Illustration by Ray Tattooed Boy
After leading the San Antonio Spurs to the playoffs for 19 straight seasons, Tim Duncan officially called it a career on Monday. News of his retirement arrived in typical Duncan fashion, via a press release from the Spurs, with no press conference and zero fanfare. On the court, Duncan’s farewell came in Oklahoma City, after all, walking off the hardwood with his hand extended towards the sky.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but there was once a time when the Spurs were not regarded as winners. Although players like George Gervin and David Robinson kept San Antonio relevant in the league, it’s remarkable to think the Spurs never reached the NBA Finals until Duncan’s arrival. Like Robinson before him, Duncan was an immediate game-changer, with early play that was nothing less than explosive.
Duncan delivered the Spurs to the NBA’s promised land in just his sophomore season, singlehandedly transforming San Antonio into a city of champions almost overnight. That first title in 1999 hinted not only at Duncan’s greatness but also at the new Spurs’ ascendance. San Antonio had finally arrived, and Spurs faithful stood a little taller, made more noise, and were joyfully unburdened of an inferiority complex that had haunted the city for years.
With Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker by his side, Duncan built a basketball dynasty in South Texas. Each championship further solidified his position as the greatest power forward of all time and, perhaps more importantly, the consummate teammate.
Although never a fan of interviews, Duncan was seldom salty with reporters. He would instinctively dip his shoulders to accommodate the shortest of scribes and often playfully countdown his locker room exit on one hand to inform the media that their window was closing.
Much has been said of Coach Popovich’s Jacob Riis-inspired mantra: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Perhaps more than any Spur, Duncan was the living embodiment of Riis’ quote. His methodical game outlasted Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers, Steve Nash’s Suns, and LeBron’s Heat. As his body began to break down and he settled into his old-man game, Duncan continued to hammer away at his rock, capturing a fifth title for the Spurs.
Duncan makes his exit with a string of accolades that includes two MVP awards, three Finals MVP Awards, 15 All-Star Game appearances and perhaps most impressive, 15 All-NBA Team selections and 15 NBA All-Defensive Team honors. Perhaps the best big man since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he is arguably the top player of his generation.
Until his jersey is retired by the Spurs, Duncan will be celebrated primarily by his peers and the usual talking heads. It’s somewhat bittersweet to see the future Hall-of-Famer finally get his due. As others describe him as a champion, an icon, and an NBA legend, with all due respect to the late Muhammad Ali, in South Texas he will simply be known as The Greatest.