Ageless wonder Tim Duncan had already won three NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs when he turned to local San Antonio boxing legend Jesse James Leija for offseason conditioning help.
“He’s an All Star basketball player,” Leija told NBA.com’s Ken Rodriguez. “But when we train, he trains as if he wants to be an All Star boxer. If he makes a little mistake, he wants to correct it. I can tell him, ‘Tim, it’s okay. It’s not a big deal.’ But he goes, ‘No, I want to do it right.’ And we keep doing it until he gets it right. His work ethic is incredible.”
Duncan and the Spurs opened the 2013 NBA Finals on the road last night against the reigning champion Miami Heat with a gritty come from behind 92-88 victory. After the win, ESPN basketball analyst Jalen Rose likened it to seeing an old, great boxing champion in his final run at another title.
“To beat the Spurs, you’re going to have to knock them out,” said Rose.
It’s been a phenomenal season for Duncan and his team. The power forward earned his 10th All NBA first-team selection and 14th overall after averaging 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while leading the Spurs to the second best record in the Western Conference. During the playoffs, he’s been just as good, averaging 17.9 points, 12 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
The Spurs have reached the NBA finals for the fifth time in franchise history this year, all under the watch of Tim Duncan. The Spurs have won each previous trip: 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
Leija said Duncan was the driving force behind the Spurs’ offseason boxing regiment. Some of the goals of the training, he said, were to help the Spurs enhance their mental focus, improve toughness and build confidence.
It’s no wonder Duncan is leading the charge. Since being drafted number one overall in the 1997 NBA Draft, he’s quietly but consistently proven to be the greatest power forward in NBA history, and it’s his work ethic that sets him apart.
It’s easy to see, then, why Duncan would turn to boxing. After all, the rigors of the sweet science are exactly what have kept legendary master Bernard Hopkins in tiptop form at the ripe old age 48. While no one should compare boxing to basketball, the kind of discipline and intensity Hopkins uses to stay on top of his sport transcends across all sporting endeavors, and Duncan is the poster child for it in roundball.
“Tim and I bet how many times I’m going to be able to stab him with my mitts and how many times he’s going to make me miss,” Leija told Rodriguez. “He’s getting harder and harder to hit. We’ve worked on angles, on combinations, on moving his legs with the punches, anything you can think a boxer would do, Tim has done it and perfected it.”
Leija said Duncan even likes to spar, sometimes in the blistering heat of the Texas sun.
“It was maybe 90 degrees and we were in the sun for six rounds, close to 30 minutes, non-stop. Just because Tim wanted to go out there. He didn’t have to do this. He’s already a great player. But he wanted to get better. Tim wanted to work harder. I was like, ‘This guy is amazing. This guy is crazy.’ I know why he’s one of the best NBA players ever.”
It’s no guarantee Duncan will win his fifth NBA championship this season. Miami proved to be the best team during the regular season and has a roster full of stars lead by current MVP LeBron James. But one thing is absolutely clear. Thanks to boxing, Tim Duncan and the Spurs will not go down without a fight.