(photo 'chop courtesy of Josh Guyer)
"All this talk about him kind of transitioning [into a role-player] is a lot of bull..." - Rick Carlisle, coach of the Dallas Mavericks
I've been putting off writing this story for months now. I feel like a cartoon coyote looking up as a piano falls from above, or like an outlaw's victim tied to the train tracks as the afternoon express approaches. There's just no pleasant way to present this outside of facing the harsh reality head-on. I started thinking about this a while back as my dad and I were together watching a Pop interview. The two of us sat and listened as good ol' GOML responded to a question about his future with, "It's just basketball. Though I'm passionate, I don't need this. I don't plan to coach too much longer."
It was a remarkable moment- a diehard Spurs fan sitting with his father, a convert not only to the Spurs but the game itself, getting live justification as to why they're fans of this organization. It was yet another insight into the team-first, don't-take-yourself-too-seriously, humble approach that permeates the San Antonio Spurs organization. While other coaches are scrambling to rack up accolades and begging to have some attention paid to them, here's ours talking about how he doesn't need the game at all. And what really drove it home, was when we both realized that neither of us was surprised. As a Spurs fan we'd grown accustomed to players and staff members who don't fit the mold of the typical NBAer. And that led me to ponder that same quality in our cornerstone.
Here's how I see Tim Duncan: he is a competitive man, and one who loves the game of basketball - of that there can be no doubt. But I also see that he is an "average guy" too; one that loves his family and free time. He's never been accused of being a cutthroat that couldn't walk away or of being an insecure athlete who needs achievement and accolades to justify his existence. If I told you that Kobe Bryant would still be playing in 2020 as a hired gun somewhere in a quest for that Jordan and Ginobili-tying 6th ring, you wouldn't be surprised. But Duncan? I for one would be shocked if he was anywhere but drinking a banana daiquiri on a beach somewhere in 4 years. He's always been one of those old-school guys, who does things right and knows when to walk away.
Tim Duncan's contract expires in 2012. Unless, at 36 years old, he renews or signs a 2 or 3-year deal, his active time as the greatest Power Forward of all time is over. We've watched as he came into the league in 1997 as a skinny kid out of the ACC. Thirteen years, 4 rings, 2 MVPs, 2 Finals MVPs, 12 All-Star teams and 13 straight All-NBA teams later, we approach a potential crossroads. Many have claimed that Duncan's days as a dominant player are over but as we've already seen this year in special double-double games, his decline in numbers is only due to a diminished role and not diminished skills. Tim Duncan, as did so many legends toward the end of their careers, still has it.
"A man's age represents a fine cargo of experiences and memories." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
But the proverbial monkey-wrench in this scenario is the expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement. The players' union, the owners, and the league are rapidly nearing a flashpoint in which prices have gotten too high to keep up. Simply, the supply is higher than the demand. There are murmurs of a lock-out if the owners do not get what they want or the players do not like what they see. Do the math and you'll see that, barring a miracle, those sides are just too far apart to close the gap and avoid the disaster of lost games. What's likely in this economy, is that salaries will drop substantially as will the abundance of long-term deals. The heart of the NBA is made up of prima donnas: players who will bluff and lose, and then be disenfranchised enough to bully back at the owners, until finally their hands are forced into a compromise. And this compromise may not even happen until the first months of the new season - before Christmas 2011. If we are lucky, it will be resolved like it was in 1999, toward the latter half of the season. That's what I'm personally banking on. If we're extremely lucky, it'll happen quickly and all my worrying will be for naught. If we're unlucky, the entire year could be in jeopardy. It's happening tomorrow in the NFL, and the pieces are lining up for it to happen next week in the NBA.
The vindictive part of me wants to hope for an abbreviated season, one that the Lakers go on to win. That way WE could forevermore refer to that title as "asterisked." But I would never root for L.A. regardless of psychological reward. And especially not at a time in which Tim Duncan is nearly packing up his locker.
If the new CBA ends in one of the 'lost-play' scenarios, then we have The Duncan Conundrum. I can't see a 37 year-old Duncan (a man who has reached all goals and conquered all challenges laid before him) agreeing to another contract. Do you see him being one of the countless that doesn't know when enough is enough, doesn't have the capability to bow out as honorably as David Robinson did? Can you envision Duncan even slightly tarnishing his legacy to play out his days to the point that even those outside of San Antonio feel pity?
As a Duncanite from the beginning, I simply cannot imagine Tim deliberately renewing only a 2-year deal to come back and play out the end of his career. I expect him to play out 2012 and his contract if the season resumes or is shortened, but in that case I think it's even LESS likely that he comes back in 2012-2013. He's a man from the tropics who loves island life and doesn't NEED the game as others do. I imagine him stepping away in the same quiet way he played the game. His first child will be entering school at that point and outside of the charitable endeavors he has in San Antonio (that others can operate) what does he have tying him to Texas?
Days of Glory.
This means that we could very well be watching the last of Timothy Theodore Duncan's playing days. The possibility of which adds a new urgency to every second he spends on the court this year. Is the greatest Power Forward to ever lace ‘em walking the HOF Green Mile? Are these the last days of his legacy of discipline and fundamentals? The next time you see Duncan bank a 15-footer off the glass against a 7-foot defender, it may be one of the last you ever witness live. The next game you watch may be the very moment that you'll one day be bragging to your kids about. To be fans of a franchise with such a special star has been truly a blessing and a joy that the great majority of all sports' fans never get to taste. Enjoy these days, if for no other reason than they may be our last with him. Because they could very easily be the swan song for a man who, to me, seems more like a friend than a distant athlete on a digital screen.