19 Years of Doing it His Way

“I always said when that point comes and it’s not fun anymore then I’m done.” (Tim Duncan)

On his own terms and without regret, Tim Duncan has ended his career. It was expected and at the same time it was crushing. The graceful and lithe champion, the extraordinary human being, the college graduate rookie a long time ago, the different kind of superstar: quiet, humble, funny, cherished, selfless, loyal, is entering private life. It is subtraction, not addition. Duncan is leaving behind the melodrama of a media saturated NBA. He is turning the page of a book he helped write. He is choosing to be anonymous even as it is impossible with dusk falling so quickly.

A year ago, nearly at this same exact time, Tim Duncan was the recipient of the 2014-15 Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award. He was voted by his peers, more than three hundred players, as the best teammate in the league. One year later, he is a notation in the history books, his teammate years suddenly in the past.

The private Tim Duncan, the friend, the teammate, the encourager, the citizen, was hailed as extraordinary one year ago. In the ways that really matter in the grand scheme of things, Duncan was signaled out.  He earned the Twyman-Stokes award the way you earn most awards that have nothing to do with media interpretation. You do it quietly. Character is what you do when no one is paying attention.

Character brings all men to a place of grand decision where two roads exist. Tim Duncan is walking left while the rest of the league is walking right. Thrust into retirement because he wants it that way, Tim Duncan remains as mysterious as he always wanted to be, except for a few welcomed friends. Befitting his nature, Duncan was private and quiet and away from the spotlight of media and social cacophony when he announced he was leaving for good.

Tim Duncan was drafted number one by the San Antonio Spurs in 1997 and in that first year he rebounded and bank shot(ed) and shot blocked his way to Rookie of the Year honors and the irony wasn’t lost on the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics or Denver Nuggets. As franchises looking to change their circumstance, they were this close to having Duncan in their grasp.

If things had been equal- but when is that ever the case?- Tim Duncan might have been drafted by the 76ers, while the San Antonio Spurs, a playoff team, watched with disinterest. But the Spurs Navy man David Robinson cracked a foot bone in December, missed the rest of the season. Duncan was the gift a few months later, almost as if it was predetermined from above. The 76ers, the Celtics, the Grizzlies, the Nuggets, could only watch in stunned disbelief as the lottery balls bounced out of their grasp. Their dream was suddenly a nightmare.

Tim Duncan’s presence in the NBA in the summer of 1997 was the end of an era. Duncan was the last four year college player to be drafted number one. Duncan came through a door that would forever remained closed as high school and underclassman flooded the league, none of whom were swayed by the Duncan label of Mr. Fundamental.

Only 11 players in Division 1 have scored 2000 points, secured 1500 rebounds; Tim Duncan is part of that elusive club. But his humility would never allow him to boast about what he accomplished in college.

He was the man St. Croix raised.

The time when there is no one to feel sorry for you is when a player is made” (Tim Duncan)

St. Croix is a small island in the Carribbean, an 84 mile stretch of crystal blue waters that was invaded by the British in 1801. A century later, the island (along with St. Thomas and St. John) was sold to the United States for $25 million worth of gold. In 1927, those that lived on the island were granted U.S. citizenship.

Tim Duncan was the only son in a St. Croix family of five and he wasn’t supposed to do this. He wasn’t supposed to be in the NBA. He wasn’t supposed to be a multi-champion. He wasn’t supposed to be the greatest power forward in NBA history. Tim Duncan was training to be an Olympic swimmer, following in the footsteps of his sister Tricia. Duncan’s goal was to make the 1992 Olympic team in the 50, 100 and 400 meters freestyle. But fate slashed and burned his competitive swimming dream, shattering it with a hammer into pieces of dust because that is what fate does from time to time.

Hurricane Hugo devastated St. Croix in 1989. Roofs flew off houses in the 150 mile per hour winds, beams came crashing down, windows buckled and exploded, leaves were absent the trees, telephone poles wore the damage of tin roofs blown away, planes were mangled on the airport runway, prisoners took advantage and disappeared from lockup, cables were randomly tossed aside.

The Olympic swimming pool, the only one on the island, Tim Duncan’s refuge and happy place, was destroyed.

For the ordinary and the excellent, dreams die. The hurricane whisked away the Duncan dream. Without a place to train, his Olympic goal was gone. Winter became spring. And the hits kept coming in succession. Duncan’s mother Ione, who spent a life delivering babies, and who fiercely battled breast cancer, died the day before Duncan’s 14th birthday.

And so it was that once upon a time Tim Duncan was 13 years old and had a swimming dream and he had a mother and a father and his family was perfect. And then he was 14 and his Olympic swimming dream was gone and his mother was dead and he was not the same island boy. In a span of six months, the emotional life of Tim Duncan was in shambles.

There was only one remedy now: basketball.

*    *    *   *    *

Basketball is achievement under stress. It answers a question: what do you do when everything is on the line, when it matters the most? Do you leave a footprint, a mark on the game that history will remember? Or do you disappear?

After Tim Duncan won his first NBA title in his second year in the league, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers dominated the NBA in arrogant and splashy fashion. The Spurs and Tim Duncan were the Lakers low hanging fruit. In the playoffs of 2001 and 2002, the Lakers played the Spurs nine times. They won 8 of the matchups.

But in 2003, the Kobe-Shaq duo was on its last gasp of tolerance as bickering and age and three-peat boredom settled in. It was the perfect storm for the Spurs to enact revenge for the two years of playoff suffering and second guessing and criticism bordering on cruelty that followed them in those long and sad summers. In 2003, when the Spurs met the Lakers in the second round, it was a series that wasn’t particularly close, despite Kobe and Shaq. They slaughtered the Lakers in Game 6, a 28 point crushing at Staples Center as Duncan had a line of 37 points and 16 rebounds which triumphed Shaq’s 30 and 10 night.

In the NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets, in Game 6, an elimination game, Tim Duncan played 46 of 48 minutes. He had 20 rebounds, 21 points, 10 assists and 8 blocks en route to his second NBA title, one that had been haunting him the past two years amid the whispers that had grown into loud echoes: he couldn’t beat Shaq, he was too soft, he didn’t have the toughness, his nice game wasn’t a dominant game. Every Tim Duncan question was answered that night as he was Finals MVP, his second.

10 years and 5 days later, in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, in Miami, Tim Duncan had 24 points and 12 rebounds. Of all the Spurs starters that night, Duncan led the team in usage rate. He led the team in steals. He led the team in trips to the line. He led the team in scoring. He had more assists than 6 Spurs. But trailing by one, with 46.9 seconds left, Tim Duncan, All-Star Tim Duncan, Best Power Forward of His Generation Tim Duncan, MVP Tim Duncan, missed an uncontested layup. The Spurs would not score again and would lose the title.

Of the game, Duncan said afterwards, “it’s going to haunt me.” All Game 7’s do, they play tricks with the mind and make you second guess everything, the tiny details, the screens that weren’t hard enough, the missed assignments, the put backs that wouldn’t go in.

His fifth NBA title a year later brought forward a sober truth. Tim Duncan should have 6 NBA rings. Same as Michael Jordan.

*     *    *    *    *

Tim Duncan played 1,392 regular season games but only played a full schedule three times. In his first season, he had a 22 rebound game. In his last season he had an 18 rebound game. Consistency was the enduring theme of the Duncan career. He is 11th all time in NBA minutes. He is 8th all time in regular season games played. He is 7th all time in rebounds, 6th in blocks; he is 13th in PER.

For the first time in 19 years, Tim Duncan will know what it is like to not be in the playoffs. He joins Kareem Abdul-Jabaar with 26,000 points, 15,000 rebounds, 3,000 blocks. No other NBA player has logged 9,000 playoff minutes.

If we win, I’m happy. The rest of it is just stuff.” (Tim Duncan).

The Spurs won, Duncan was happy, the stuff did what it always does, make a splash and then disappear. Tim Duncan once said he was different. By different, he didn’t mean great. By different, he didn’t mean extraordinary. By different he meant winning and doing it his way. His way was the Spurs way. The champion way. The quiet way.

After Tim Duncan was honored for being the best teammate in the NBA, he went out and played his 19th year. It felt like a promise. Dominant and efficient, the Spurs set records. First in three point defense. Second in field goal percentage and three point percentage. Third in assists. Fifth in defensive rebounding. Sixth in blocks. 67 wins.

Accordingly, Tim Duncan played his last NBA game in the playoffs, in Oklahoma City, and the irony was barely noticed.

Two years earlier, in the same arena, in the same month, in the same game 6, Tim Duncan ended the long career of Derek Fisher. Fisher was 39 at the time. Now it was Tim Duncan’s turn. He was 40. It was his career that was in its final descent.

Duncan played most of the final quarter of that last game, not a spectator taking it all in, not wide-eyed as he was in his rookie year but not melancholy nor wistful either. It was a moment to savor, the last time watching him grace the court with his presence and it was the oddity of a possible goodbye and Duncan still being the same. With the game in hand, the crowd sensed something, that there was a moment here and they gave Duncan the appreciation the way crowds do when an icon is leaving.

Duncan and his career had never been romanticized, he wasn’t Kobe. He didn’t whip into a frenzy the athletic and extreme. He wasn’t ruthless or isolating or polarizing. He was not an attention seeker, nor a SportsCenter highlight loop. He was not a mythical figure abroad, he never won a gold medal in the Olympics. He never repeated as a champion. But Tim Duncan was consistent and professional and skilled and an achiever and leader, and like Jordan and LeBron and Kareem and Magic and Kobe, he won regular season and Finals MVP’s. And yet, he was misrepresented for much of his career by a sensationalistic media corps.

It’s simple math. Duncan blocked shots and he rebounded and he couldn’t be guarded in the post. He won games and he lost games and he was a champion and he had his heart broken. His post-game interviews were brief or blunt or dispassionate and sometimes he smiled.

When he walked off the court for the very last time in Oklahoma, having completed a beautiful career and NBA life, the crowd applauded and it was a peculiar moment perhaps because if felt as if those in the stands were being reverential and respectful and appreciative but not weepy or sad. He was a superstar and he wasn’t. He was ordinary and he wasn’t. He was polite and on the court he wasn’t. This was the meat and potatoes of the Tim Duncan walk off: if you missed him and his “boring” career then shame on you for not paying attention, for being blinded by the soap opera overtones that warp the texture of the NBA.

For Duncan, that last game didn’t register as a conclusion. It wasn’t a message in a bottle. The alpha and omega of being Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward, wasn’t a dark cloud hanging high. It was just losing and the pain of that. It was just another Finals trip denied and the pain of that. It was just Tim Duncan’s life of basketball details coming to a stop.

I’m just a basketball player. I play basketball. I go home.

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spur legend. Icon. Teammate. Friend. Top of the food chain power forward. Hall of Famer. He played basketball. He did it well. He is going home.

photo via llananba