Recently, the good folks at ESPN.com put together a terrific oral history of Kobe Bryant's 81-point game against Toronto for the tenth anniversary of its occurrence, on Jan. 22, 2006. Which made me wonder where the oral history was for the fifteenth anniversary of Tim Duncan's career-high 53 points against the Mavericks on Dec. 26, 2001? Naturally, I had to put on my reporting hat and fill the void.
(I advise you to read the Kobe thing first if you can. It's long, but good, and some of the following jokes will make more sense if you've read it.)
Act I: The lead-up to an historic evening
Tim Duncan, Spurs
center forward, 1997-present: Wait, I never agreed to do this. Who signed off on this? Yo, TJ!
Mike Budenholzer, Spurs assistant coach, 1996-2013: I distinctly remember feeling that morning that Timmy was gonna have a great game. We were coming off a bad loss against the Bucks and he usually responds really well after a loss. Also, he pretty much had a great game every night. He was our best player by a mile.
Peter Holt, Spurs owner, 1993-present: We had a little scare there for a while that maybe Timmy was gonna leave us for Orlando, but thankfully he had enough trust and faith in Pop and the rest of us to stick around. It was our job to surround him with the right people so that his commitment to us wouldn't be wasted, and truthfully I wouldn't blame him for having some reservations right around then. 2002 was definitely our low-point.
R.C. Buford, Spurs general manager, 2002-present: We finished a miserable 58-24. Don't blame me, I was only the assistant GM back then. The guy in charge had no idea what he was doing.
Gregg Popovich, Spurs coach, 1996-present: How many minutes did he wind up playing? 50? I wasn't as much for conserving Timmy's minutes back then. Who else was gonna grab a rebound? We weren't a very deep team. To be perfectly honest, Peter should've fired our GM.
Antonio Daniels, Spurs guard, 1998-2002: Something was different about TD that afternoon. Usually we'd play Grand Theft Auto and Halo for five hours before the game but that day we only played for three hours and then he kicked me out and told me he wanted to take a nap. He normally talks a lot of trash too when we play and I remember that day he was mostly quiet, just mumbling a "MF" at me every now and then. I could tell his mind was elsewhere.
Mike Brown, Spurs assistant coach, 2000-2003: The coaching staff was putting in the game plan and I had an inkling that Tim was going to have a big night, because our strategy was to give him the ball every single time while everyone else watched. I was skeptical at first but over time became such a devotee of that offensive philosophy that I brought it with me to Cleveland, where our offense was to give the ball to LeBron every single time while everyone else watched.
Charles Smith, Spurs guard, 2001-2002: People see my name in the box score and they just automatically assume I'm this guy. Nope! I'm a completely different person who somehow logged over 1,100 minutes for San Antonio that year. I defy you to have a single memory of me in a Spurs jersey. I guess Tim had it goin' that night, but I wish he passed it to me more. I was wide open all year. I mean really, wide open.
Tim Duncan: I have no idea what my career-high is or when it was or who it came against or any of that stuff. I literally cannot care any less about it.
Act II: Even more build-up to a historic evening
Mike Budenholzer: There was a game earlier that season against Sacramento where Tim was really on fire, he had 38 points and I remember asking him, "Why don't you score a few more? You're only a few away from breaking your career-high of 46." And he looked up at the scoreboard, and he said, "Nah, I'll get it another time." I looked at him and I kind of got mad. I said: "What?! You have a chance to get 50 points. How many people can say they scored 50 points?" He said: "I'll do it when we really need it. I'll get it when it really matters."
Tim Duncan: Oh yeah, I kind of remember that. Bud, Pop, all the guys were swearing at me, upset that I didn't want to score any more.
Mike Budenholzer: It was an overtime game, and the Kings wound up beating us by three! Look, Tim's a weirdo. But you don't question genius.
Tony Parker, Spurs guard, 2001-present: Timmy was unbelievable that whole season. It was my rookie year and I was just 19 and my goal was to just be in the rotation and Pop decided to make me the starter five games into the season. I was so nervous. Pop was yelling and screaming at me every day during the games, during practice, in the film room. I almost wanted to cry. I learned most of the, you know, bad words in English, from him. And also in Serbian too. I realized quickly the best way to make him stop yelling was to give the ball to Timmy, so that's what I tried to do. I thought maybe that will make TD like me enough to talk to me, so it maybe it would be a win-win.
Michael Finley, Mavericks guard, 1996-2005: Mark [Cuban] was upset because the Spurs beat us the last three times we played them the year before and Duncan always went off against us, getting 30 and 15 each game. Cubes would be in Nellie's [then-Mavericks' coach Don Nelson] office ranting and raving, showing him all these spreadsheets of how his numbers guys wanted us take the ball out of Duncan's hands and Nelson would just smile and humor him for a couple of minutes before eventually telling him to get the hell out of there and then he'd single-cover Duncan with Dirk [Nowtizki]. Mark hated the Spurs and eventually he grew to not be too fond of Nellie either.
Mark Cuban: Mavericks owner, 2000-present: I will admit there was some friction with Nellie at times. We were giving him every resource imaginable in order to be successful. We were spending the most on players, we had the best travel accommodations in the league, the best practice facility, the most beautiful groupies, so on and so forth. And we had the best analytical staff who I felt could help the coaches in forming optimal game plans, regarding lineups, strategy, whom to foul, that sort of thing. He refused to look at any of it. He wouldn't take me seriously at all, so I showed him by starring in two reality shows and playing the President of the United States in a television movie where I get eaten by a flying shark. [Mimes dropping a microphone.]
Bill Schoening, Spurs radio announcer 2001-present: The Spurs weren't very multi-dimensional in those days and didn't have too many colorful personalities either. There were only so many ways you could describe a Duncan bank-shot or drop step and the scores were usually 94-82 or something like that. We were playing our home games in a cavernous football stadium so even though we led the league in attendance that intimate feeling you associate with basketball wasn't there. It was hard to rustle up energy and enthusiasm without alcohol being prominently involved. And that was just for the broadcasters.
Sean Elliott, Spurs color analyst, 2001-2002, 2004-present: That was my rookie season as a broadcaster and Pop and the guys made it a really smooth transition for me. I had just retired as a player so I knew most of the guys on the team and their games very well, and they only ran one play the whole season, so I didn't really need to be a whiz with the telestrator from Day One. Tim was giving me the business every night, just wearing me out before games, making fun of my suits --that's right he was criticizing how I dressed-- making jokes about how I held the microphone, and I was too new at the job and too nervous about screwing up and swearing on air to go back at him so I just had to sit there and take it. Nowadays they call that bullying. Heck, I left for two years after that just to get away from him! I've done this long enough now where I don't take any mess from him and he knows that. Anyway, all I'll say about that game is I'm not sure how many guys in NBA history have scored 53, but I'm positive that Tim is the ugliest.
Malik Rose, Spurs forward, 1997-2005: I kind of felt sorry for the announcers sometimes. We weren't a big highlight team. We didn't have guys who were doing 360-degree dunks or making fancy passes or breaking ankles or none of that. I think that's how Pop wanted it. Nobody paid us much mind. We just went about our business, won our 55, 58 games, got destroyed by Shaq and Kobe in the playoffs and that was it for a few years. Tim was the best all-around player in the league bar none, better than either of those guys, but they had each other and we didn't have a second guy anywhere near that level. We needed Tim to dominate, night in, night out, and he did. That Dallas game, the result of it, was kind of like the proof in the pudding.
Tim Duncan: You seriously want me to talk about a game we lost 15 years ago? A regular season game?
Continued in Part 2