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.”