By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - When San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan takes the court for Game One of the NBA Finals on Thursday, he will be aiming to become only the second player to win championships in three different decades.
That is just one of many reasons why LeBron James of the defending champion Miami Heat believes the soft-spoken 37-year-old Duncan deserves to be counted among the game's greats.
"He is probably one of the best players to ever play the game of basketball," said James, about going up against the Duncan and the Spurs in the best-of-seven championship series.
The only other player to accomplish the feat was John Salley, a power forward who won titles with the Detroit Pistons in 1989 and 1990 and then was a bit player in the Los Angeles Lakers' run to the championship in 2000.
Duncan has been a central figure in each of San Antonio's NBA triumphs.
"If I just look at the last 15 years, he's probably been the most consistent, most dominant player that we've had as far as 15 years all together. He's won four titles, multiple All Stars, MVP, and so on and so on," James said on Wednesday.
A quick glance at Duncan's career achievements, with titles in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007 and league Most Valuable Player awards in 2002 and 2003, raises the question as to why he gets so little attention.
Kobe Bryant, with five rings would be the only other player of this generation who could argue his case to be above Duncan in the pecking order of NBA greats, and he certainly enjoys a higher profile.
Perhaps playing for a Spurs team which, despite their success has a lower profile in the media, has eased the spotlight on Duncan.
But James believes the modest style of the man from Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands is also a factor.
"I think he doesn't get a lot of recognition because he's not flashy like a lot of guys are," said James.
"He's not jumping over people and high‑flying and doing the things that attracts people to the game. But I think true basketball, true IQ people, the players, they know how great he is," said James.
James credits Duncan's ability to compete at the highest level in the sunset of his career to a smart approach to fitness and the quality of the Spurs' staff.
"I think it's about him staying in shape, his conditioning level. I think it's the great support that they have in San Antonio. Also I think it's him being a true professional," James said.
"When you give everything to the game, the game rewards you. He's a champion. He has championship DNA."
Typically, Duncan credits San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich for his long shelf life.
"I have been playing a little less in the summertime," said Duncan, saying that translates into less stress on his knees. "Then Pop has made all the other adjustments for me basically, whether I like it or not. My minutes are down.
"Every once in a while, whether healthy or not, I have a couple of games off. Don't play in many back‑to‑backs, things that were really wearing my body all season," he said.
Popovich, however, says playing at such a high level for such a long time is mostly about Duncan's character.
"He's a consummate pro. He takes great pride in fulfilling his responsibility to his team mates. He feels it very strongly. It's just a personal character quality that he has. It's as simple as that," said Popovich.
"He works himself hard all summer long. He's got high standards. He wants to participate and compete at a high level, and he has the discipline to do it. It's about character, and he's got it."
(Reporting By Simon Evans; Editing by Larry Fine)