This is how long Tim Duncan has been around: Hours after he made his summer league debut in 1997, and only weeks after he was drafted No. 1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs, I called Gregg Popovich from a pay phone at Los Angeles International Airport.
Then, as always, Popovich cracked wise on his Timmy. He said the lanky rookie out of Wake Forest struggled to make a shot, mishandled the ball, made poor decisions and, in essence, was far from the formidable force he would become. And about that last part? Popovich never had a doubt.
Nineteen seasons later, Duncan retires as one of the greatest and most unusual players in the history of the game. Power forward? Center? Does it really matter? The St. Croix, Virgin Islands, native – a converted swimmer, no less – navigated the often treacherous NBA waters with smooth, subtle but spectacular strokes. He dictated the pace for the majority of two decades, establishing and adhering to parameters both professionally and personally.
Duncan, 40, was the most private, even mysterious, superstar of his generation. It wasn’t until these last few seasons, particularly during the Spurs’ final championship run (in 2014), that he more willingly shared hints of his humor and insights into his personality. In an era when professional athletes travel with entourages and enhance their earnings and profiles with endorsements, commercials and paid appearances, the Spurs icon preferred a life behind the curtain.
“He was always about winning, never about making a brand out of himself,” Dirk Nowitzki told ESPN’s Marc Stein. “That’s what I appreciated the most.”
The Big Fundamental was a basketball masterpiece. Good luck finding a flaw in his game; 29 teams tried and failed. What will we miss the most? The soft bank shots from either side? The post moves that appeared so effortless? The passes to open teammates? The defense that anchored the Spurs during their five championship seasons, including his epic performance that clinched the 2003 title against the New Jersey Nets?
Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. LeBron James. Stephen Curry. John Stockton and Karl Malone. All are Naismith Hall of Famers or awaiting the invitations that will be in the mail. And that includes Magic Johnson, whose Abdul-Jabbar imitation against the Philadelphia 76ers is one for the ages.
But Duncan’s Game 6 performance against the Nets very quietly speaks to his understated brilliance. He scored 21 points, grabbed 20 rebounds, passed for 10 assists and blocked eight shots, tying the NBA’s playoff record for blocks.
Afterward, while the Spurs celebrated and media worked the locker room, I approached Popovich in a hallway with a question: Had he ever witnessed anything remotely comparable to Duncan’s performance? And why wasn’t the long-limbed center lionized that very night?
Pop laughed, then shrugged. No, he had never seen a superior effort. But that was Timmy and these were the Spurs; the limelight always tended to shine elsewhere.
True, but Duncan will enter the Hall of Fame with Kobe Bryant in 2021, inducted as a five-time champion, two-time MVP and perennial selection to all-league and all-defensive squads. The only thing missing from his résumé is an Olympic gold medal, though not because he didn’t try. Unlike most of his original teammates who withdrew only weeks before the 2004 Athens Games mainly because of terrorism fears, Duncan and Allen Iverson endured an altogether disappointing experience.
Besides the United States stumbling to the bronze medal, Duncan was so frustrated by the officiating he vowed to never again represent the United States in an international event. Whether he would have changed his mind if Popovich had been named the next Olympic coach – that would be Mike Krzyzewski – well, we’ll never know.
But in retrospect, Duncan’s refusal to spend his summers training with the U.S. national teams might have prolonged his career. Though he retires at 40 and has the lean, sculpted frame of a superbly conditioned athlete, he has the knees of a 60-year-old.
A thick brace protects a left knee he hasn’t been able to straighten for years. His right knee was even more problematic in his final season, forcing him to miss games and play limited minutes. So he leaves with a legacy that includes those five rings, a bond with a coach that likely will never be rivaled, and this: Duncan and his Spurs not only proved small-market franchises can thrive, they devised the model for all their counterparts.
That, friends, is quite a legacy.
Duncan by the numbers
A look at the accomplishments of Tim Duncan, who announced his retirement Monday after 19 NBA seasons, all with the San Antonio Spurs:
1 – Duncan was taken No. 1 overall by the Spurs in 1997.
2 – NBA MVP awards, 2001-02 and 2002-03. Also the number of other players (John Stockton, Kobe Bryant) to spend at least 19 years with one NBA franchise.
3 – NBA Finals MVP awards, 1999, 2003 and 2005. Also the number of decades in which he won NBA championships, something no other player in league history has done, and the number of times he came off the bench in his regular-season career.
5 – NBA championships won, in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014.
8 – Career triple doubles (four regular season, four playoffs).
10 – Length, in pages, of Duncan’s biography in the Spurs’ media guide.
15 – All-Star selections.
19 – Years he played.
21 – The only jersey number he wore with the Spurs.
23 – NBA Player of the Week awards.
27 – Duncan’s career high for rebounds, set Jan. 27, 2010, against Atlanta.
50 – Minimum number of games the Spurs have won in each of the last 17 seasons, an NBA record.
53 – Duncan’s career high for points, set Dec. 26, 2001, against Dallas.
140 – Players who appeared in at least one game with the Spurs as a Duncan teammate.
251 – Playoff games in which he played, more than 18 active NBA franchises.
701 – Games he won alongside Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the most by a trio in NBA history (575 regular season, 126 playoffs).
835 – His career regular-season dunk total.
1,001 – Regular-season wins in which he appeared, third-most in NBA history. He and Gregg Popovich have the most wins by a player-coach duo in NBA history.
1,005 – Career double doubles (841 regular season, 164 playoffs).
1,392 – Regular-season games played.
3,020 – His blocked shot total, fifth-most in NBA history.
4,225 – His assist total, third-best in Spurs history.
9,370 – Career playoff minutes, most in NBA history.
15,091 – His rebound total, sixth-most in NBA history.
26,496 – His point total, 14th-most in NBA history.
47,368 – His minutes played, 10th-most in NBA history.
14,403,425 – Combined attendance for Spurs regular-season home games during Duncan’s career.
$240 million – Estimated worth of his NBA contracts with Spurs.
The Associated Press