Following a sports team is often a spiritual experience. It’s something that takes a lot of your dedication, energy, belief, and - most of all - faith. Being the unseen evidence of future promises, faith is by its nature a renewable resource. In retrospect, the 1997 drafting of Tim Duncan may have been the safest leap of faith in sports history. But at the time, Spurs fans were used to having their faith evaporate in the wilderness of the Western Conference playoffs. It took someone almost messiah-like to revive the promise of basketball in San Antonio.
Last night, Tim Duncan entered the AT&T Center as the greatest Spur and greatest power forward of all time. He left a saint, confirmed not so much by the #21 that now hangs next to Bruce Bowen’s #12 and presumably Manu Ginobili’s #20 in roughly a years’ time, but by the miracles of resurrection and levitation he performed from 1997 to 2016.
“There are ‘franchise players’,” said M.C. Sean Elliott, whose #32 hangs between David Robinson’s #50 and Avery Johnson’s #6, “and then there are players who change franchises.” But even this somewhat undersells the magnitude of Duncan’s influence, as one who helped build entire careers, from Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford to Manu, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard. He also helped build a city, which was itself named after a humble saint from a distant land, into a Vatican of Basketball. And he did all this without, as Coach Pop emphasized, ever changing who he was as a person.
In thinking about Tim over the past few weeks, I feel like the best way I can do justice to his impact as a basketball player and as a human being is to say that Tim Duncan is everybody’s superstar. Legends like Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan have never lacked for admirers who have tried to deify them as basketball players. But no one outside of an extremely limited fraternity can ever say they’ve truly related to Kobe or MJ as a person. I’ve read pretty extensively about the life and career of Jordan and can say that for every element of his life that lends a bit of humanity or vulnerability (for instance, his severe aqua-phobia) there are a million others which separate him as a basketball god from me as a humble basketball blogger.
Not so with Timmy. He’s everybody’s superstar because we can all relate to a person who dresses in awkward, baggy clothing and hates speaking in public. We can all appreciate the guy who walks around to every locker/cubicle and asks how your weekend went or sympathizes with you over the undressing you just got from your boss. This is not to say that Tim didn’t have the same challenges Kobe and MJ had, even in his personal life and relationships, but he never got in his own way or became consumed by his own drive to excel and compete. Instead, he brought others along with him on the journey.
I watched his kids last night and saw what looked like a sincere appreciation not only for what he accomplished, but for who he is. Growing up with a famous father is no doubt difficult, but if anyone could lessen the impact of such a high-pressure lifestyle on his children, it would have to be Tim Duncan. The fruits of his efforts are right in front of us, evidenced by an arena and a city full of fans, dozens of teammates and coaches, and the adoring looks from his children as they fully participated in a night to honor their father. Watching them, you know that Tim has much invested in his life after basketball.
Then there are the current Spurs players, several of whom missed playing with St. Timothy by just one year. Others, like Jonathon Simmons and LaMarcus Aldridge, two of the stars of the Spurs’ 113-100 win over the Pelicans, were Spurs only in the twilight of Tim’s career. But it would take a monk to be unaware of the impact Tim Duncan has had on the sport of basketball over the past two decades. The outpouring of respect and gratitude said as much last July 11th, to the point where it seemed almost every NBA player since 1997 had been a teammate of Tim Duncan at one time or another.
Last night, a Spurs team which at times this season has employed leaky defense, fallen in love with alley oops, and relied too heavily on a single star finally played like a team of Tim Duncan’s. Kawhi Leonard, successor to the Franchise Player title, scored all of 13 points. Manu had a throwback game with a season-high 17 and a classic off-ball strip on the defensive end that led to a heat-check three point attempt on the offensive end (it missed). LaMarcus Aldridge flashed the decisiveness and footwork that the Spurs will need to take the pressure off of Kawhi going forward. Pau Gasol even made a couple of crisp defensive rotations.
It was the kind of performance you’d expect with St. Timmy watching. During his tribute video, Tim spoke about the game being bigger than any one person. While the game and the team will go on without #21 on the floor, we know we shouldn’t expect the Duncan Years to ever be replicated again. In San Antonio, a new dispensation has begun, and faith will once again be tested. The legacy Tim Duncan leaves us is what he said on Sunday night: everyone is a piece which joins together to make the puzzle. Talent-wise, this Spurs team is as loaded as any Tim Duncan ever played with. The pieces are there, the corners and edges are in place and things are starting to take shape. But the puzzle is only partially complete because talent is nothing without the wisdom and will to exploit it. Even in retirement, the soft-spoken Greatest Spur Ever is teaching the team how to win. Now it’s up to Kawhi and Company to put the puzzle together while possibly battling what could be called the most talented team in league history. The end result may turn out to be truly miraculous.
Now 22-5, the Spurs are off to one of the best starts in franchise history, even though they still have plenty of room for improvement. Faith may not always be rewarded, but as long as the Spurs can look up at that jersey and remember the simple effectiveness of Tim, it will be renewed.