win another NBA title this year? If they do win, where does Duncan rank among all-time great NBA centers?
Chris Ballard: Definitely. Especially if Bosh remains out, I think it comes down to the Spurs and the Thunder, though I wonder how well the Spurs’ role players will perform as the games get bigger. As for where he ranks, it’s got to be top five. There’s Russell and Wilt and Kareem and then you can make an argument for a number of guys after that, and Tim’s right up there. If he plays three more years – and he told me he thinks he’ll play two or three – it will be hard to ignore his qualifications.
Chris Ballard has not only been busy writing features for Sports Illustrated, he has written a new book, One Shot at Forever, telling the story of the 1971 Macon High Ironmen varsity baseball team. The Ironmen represented the smallest school in Illinois history to play in the state finals before they lost to powerhouse Lane Tech. Many members of the team are excited about the book release, but a few still haven’t gotten over the loss.
For many athletes, high school is the only time they have an opportunity to achieve greatness, but often players remember the losses more than the wins. Ballard writes, “I’m 38 and I still dream about basketball games that I lost in high school (though never, strangely enough, about the ones I won). Likewise, when I get together with certain friends over beers, I know the conversation will eventually lead us back to some field or gym on some fateful afternoon.”
You can purchase a copy of the book here