"The old Lion is Dead."Archie Roosevelt, 1/16/1919after the death of President Theodore Roosevelt
The longer Tim Duncan played for the San Antonio Spurs, the less I was able to comprehend a day in which he didn't. As the years went on, this figure who emerged in my childhood seemed to dig himself deeper into my life. Maybe I was more prepared to let go of watching him on the left low-block in 2008 than I am now. His presence rooted itself in the hearts of Spurs fans further and further each year. Now the uprooting is as painful as it could be.
He's been "old" and the Spurs have been "old" forever, probably because his first championship was won with old dudes and his second was one with ancient ass dudes therefore he's always seemed "old" by association, then finally around 2011 he did get old. But, when someone is always referred to as “old” the same way that people say that water is wet or Kobe is evil, it just becomes a fact. I stopped thinking of Tim's age as something that could ever catch up to him, it never did, he was just "old."
Many people like to say things like "When Tim Duncan was drafted, I was 18 and a freshman in college, now I am 37 and have nine kids!" Or "I recorded his first game on VHS, I watched his last game on my telephone." Showing how far Tim stretched through time. So here's mine, I'm 26 and married now, I watched the Spurs win the 1999 title on the night I came back from Cub Scout camp. Tim Duncan's greatness has stretched quarters of people's lives.
I've written about this before, but when he stretched out his arms after the 2014 title, embracing the beautiful moment and all its glory, that picture seemed never-ending to me. It seemed like those long arms had encompassed all of the Spurs related history before it and would stretch into everything after. He won't play next year and typing that feels like I've been chest punched by Kawhi's massive mits. I won't get to see him give backwards high fives to teammates, cuss into his jersey or pick unlikely pregame warmup partners (Beno Udrih, Aron Baynes, Boban). Maybe that picture won't represent Tim Duncan playing the game of basketball forever. But, it does show those arms spread like a timeline, stretching into three decades. Lasting through three presidencies, many NBA dynasties and most of the forming years of my life. He was great at something, truly, outstandingly great longer than kids live at home with their parents.
I have asked people who've grown up in Colorado whether or not they still love the mountains or even if they notice them anymore. Most people say they don't, they're used to them and no longer say, 'Whoa, I live next to a beautiful-big ass mountain." They drive through them and over them the same way I pass the office buildings on my way to work. I have always tried to not be like that when it comes to this Spurs era, but it's hard.
I don't remember a time when Tim was not the best power forward to ever play. He literally always has been for me. He could have retired in 2007 and that would have been the case. He wrote a masterpiece trilogy that was universally hailed as gold then said "You know what? I'm not done." And he kept adding volume after volume, past the point of people thinking he had anything left to add. He was the band with no weak albums, the Steven Spielberg who only made ET's and Saving Private Ryan's with no AI's. Eventually you get accustomed to being in the midst of that greatness, even if you're trying to appreciate living in the mountains.
The first time I had ever heard of Tim Duncan was right after he got drafted, I went over to a friend's house and we played an NBA game on Playstation. I chose the Spurs and I played with Tim Duncan. I watched the Memorial Day Miracle and 1999 Finals, but it was still such a youthful fandom. So innocent that I declared myself a Raptors fan in 2000 and a Sixers fan in 2001. I still knew where my bread was buttered though. The first time I ever got furious at a Spurs game was when they lost Game 4 of the second round series against the Mavericks in 2001.
I don't know why I became so livid at the fact they didn't sweep the Mavs, but I remember going and finding a black sharpie and writing in a notebook "Dirk Nowitzki is a piece of Shit." I stewed over the paper for a little while, then threw it away after Tim closed the series out in Game 5. I truly fell in love with the Spurs in the middle of the 2003 season when my Dad and I really started going to games. It just happened to be the season Tim painted his Sistine Chapel. Had his 2003 series and playoff run happened in the Twitter era, it would have been regarded with the same marks that this LeBron run had. Luckily since 2003, I have had some form of a season ticket package each year and have been a witness to his legend. Tim Duncan has taught me so much about being a friend, teammate, worker and fighter. But, he's also given me countless memories with my dad and friends.
Five things I will always remember about Tim:
1. I went to the ring ceremony following the 2005 title. At the buzzer, Tim and Robert Horry viciously fought one another for a rebound. It was hilarious and maybe the only time I ever saw him try to pad stats.
2. In 2012, Kawhi's rookie year, Tim took Leonard aside during almost every break in a game against the Mavs and coached him up. It was just a meaningless regular season game in Dallas.
3. The only time I ever remember Tim getting what bordered on criticism from the media was in the 2005 Finals. He was playing on two bad ankles and shot poorly in game 7, but late in the game made a long corner shot from the baseline. Al Michaels thought it was a three, it wasn't but it sealed the third title.
4. His declaration after the 2014 Western Conference Finals. "We've got four more and we'll do it this time." That assurance burned into me and hopefully all Spurs fans. It was like riding a dragon into battle.
5. He always hook shotted his warm-up gear to trainers when taking the court at the beginning of games. (And he used to play one on one with Beno Udrih before every home game during warmups and only shot threes.)
My wife and I went to a Clippers game in February or March, the Spurs won huge, but I was struck with a profound sadness because I could tell Tim wasn't having fun. He was frustrated and I think that's when I knew it was over. His game didn't even really drop off a cliff or fall completely apart like Peyton Manning's or other legends, he just wasn't the same force. His play this year if done for a number of years by an average joe would have been an incredible career in the NBA. He never became the dog who you had to put down because it couldn't stop crapping in the house. His roar just finally bellowed softer.
Some say David Robinson laid the foundation for Tim. I think David is the most incredible human to ever play basketball and an all time great, but I think it's more accurate to say that David bought the real estate. Tim laid the foundation, put up the frame, built the house and set the table. He had an amazing crew of course, from Pop, to Manu and Tony, later Kawhi. The house won't ever feel the same without him in it, but maybe his presence, and the mark he left, will be so undeniably felt there that the house stands forever.
I hope Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge can add to it, build a second story or put in a pool, but if they can't it's not a knock against them. Nobody will ever be Tim Duncan. We can only be thankful for having witnessed him and try to emulate what he's taught us.
"The old Lion is Dead..."
But, he lived and was so fierce and awesome.