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
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.

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.

LeBron
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.

Steph Curry has stayed true to himself

Steph Curry won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the second straight year, becoming the first unanimous MVP in league history. That feat was never accomplished by Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlin or even the great Michael Jordan.

Curry has played games this year where he could be shooting from the nosebleed section and you know he is just going to make it. His shooting style is a bit unorthodox, but he shoots with such confidence he makes it look as easy as throwing a rock into a pond.

Steph Curry
Brands could learn a thing or two from Steph Curry.

The NBA has been quietly looking for the new face of the league. As strange as it sounds, after Michael Jordan, there was a void until LeBron James showed up. While LeBron should be considered as one of the best players ever, the NBA has been in need of a refresh and Curry seems to fit the bill exactly.

He is young, scrappy, and has an adorable daughter who is as comfortable in front of the camera as her dad. Steph Curry has a wife he adores, has no off the court issues and has a refreshing appearance of little boy innocence and humility that is very seldom seen in the NBA, let alone in professional sports as a whole. He is in fact, the brandface the NBA has wanted to portray for some time. Kids see themselves as Curry and adults marvel in his performance.

Let’s hope Steph Curry keeps it up.

That is a heavy weight to bear for anyone and athletes have let us down before. But Curry appears to take it all in stride. His NBA successes have changed him little since his time at Davidson, a small private college in North Carolina. His fame and newfound money have apparently not altered his sense of himself. This is a lesson brands must always remember – stay true to who you are.

In a world where consumer tastes and desires seem to be constantly changing, brands are trying to reinvent themselves to keep up. What inevitably happens is that, as they reinvent themselves, they forget who they are and where they come from.

This does not mean that companies can’t grow and evolve. It simply means that they, like Steph Curry, should always remain grounded. I think of a company like Facebook, for example, that has become an Internet behemoth and have consciously made a decision to stay true to who it is. There are tons of articles and case studies about the company culture that Zuckerberg has created at Facebook and how he has successfully molded that culture of always working like a scrappy startup.

Continued brand success is a combination of many factors, some which are out of the control of the brand. But staying true to the fundamental principles of what made a brand successful in the first place is absolutely something that can be controlled. When brands don’t seize control, they fail.

Enjoy Stephen Curry

In the “Get of my lawn!” segment of the week, former NBA great Oscar Robertson claimed that today’s players and coaches don’t know a thing about basketball, directing his criticism toward current MVP Stephen Curry.

Robertson was always a cantankerous cuss, even during his playing days, but did he see this?

Now, I’m not the greatest NBA fan, choosing the styling of college basketball instead. But, like most of the nearly four million viewers who watched Saturday night’s contest between the Warriors and Thunder, I’m amazed at Stephen Curry’s shooting excellence.

He made a record-tying 12 threes in the game, and also beat his own record for three-pointers made in a season. The former Davidson star is a true miracle worker and I don’t think there’s been an offensive weapon like him before.

Even the traditionalist in me enjoys Stephen Curry.

When it comes to basketball, I am a traditionalist, someone who worshipped at the altar of John Wooden. What Robertson said does have a slight ring of truth to me because, at times, I don’t recognize the game I grew up with either.

But as I age, I sometimes wonder if I’m becoming one of those old guys who thinks rock and roll will destroy youth. I worry I will become the person who criticizes modern trends without enjoying the amazing things that are happening right in front of me.

Stephen Curry is an interesting example. Offensively, he’s as fundamentally sound as anyone but the old man in me wishes he played better defense and that the Warriors would run a half-court offense that wasn’t full of three-point shots.

But if you’re head coach Steve Kerr, what are you going to do? Have Curry, maybe the greatest shooter in NBA history, not shoot from deep? You’re going to go down low to lumbering Steve Adams instead?

What strikes me about Curry is that he’s fun. He’s almost like a Globetrotter, making opponents look so silly you’d think they had their shorts pulled down.

The brand of Stephen Curry, if you will, is about enjoyment. So, while my old man instincts may align with those of the Big O, I think I’ll enjoy the Curry ride instead.