On this, the afternoon of the biggest day annually for at least ten teams in the NBA, the NBA Lottery, I thought we’d take some time to comment on the nature of celebrity as it pertains to professional basketball. It seems to fuel everyone’s rooting interests and opinions about the league itself and no one seems to acknowledge it beyond saying something along the lines of, “this team is going to win because they have more STARS” or “This team is going to lose because they rely too heavily on STARS and don’t play TEAM ball”.
But the magnitude of an NBA player’s celebrity doesn’t always align with their basketball acumen. And there isn’t a better example of this than the career of Tim Duncan. No one better exemplifies the difference between basketball celebrity and commercial celebrity than Duncan and his four rings (which we suspect will be five in the next month), who is the best power forward that ever lived yet will only be remembered by avid basketball fans ten years from now. None of this is hyperbole.
There are a number of reasons for this: Duncan’s game thrives on fundamentals and it doesn’t supply highlight reels with aesthetically pleasing play, his monotone press conferences, the fact he played at Wake Forest (small college) and went to San Antonio (small, one sport team market), and there’s also the fact he doesn’t seem preoccupied with drawing attention to himself. And by all accounts, he’s one of the more charming players in the league. He’s the antithesis to Terrell Owens, someone who wants his reputation defined by what he’s wealthy from as opposed to someone who uses what they’re wealthy from as a spring board for a reality TV show (note: In his prime, Owens is still one of the 10 best receivers I’ve ever seen play).
This is all in spite of being the #1 overall pick, which doesn’t really guarantee anything as far as world-renown recognition is concerned. In the past fifteen years of #1 overall picks, only Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Yao Ming & Derrick Rose have managed to achieve the coveted Commercial Star Status that brings on such recognition (and judging by this Rose profile, he doesn’t even want it). The jury is still out on Kyrie Irving and John Wall, though they went in different directions this year.
As far as I can tell, there are four ways to earn Commercial Star Status, any one or all of which will improve your standing and make you a regular trending topic on Twitter: come into league with a jump start on branding by virtue of playing for a noteworthy college, having famous parents and/or a remarkable NCAA tournament performance; play for Knicks, Lakers, Clippers or Bulls and be one of their three best contributors, be really f%ck!ng good at basketball (imperative), or all of the above.
There are people who have squandered their marketing potential, of course, like Adam Morrison, who even after being drafted by Charlotte had a very high ceiling for the name he could make for himself. As it turned out, he simply wasn’t that good of an NBA player. Stephen Curry is another example, whom when he isn’t injured has only exceeded expectations in Golden State. But that’s the issue, he’s playing for a Golden State team that’s stuck in neutral and for the last twenty years has been relevant for approximately two weeks in April and May of 2007. If he were drafted by the Knicks instead of the Warriors, ESPN would talk about him every day and we’d all be sick of him. Because while he’s a great scorer, the attention he’d receive in New York would far exceed what he’d actually contribute.
Tim Duncan, however, has won multiple rings for an absolute dynasty that has proven sustainable for over fifteen years now. If they win a title this year, they will have won a title every three years, and the only similarities all four will have is Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich. Yet when you compare him to someone like Joe Johnson, the degree of celebrity they receive is essentially on par, yet Johnson has never been past the second round of the playoffs with Atlanta, and only made it as far as the conference finals when playing in Phoenix, where he was the third or fourth best player on the team. Or take Dwight Howard, who has never won anything, been an antagonist for the better part of a year and also plays in a small, southern market, and even though he’s significantly younger, he’s more of a commercial celebrity than Tim Duncan ever has or ever will be.
Why? Because he’s enigmatic. He looks like a modern day Adonis, his game consists of powerful dunks, blocked shots send five rows into the stands and an infectious persona (though this has been absent since last off-season). Dwight Howard is a great basketball player, but it’s unlikely he ever reaches the heights like Duncan has and after this year of combative whining and indecision about where he’s willing to make millions of dollars playing a child’s game for, he will never regain the reputation of “decent guy” that Duncan has always maintained. Honestly, say what you will about LeBron’s The Decision, he at least made one, and while people like to call LeBron’s hour long homage to himself a “train wreck; if that’s a train wreck, Dwight Howard’s free agency kerfuffle has been a plane crash into a train wreck that started a forest fire.
Yet they both play in small markets, both are big men (who traditionally struggle to be as marketable as perimeter players) and both were number one overall picks. And the better player isn’t going to be nearly as recognizable to your average indifferent citizen as the lesser player.
Going into tonight’s lottery, thirteen teams are hoping to land the first overall pick, which comes with the unparalleled Anthony Davis from Kentucky. This is another player who will, in all likelihood, be a big man (though he’s more of a hybrid than the other two) playing for a small market as his class’ first overall pick. He leans more towards the Dwight Howard school of thought than Tim Duncan, he even has a uni-brow – which oddly enough no one seems offended by – to compliment his marketability.
He’s coming into the league as the best college player since Kevin Durant after winning an NCAA title and national player of the year at the biggest basketball school in the country. Obviously, if he dominates on the court like everyone anticipates him too, he’s going to earn the much desired “Star” label that is much desired. It won’t even matter if he’s able to win 4+ titles, because without player a single in the NBA, his already shines brighter than Tim Duncan.
It warrants mentioning because we so regularly talk about which team is better based on which has more Stars. But when the subject is San Antonio, in one way they have none and in another they have three. I remember in the 90’s how famous you were directly correlated with how successful you were on the hardwood. But you could make an argument that the Wizards have more “Stars” than the Spurs. John Wall is talked about in mass media far more than anyone on San Antonio. But if I’m a Spurs fan, I rest comfortably knowing I haven’t needed or been in the lottery since I got Tim Duncan with the first overall pick in 1998. Somehow I doubt knowing Dwight Howard almost trumps their entire roster in jersey sales cost them any sleep at night.