SAN ANTONIO — There was only the slightest hint of musculature in LeBron James’ arms when Tim Duncan carried the San Antonio Spurs to their first NBA title.
The moment was so long ago that Duncan used a hand-held camcorder to document the celebration. James, watching on television, was a few months from beginning his freshman year of high school.
“As a kid, you watch somebody celebrate and win a championship,” James said Wednesday, recalling Duncan’s 1999 title, “you hope that you can put yourself in their shoes.”
James has more than dipped his toe in the pool of champions since then, the Miami Heat star having won back-to-back titles and heading into his fifth NBA Finals appearance and third against the Spurs. The series opener is Thursday at the AT&T Center.
James is still chasing Duncan, who has won four titles in five Finals appearances, though they are on equal footing when it comes to head-to-head matchups. Duncan’s Spurs swept James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals before falling to James and the Heat in an epic seven-game series last season.
One defining similarity between Duncan and James is that they are the only players to win the Finals and the regular-season most-valuable-player awards in the same season since 2003, Duncan having done it that year and James in 2012 and 2013.
Each player is destined to go down as an all-time great no matter the outcome of this series. Just don’t bother asking them about their legacies.
Said James: “I don’t get involved in what people say about me and my legacy. I think it’s actually kind of stupid.”
Said Duncan: “There will be a time for that, time to look back on that once everything is over. For now, all I’m focusing on is trying to get another one.”
Beating the Heat would make Duncan the first player in NBA history to win titles in three different decades, perhaps giving him a bookend to championships in ‘99, ‘03, ‘05 and ‘07. He’s under contract for one more season but said he did not know when he might retire.
Miami gave Duncan all the incentive he needed to keep playing last year when he missed a short hook shot and then a putback that could have tied the score in the final minute of overtime in Game 7.
“I have a very good memory, especially for my misses and losses,” Duncan said. “You keep those, you learn from them and you hope to change ‘em next time.”
James has taken a free-as-a-bird approach after consecutive titles. He wore a “The Heatles” T-shirt when he showed up for practice Wednesday, riffing off the iconic Beatles design.
It was only a year ago that the doubters seemed to outnumber the admirers, James arriving at the Finals having lost two of three series on basketball’s biggest stage. Now try finding anyone willing to question James’ greatness.
“I hope they’re not appreciating him too much,” Heat center Chris Bosh said of the critics with a chuckle, “because he needs that fire.”
Actually, James said he needed only two words to motivate him: the Finals.
He considered himself a historian of sorts, having watched Finals involving Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal as well as recorded versions of those won by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon.
James said he sought advice from Isiah Thomas and Jerry West, champions who famously failed in their initial Finals attempts, after falling short against the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
“They gave me some great pointers that I like to keep in my Rolodex until I decide to write a book when I’m done,” James said. “But those guys were very helpful.”
Duncan never needed much advice after winning his first four Finals trips, though his sense of urgency might have remained unrivaled.
“He really wants to get that ring as much as the younger guys who don’t have any yet,” Spurs forward Boris Diaw said.
Ultimately, these Finals may not matter much when it comes to how Duncan and James are remembered. Duncan has won a pair of MVPs, a total already doubled by James. Each player may go down as the best ever at his position.
Just don’t bother telling them that there’s little on the line over the next two weeks.
Said Duncan: “Doesn’t matter if it’s four, five, two or one (championship) before. This is the only one that counts right now and this is the only one that’s in my head right now.”
Said James: “This is an opportunity for me to do what I always wanted to do and that’s to continue to win championships.”
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