It's like we've woken up from a collective dream. Has Tim Duncan really been playing basketball for this long? Others have played longer. Three months ago, Kobe Bryant retired after playing 20 years with the LA Lakers, so Duncan can't even claim to have played the longest with one team. But it feels like he's been doing it since men lived in caves and basketballs fell through literal baskets.
What follows is a significantly abridged list, but illustrative of the span of time which we're considering:
- I entered high school
- Celebrated my 15th birthday
- Got my driver's license
- Started my first job as a busboy in Kerrville, TX
- Graduated High School
- Moved from Kerrville to Tampa, FL to start school
- Entered my first serious relationship
- Ended my first serious relationship
- Spent a summer in Corvallis, OR
- Celebrated my 20th birthday
- Moved back to San Antonio
- Got a job at Northwoods 14 movie theater where I bumped into Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili
- Aimlessly wandered through one year at San Antonio College
- Moved back to Tampa
- My mom was diagnosed with and beat lymphoma
- Graduated from college
- Moved to east Texas
- Entered my second serious relationship
- Got a dog
- Ended my second serious relationship
- Moved back to San Antonio
- Worked at McNay Art Museum where I almost bumped into R.C. Buford
- Celebrated my 25th birthday
- Moved to Kansas City, MO
- Got married
- Started on my second degree
- Got a second dog
- Bought a house
- Graduated from college
- Got a grown-up job as a City Planner
- Fathered a child
- "Celebrated" my 30th birthday
- Fathered a second child
- Celebrated my first child's 4th birthday
- Moved to Grand Prairie, TX
- Bought a second house
- Experienced true heartbreak, maybe for the first time
All of that has transpired in my life since Tim Duncan began playing professional basketball for the Spurs. Of my nearly 34 years, he has occupied almost two-thirds of them. I can't say I was a long-time Spurs fan before he arrived, but I started following closely during the peak David Robinson years. Back then, annual playoff berths were a given even if championship aspirations were far-fetched. Timmy changed all that, though. Not only would we never miss the playoffs during his tenure, we'd never win less than 60% of our games. Two times in nineteen years, the team dipped to the sixth seed or lower. Three times, the team failed to advance in the playoffs - on one occasion, Duncan didn't play because of surgery.
Tim not only redefined the Spurs, he redefined success. Russell and Jordan won more titles, but they also didn't play as long. Kareem had more career wins, but went from Milwaukee to LA and suffered some down years in the early parts of his career, even *gasp* missing the playoffs. We know about Kobe and Shaq and KG and LeBron, who've played for something like ten coaches each and - in Shaq's case - six different teams. Duncan started as a Spur, and he leaves as a Spur. The last coach he had other than Gregg Popovich was Wake Forest's Dave Odom. Odom recruited him from the Virgin Islands and expressed his good fortune that Timmy didn't grow up on the mainland where he would've been more heavily sought after.
Nobody can choose the place of their upbringing, but mainland living has never seemed like Duncan's thing. He's always floated around the margins of the basketball throng in St. Croix or in San Antonio, a vintage lightbulb in a world of stobes and spotlights. He was essentially the centerpiece of the Spurs the moment he stepped onto the Alamodome floor in 1997, but in a way he was also a kind of inverted Borg who was always willing to adapt his game to serve his teammates and PATFO's vision of the greater good. The franchise success that followed seemed both organic and preordained.
Duncan's individual greatness felt equally preordained. It's hard to put into words how complete his game has always felt. My basketball memories basically stretch back to Shaq's rookie year, and while Shaq was terrifying to behold, his game never - ever - felt as complete as Tim Duncan's did as a rookie. He came into the league as an advanced lifeform, a man-baby ala 2001. Despite his near-flawless mastery of the post game, Duncan adapted to the realities of the NBA as the Spurs themselves adapted. If you haven't already, look at game footage from the Twin Tower years and compare the style of play to the peak Big 3 era and then 2011 and later. The game has evolved rapidly, but Duncan remained at the center of everything the Spurs did, and he did it effortlessly.
You can close your eyes and see him reversing the ball, rolling to the rim, drawing doubles, popping out to the elbow, blowing up pick and rolls, rotating from the weak side, controlling blocked shots, tossing touchdown passes on the break, beating guys down the floor. For 19 years, he was never less than a master at any core basketball competency except, arguably, free throw shooting. When you master the little things like timing, space, and position, it doesn't matter what you're technically allowed to do or not to do either by the rule book or by physics. No matter how the rules changed to favor smalls over bigs, no matter how other teams schemed against him, not only did Duncan remain unbroken, he thrived. It was like Johnny Carson going from NBC to YouTube and becoming more popular than ever.
Unlike Tony and Manu, I never bumped into Tim. The only times I've seen him in person were at the Alamodome or the SBC/AT&T Center. To be honest, he never did any one thing in the roughly dozen Spurs games I've seen in person that left a lasting memory with me. Again, dreamlike. All I have is an impression of his gracefulness, how he seemed to glide around effortlessly during shootaround and during the game, almost like he was a vapor. I remember looking at him on the bench during Game 1 against Memphis in April, not knowing if it was the last time I'd see him in person in a Spurs uniform. He wears that uniform like a monk wears his robes. The name DUNCAN drapes just so over the blocky 21 on the back of his jersey. Have you ever noticed that? Nothing is off-balance with Tim.
He'll never be considered the greatest basketball player of all time, not even by me. Duncan was competitive on a psychological as well as physical level, but he wasn't into one-upmanship. He wasn't driven to prove anything to anybody except maybe himself. After twenty years of watching the NBA, my personal definition of superstar has come to mean someone who molds a successful team in their image as opposed to just being the team's best player. The Tim Duncan Spurs were always competitive, but they never strained at greatness the way the Ubuntu Celtics did or the Jordan Bulls or the latest edition of LeBron's Cavaliers.
As the Spurs went down during this year's Conference Semifinals, we heard plenty of stats about the Spurs' record on the road in elimination games. I think that may be a consequence of Tim and Pop's shared ethos that nothing in basketball is worth dying for. It's maybe the reason why latter-day Duncan teams have tended to win big or go home. Ironically, this placidity was best displayed during halftime of Game 3 against the Clippers in 2012, when Pop and Tim sat calmly on the bench chatting about wine or paintball or something prior to coming back from twenty points down. Maybe if the team (minus Capt. Jack!) hadn't exemplified the mindset of gracious defeat against long odds against OKC in the next series, that moment against LA would stand out more in history as an example of the Spurs resilience instead of what happened against the Thunder.
Rather than diminish the accomplishments of the Duncan Era, Tim and Pop's collective sense of perspective serves to highlight the enormity of it all. Maybe the team wins a few more series by not seemingly throwing in the towel when on the road down 3-2. But straining at greatness comes with consequences both physical and emotional. Maybe then they don't win 50 games the next year and give themselves another chance to compete for a title. Maybe their offseason decisions aren't as measured or the big picture is compromised.
When you look at it from a fan's perspective, the Duncan Spurs should have at least two more titles, possibly a five-peat between 2003 and 2007, with two more tacked on in 2012 and 2013. But the small little rational part of our brains also whispers that maybe the lack of epic comebacks and repeat championship rings is just karma's way of balancing out the good fortune that put Tim Duncan in San Antonio to begin with. It's a trade I'll gladly take in exchange for 19 years of basketball nirvana. With Duncan around, the game was reduced almost to an empty state of mind because he made it all so elemental.
His era spans superteams and dynasties. It started toward the end of the Jordan Years. Then it saw the end of the Stockton-Malone Jazz, who beat him in his first ever playoff series (that series, by the way, was also the last time Tim Duncan would end a season without being called a Champion.) Then the Chris Webber Kings came and went, and the Larry Brown-engineered Pistons. Then the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns arrived to transform the NBA, only Duncan rendered them a nice story book instead of a dynasty. The Second Phil Jackson Era started in LA, during which Tim went dormant, only to emerge again after LeBron went to Miami. He finished off the Heat's Big 3 and, finally, witnessed the end of the Durant-Westbrook Thunder, a modern day interpretation of Malone and Stockton. Then Tim Duncan called it a career.
Among his peers, only Dirk Nowitzki and - for now - Garnett remain. His era, The Spurs Era, lasted parts of three decades. Russell defined the 60s, Bird/Magic the 80s, and Jordan the 90s, but when those decades were over, through coincidence of timing or something else, those careers were effectively over. Duncan's Era did not fit so neatly into a single unit of time. So we write it all down, feverishly, for posterity. We put hearts next to videos and retweet until our thumbs cramp.
Sure, his career seems fresh in our minds now, but in twenty years it might be hard for us to remember exactly when it started or ended. Memories can be tricky things to untangle, and we'll lose some of the specifics. Did Tim's 3 pointer come in a championship year? In his near quadruple-double game, how many blocks did have? How long did the mini-fro phase last? It'll all become slightly academic. What I think will abide more than anything is just how Tim Duncan was there, present in all of the great memories we have of these Spurs. Holding up trophies, making Kobe and Fish cry, Popovich hugs, sitting on cups. Tim was a part of it all, yet somehow apart from it all.
When NBA franchises are ranked, the San Antonio Spurs are likely to end up a fairly distant third, if not fourth behind the Bulls. The reason is that, unlike the Lakers and Celtics, our team has sustained excellence and won titles in "only" one generation. And if that's the way things remain, I won't worry too much about it.
You can combine the Russell and Bird and Garnett eras in Boston or you can put Showtime alongside Shaq and Kobe, and all the records and highlights and noise and drama might still might only equal the quiet, easy perfection that was Tim and Pop. Without them, San Antonio likely goes from a one-horse town to a no-horse town. Boston and LA don't need their basketball teams to be great in order to stay sports relevant. Pop had the vision, but it was Tim Duncan who rescued basketball in San Antonio and in the process recreated an also-ran franchise into the envy of professional sports.
So now he vanishes into the night, leaving us all wide awake and wondering how to recapture the dream. Maybe a title will never again come to San Antonio, but that's alright. Dreams never change anything on their own, only people can do that. Tim Duncan changed us as fans and as people. The dream was real.