Tim Duncan, the quiet superstar

Less than a week ago, I wrote about Kevin Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you missed the blog, my position rested on the idea that I felt the spirit of competition had been lost. Durant has earned the right to move from the small market of Oklahoma City to any team he wishes. He surely played peak basketball for the Thunder for nine glorious years — giving, in my estimation, 100% every night.

However, there is something deeply admirable about staying put with one team. The logistics of doing that, compounded with the business of professional sports, makes that task a hard one to do. Yet, a career-long face imprinted on a professional sports brand means that athlete becomes adored. Cal Ripkin Jr., did it with the Baltimore Orioles, as did Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. Kobe Bryant achieved such with Los Angeles Lakers.

And so did Tim Duncan.

Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan was one of the greatest ever, and the most humble.

Yesterday, one of the greatest players ever, Tim Duncan, in his typically understated fashion, retired from the game of basketball.

There wasn’t a farewell tour for Duncan as there was for Kobe this season (which Kobe rightfully earned). No hoopla or leading coverage was had. Nope, it was just a class-act player calling it quits with the team he played every minute for: The San Antonio Spurs. Tim Duncan retired in the only way he knew how — quietly.

Pause a minute and consider what Duncan did on the hardwood:

  • Five NBA championships
  • Two NBA MVP awards
  • Three NBA Finals MVP awards
  • NBA Rookie of the Year
  • 15 All-Star selections
  • 26,496 total points (14th on the all-time list)

These are just a smidgeon of his career stats. Stats that show a career of being a man among boys (albeit, talented boys).

What made Tim Duncan stand out.

Coming full-circle, what I appreciate most about Duncan was his unwavering spirt and determination to win the five times championships in the small market of San Antonio. (If you’re reading Durant, you can win anywhere.) That is Duncan’s masterpiece and what has him etched with the pantheon of greats.

For people who have only seen Duncan in last half of his career, let me tell you also what an athletic marvel he was when he was young. The former Wake Forest star was actually a competitive swimmer before picking up basketball. When he played college basketball and later in the NBA, he has as agile as a 6-11 man could be, with a sweet stroke and an intelligent grasp of the game. They didn’t call him the Big Fundamental for nothing.

I know this for a fact. When I think back on San Antonio Spurs basketball later on in life, I’ll always think of Tim Duncan. I’ll remember his sheer dominance and grace on the court, his zen-like presence and brilliant level of achievement.

For all this, I wish to say thank you, Tim. The NBA is now a far lesser place without you.

Durant moves on but something is lost

I’ve never been much a fan of the NBA. For me, college basketball has always seemed the truer sport. Teams feel different. With college ball, you can recognize a club by the defenses or offenses they play. Not true with the NBA. Most teams look and play the same to me. Some just have better superstars than others.

I’m sharing my feelings about the NBA because this season’s playoffs were an anomaly to me. I actually enjoyed them. Teams played their hearts out. Players like LeBron, Steph and Durant (to name a few) were more intense than ever. There were heartbreaks, wonderful storylines and curses were broken. This non-NBA guy was jumping out of his seat when LeBron blocked Andre Iguodala and Kyrie Irving drilled a three with seconds to go in the championship.

NBA playoff team ball was epic this year. Many teams were on the brink of winning big. Which is why the off-season movement made by superstar Kevin Durant has me befuddled.

Durant earned the right to move on, but the spirit of competition is lost.

To quote ESPN analyst, Stephen A. Smith (not someone I usually quote as I think he’s a borderline idiot), Oklahoma City was “48 minutes from going to the championship three times.” The team was on the cusp of beating the Warriors as it had a 3-1 advantage in the best of seven series. OKC looked stronger than ever, but it could not get over the hump. I truly thought it was a given that OKC was moving on.

Nonetheless, battles like this one is the stuff that makes lasting rivalries.

KD, instead of embracing his team (one that houses an equally talented player in Russell Westbrook and a coach I liked in college, Billy Donavon), flew the coup — and to the very team that beat him in the playoffs, the Golden State Warriors. Crazy.

Durant moves on and competition is lost.

The move is all about KD winning a championship. He joined an already historic team where the odds of snagging the Larry O’Brien trophy next year are very likely.

But Golden State isn’t the house that KD built. Oklahoma City was. Joining the Warriors is a quick fix for Durant. Sure, he will probably get his trophy, but folks will look on it the same they did when LeBron went to South Beach for his first and second. Only now that LeBron won with his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, does he receive the adulation he rightfully deserves.

I understand there is a difference between LeBron and Durant. LeBron grew up just outside of Cleveland, while Durant was originally drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics before they moved to Oklahoma City. In fact, Durant hails from Washington D.C. And I understand a person must make their decisions based on what’s best for themselves. Durant was a true leader for the Thunder for nine glorious years. He earned the right to move on.

However, from a brand perspective alone, this situation is intriguing to me. Here we have one of the top three basketball players in the world in Kevin Durant. Yet he does not trust the Oklahoma City brand of basketball (and he may have reason not to) or himself for that matter to be willing to cement his legacy there. Rather, he views the Golden State Warriors brand as one being more trustworthy and having a greater potential for championship success.

Ultimately, it’s all bummer as it feels like the exhilarating moments from this year’s playoffs will be lost next year. I don’t know who will beat the Golden State Warriors, who will start four All-Stars and league’s last two MVPs. It’ll only happen if a similar set-up happens in the East. But for now, the spirit of first-rate competition has been lost.

The Pat Summitt Brand

The Brand of Pat Summitt

Pat SummittPat Summitt knew, but you might not know, that many many years ago I owned a scouting service for Division 1 NCAA basketball programs. Women’s Division 1 NCAA basketball programs.

I was privileged to meet and get to know many of the basketball coaches of the day in a sport just beginning to feel its oats with Title 9 funding.

This was so many years ago that Pat Summitt had yet to win her first NCAA title. In my second year in business, that all changed and Pat’s Lady Vols cut down the nets. I was there for that game.

I will leave the tributes to others and there will be many well deserved accolades. She was as gracious in private as she was tenacious in coaching (and as a player years before). I don’t claim to have known her well but just meeting with Coach and spending a short time with her was an unforgettable moment.

She was legendary before she was at the pinnacle of her sport and EVERYONE knew it was just a matter of time before Pat’s teams dominated her sport. I know now why that was. It was the Pat Summitt brand.

Joining the Vols

To become part of that brand, to have the Tennessee Lady Vols logo on your jersey MEANT you were a relenteless and hard as nails competitor who worked tirelessly to be the best you could be.

Pat Summitt Tennessee LogoPlayers improved and grew under Coach Summitt’s tutelage. But she also recruited and won better athletes. The good ones wanted to be part of that brand. No matter how great they were in high school, they believed they were going to a special place and were going to be coached by greatness. The brand was a reflection of Pat Summitt.

What did that mean to the athletes? Everything.

Why the Pat Summitt brand was so powerful

Pat SummittThe basketball court was a microcosm of the world of Pat Summitt. She believed in the transformative power of PRESSURE. There was the pressure to become better. There was the pressure to eliminate mistakes. There was the pressure to be a complete human being and there was the legendary pressure of her man-to-man defense.

Everyone was subjected to her pressure. Especially the poor NCAA victims of her teams rise to greatness.

Pat Summitt was indeed a brand with a capital B. It meant identifying yourself as a player with that brand. It was your identity and it was lived with great dignity and charm by the woman who created it. She did not invent it.. Its just who she was.

Rest in peace Pat Summitt. You are missed.

John Wooden’s Wisdom

John Wooden was a marketing genius

How LeBron went from villain to hero

How did LeBron James go from villain to hero? Maybe those are stark definitions, but I don’t sense the same nationwide satisfaction with the NBA championships won by LeBron with Miami as the one he claimed with Cleveland last night.

There’s a single reason why he is being more celebrated for this championship than any other: Because this one, from a brand message standpoint, was not about himself. It was about Cleveland.

This one feels better because it wasn’t about LeBron. It was about Cleveland.

It is easy to be cynical about it because, of course, LeBron wanted another championship ring. Any competitor would – and judging by the extreme effort he showed in this series, he was supremely motivated.

We’ve all but forgotten how much many of us roared when Dallas upset Miami in LeBron’s first season there. He was coming off The Decision, a stunningly misguided TV event that left Cleveland fans burning his jerseys in the streets. That was because it was seen as a selfish move by a superstar who left his hometown to play with another superstar, Dwayne Wade. Losing to the Mavs in the Finals felt like karma biting him in the ass.

The next two seasons saw Miami win NBA titles and it was all but assured that James was seen as a selfish superstar. Only those in Miami were truly celebrating those victories.

But his return to Cleveland and winning the championship in spectacular fashion has changed the narrative.

This LeBron championship was more than about the player.

Brands are always most preferred when they are about the customers they serve. Brands are forgotten and treated as afterthoughts when they are about themselves. Nike’s Just Do It is about the customer. CitiBank’s Citi Never Sleeps is about CitiBank.

The Miami version of LeBron James was about James. The Cleveland version of LeBron was about Cleveland, the longtime laughingstock of the major sports leagues.

Certainly, there’s more to it than that. Down three games to one, James (and Kyrie Irving) brought the Cavaliers back from the brink of extinction with grit, confidence and getting into Steph Curry’s head. (I like Curry. But the mouth guard-throwing incident had the tone of a spoiled child to it.)

But once the championship of homegrown LeBron (who grew up in 40 minutes from Cleveland) developed, it overshadowed the mercenary LeBron we saw in Miami.

Now he is beloved.

Russia. Olympic Doping

Olympic doping is a symptom not a cause

Olympic doping "I'm shocked"Olympic doping? Remember when Captain Renault (Claude Raines from the 1942 movie Casablanca) famously said “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

I’m afraid that is exactly my sarcastic response to implications that the Russian Olympic team doped during the Sochi Olympics and that that coverup was systemic to the Russian state.

Are you shocked? I doubt it.

However, I don’t think this stops with the Russian team. Let’s face facts: Doping and cheating in athletics is a global epidemic that, just like the Spanish Flu of 1918, it respects no boarders and infects the entire globe.

Does Olympic doping bother me?

Lance Armstrong and Olympic dopingYes. But I’m not appalled. Unlike almost all of my friends, I have given up professional sports (and the Olympics are PROFESSIONAL sports) and I am fast losing interest in intercollegiate sports as well. Did my malaise start with Lance Armstrong? Not really. It started when it occurred to me that athletic competition was becoming a religion where winning was embraced as a modern form of spiritual redemption.

The problem is the wealth that comes along with winning and, to borrow a term from Donald Trump, “trust me” fame is a form of wealth.

The cult of athletics is not one of humanity’s finer traits. It clouds judgment, suspends introspection and deludes accomplishment. Fans identify with their teams so completely that they ignore the facts that even in intercollegiate athletics, athletes are not the representative of the schools for which they compete. The student athlete for the University of Kentucky’s basketball team has as much in common with the students and grads of that university as I do with an NFL athlete. By the way, don’t think I am ragging on the Wildcats (although they are top-of-mind with me). You could insert almost any university brand in the sentence including North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma… etc. Only Temple University is exempt (check my bio).

Winning is all that matters

In a global culture where winning is a form of self-identification, it is not surprising that we have had scandals in major league baseball, football and cycling. The personal identification with the Manchester United’s of the world is overwhelming but that blind ignorance pales compared to the xenophobic nationalism of the Olympics. Do you think only the Russians cheated?

Olympic DopingMy God, this past week I heard allegations that the Kenyan long distance runners have been doping. You know these super humans? They are 6’4” (legs are 5’ of that height) and they weigh 58 kilos. Rumor has it that they have the hollow bones found only in birds so as to be lighter on their feet. These are the guys and gals that finish the marathon before any of those running the half-marathon come even close to the finish line.

As I think about it, I don’t watch much in the way of sports anymore because I don’t want to think of myself as a fool. Someone duped into thinking everything is on the up and up and athletic accomplishment comes solely from hard work and dedication. I’m not duped because everyone seems to be doped.

Earlier blogs about athletics and the Olympics

With the Olympics, NBC earned gold. Without it, struggling for bronze.

Lance Armstrong finally admits the truth about the NFL