They are once-in-a-generation talents, respected every bit as much for how they've chosen to carry themselves as they are for the extraordinary skills that enable them to carry their teams.
Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan are a lot alike in that way.
Both have embraced roles and locales few stars of their stature would be willing to accept, Durant in Oklahoma City and Duncan in San Antonio.
Thanks in large part to the two of them, the Thunder and Spurs have grown into not just powerhouse franchises but model organizations. Now, with a trip to the NBA Finals at stake, class will clash with class as the Thunder and Spurs meet for the first time in the postseason in the 2012 Western Conference Finals.
It's a series that will showcase two of the game's greats in Durant and Duncan. Every coach wants a player like them. Every general manager would sleep better if the keys to their franchises were in the hands of players with their personalities.
“They're both great ambassadors for the league,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
What makes Duncan and Durant unique is their rare combination of blue collar hard work and down-home humility. Awards and accolades are not the goal for either. Neither are endorsement deals nor brand recognition.
The common denominator for both Duncan and Durant boils down to winning — and an unadulterated love for the game.
“They're two of the best players to play the game at their positions, but they shy away from the superstardom. They don't look for the praise, and they don't look for the limelight,” said Thunder center Nazr Mohammed, who has now played 1 1/2 seasons with both Duncan and Durant. “They just want to go about their business, work hard and play basketball.”
And it doesn't matter where.
Neither San Antonio nor Oklahoma City ranks in the top 35 on the list of the country's largest television markets. Yet Duncan and Durant have remained committed to their communities. They've maintained their loyalty even when presented the opportunity to flee to a flashier city, a fancier market or to team up with more formidable teammates.
After a brief flirtation with Orlando as a free agent in 2000, Duncan passed on a signing with the Magic and instead delivered San Antonio three more championships. Durant, meanwhile, signed on with the Thunder two summers ago for five additional years, even turning down a chance to get out of the contract a year early.
They both stayed put because they didn't need more attention. They didn't deem it necessary to leave their respective franchises out of a need to validate their star power. They both just embraced the responsibility of being a franchise player.
“Tim Duncan is an unbelievable player and person for the league and has done so much for San Antonio,” Durant said. “Stuff I hope to do here in Oklahoma City. So I look up to him.
“My personality is a little different than his. But I think we approach the game the same way. We love the game the same way. We're team-first guys. Just do your job and go home. That's something that I kind of pull from him.”
Did you catch that? Durant just wants to do his job and go home. Now you see why Durant personifies every last core value and principle Thunder general manager Sam Presti stresses as he seeks to build an organization that can endure both the test of time and the plentiful pitfalls of the professional sports world.
“Kevin Durant the basketball player changes and develops almost on a weekly basis,” Presti said. “Kevin Durant the person, and the values and character that make him who he is, is the same as the day I met him in 2007.”
Durant was selfless then and he's selfless now. That's another characteristic he shares with Duncan.
When Sports Illustrated sought Durant to grace the cover of its NBA preview issue before the start of the 2010-11 season, the Thunder's star refused — unless the magazine allowed him to share the cover with two teammates. Durant then chose less-heralded players Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic.
Duncan, more of an introvert who would have to be dragged to a photo shoot for a magazine cover, has deferred to teammates in a different way. The future Hall of Famer has sacrificed his scoring in each of the past two seasons as the Spurs have transformed into a more up-tempo team led by point guard Tony Parker. Still, Duncan shows what many say is genuine joy when lesser known players such as Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard have big games.
“I just like how he's all about team and all about getting better,” Durant said of Duncan. “It's never about him.”
Durant and Duncan also are linked by their drive. Those who have worked closest to them can only shake their heads when speaking about their work ethics.
Brooks, on several occasions this season, has had to cancel scheduled practices the day before simply because he knew players like Durant and fellow stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden would spend too much time in the gym if he didn't. Sometimes, even that is not enough. While announcing upcoming off days, Brooks has had to insist the gym would be closed the following day and that no player would be permitted inside.
Durant noticed a similar passion from Duncan last summer, first when Duncan joined Thunder players for voluntary workouts in Austin, Texas, and then when Durant joined the Spurs during the lockout in San Antonio.
“He was in there working with the rookies and the second- and third-year guys like he was trying to make the team,” Durant remembered. “Seeing a guy that's been through everything spoke volumes.”
Presti calls Durant and Duncan creatures of process.
“They're focused on the quality of the work more so than what the results can bring them,” Presti said.
Durant has never skipped steps. Slow and steady, in his mind, has always trumped immediate gratification.
“I always work as if I'm preparing for 10 years down the line,” Durant said. “I've been like that since I was 9 years old, working and not knowing when it was going to pay off. Hopefully it does here soon.”
In Oklahoma City, shreds of success already can be seen, from Durant's scoring titles to the Thunder's incremental win total to the compassion with which the franchise and its baby-faced leader has reserved for its community.
Little by little, Durant is helping to build something bigger than basketball, a culture that years from now will be revered in the same way the Spurs have been for more than a decade.
That's one thing Durant doesn't have in common with Duncan. When Duncan arrived, he had David Robinson to lean on and learn from. Duncan simply took the torch.
Durant was the first one through the door in OKC.
“I think it's almost more remarkable with Kevin considering the generation that he is,” said Thunder guard Derek Fisher. “To think about Kevin being 23 years old in this era, to have Tim Duncan-like qualities in terms of his personality, his demeanor, his all-business attitude and his desire to have his teammates share in his success, that says a lot.
“Now, essentially, the only part left is to start adding those rings.”