Gregg Popovich made himself available to the press Tuesday to comment on the retirement of Tim Duncan, and the Spurs coach, when asked if he had been able to wrap his head around the reality of Duncan hanging 'em up, quipped, "I'm still trying to wrap my head around on why I'm standing here and he's not."
But then Popovich, a fellow not usually given to hyperbole or false praise, revealed something that was truly unexpected. He said if he could pick one person to have a conversation with over dinner (and because Pop is Pop the examples he used as the people who would most typically be picked were Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Jesus, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal) he said his choice for a dinner companion would be Duncan because "he is the most real, consistent, true person that I have ever met."
It would've been so perfect had Duncan snuck behind Popovich during his monologue, theatrically rolled his eyes, and replied in his trademark deadpan monotone, "Pop, we've done that for 20 years. There are literally a thousand people I would rather eat with than you."
And Pop would be embarrassed and have a big horse laugh and Duncan would keep his face blank, point to the gathered scrum documenting it all, all of us trying not to wet ourselves from the laughter, and continue, "None of y'all, but like, seriously, A LOT of people."
Then he'd finally break character and envelop his mentor and friend in his endless arms, whisper a few private words and they'd continue with the presser.
That's how it would've happened in my script, but real life rarely works the way we want it to.
Their relationship has always fascinated me. I think it's safe to say that no coach and star player have ever fit one another as perfectly in terms of personality and temperament as Popovich and Duncan. They were made for another, to the point where wondering if Popovich shaped the team's culture and persona on and off the floor around Duncan's comforts or Duncan adjusted his style to suit Pop's preferences is tantamount to a chicken-and-egg question. It just doesn't seem possible for either of them to have existed and excelled to the degree that they have in any other way.
Popovich often states --and he made sure to again Tuesday, saying he'd be coaching "in the Budweiser League"-- that he owes all of his professional success to Duncan and joked that he was wearing a T-shirt with Tim's likeness on it to the presser because Duncan ordered him to as a condition for receiving all of his paychecks.
But as Pop tried to explain, his gratefulness to Duncan goes beyond him simply being a transcendent talent. Duncan allowed him to not be a coattail-riding, sycophant coach, catering to his star's every whim. He let Pop to coach him hard, to treat him no differently than an end-of-the-bench guy, and in giving Popovich that power and authority, it allowed him to grow not only as a coach in his own right, but it gave him a mandate to have the respect of everyone else on the team, which made them all better collectively.
It was a symbiotic relationship, where Duncan gave Popovich the freedom to coach, which gave Pop the tools to make Duncan and the other players better, which earned Pop even more respect and acclaim, which emboldened him to be more of an open-minded and out-of-the-box thinker, which made the team better and on and on it went in an endless positively reinforced loop.
Popovich got emotional, almost to the point of tears, several times during the 15-minute interview, giving long, expansive answers and marveling at Duncan's unselfishness and genuineness as a teammate. The story I always go back to as the ultimate example is a night in Detroit back in 2014. It was a SEGABABA during the annual "Rodeo Road Trip" and Duncan was being rested. The Spurs had an injury epidemic at the wing, with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili all hurt and had to resort to Cory Joseph starting at two-guard alongside Tony Parker. They signed Shannon Brown, the former Laker to a 10-day contract just to be a warm body and eat some minutes.
It was late in the game and the Spurs were getting blown out. There was a time out and no one would've noticed or cared had Duncan tuned out like most veterans would do in that situation. It was a lost cause in early March against the lowly Pistons in a practically empty gym. Who cares, right? But there was Duncan, pulling Brown aside and patiently explaining a play-call to him.
Surely both men knew that Brown wasn't long for the roster. He'd be waived as soon as one of the other wings recovered. But Duncan didn't care. He was being the best teammate and leader he could be at that moment, and that moment was all that mattered.
I'm sure there are thousands of those little moments in Duncan's career, things like wrapping an arm around Jeff Ayres after a rough game, and the overwhelming majority of them occurred away from the cameras. He simply wouldn't be as revered the way he is, by as many people around the game as he is, if all the evidence there was was just the games. He was a comforting security blanket for the whole franchise, a constant presence as the emotional and physical anchor. As long as the Spurs had Tim Duncan, everything was going to be okay.
So it makes perfect sense that Popovich wants him around the team in some capacity, however minor, even after Duncan's body has objected to the grind. It makes sense that he still very much wants him in his life. Duncan's always been a stabilizing force, someone who brings an island tranquility and calmness to offset Popovich's "Serbian" tempestuousness.
Acerbic as always, Popovich said that Duncan's demeanor allowed him to "hide in plain sight," as Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal put it. But there's another side to that coin. Duncan was named Most Valuable Player twice, All-NBA First-Team 11 times (including his first nine seasons) and is commonly acknowledged as the best all-around power-forward to ever play and one of the best handful of players ever, regardless of position. No serious basketball writer ranks Kobe Bryant ahead of him on the list of all-time greats. The areas where Duncan perhaps wasn't acknowledged as much for, the intangible things like his leadership, were still avenues hundreds of journalists both local and national, would love to explore with him, but it takes two to tango and Duncan was just never interested in talking about himself.
We always, always wanted Duncan to reveal more of himself, not just because of his greatness but because it was obvious to anyone with even a passing curiosity about him that there was so much to him behind the stoic facade. We knew if he ever cared to open up, that he'd be far more interesting and insightful than the typical celebrity.
It was fitting that when Duncan finally agreed to reflect on his career, he did so with a childhood friend rather than a household name or media conglomerate. He was so much more at ease talking with Rashidi Clenance than he would be with anyone we'd recognize. He spoke of his competitive nature, telling his pal, "It got to the point where I was with my kids and I had to tell myself to turn it off and let them have this one." He revealed that he didn't watch any of ESPN's day-long tribute to him after he made his retirement announcement but that he "about lost it" when he saw Pop's interview. He confirmed something that I've suspected, saying of this past season "I started not enjoying myself as much. It wasn't fun as much."
What struck me the most though was his answer to what his immediate plans were.
As much as I would've wanted Duncan to tip-toe into the practice facility on Tuesday and trade one-liners with Pop for our benefit, as much as any of us would've wanted a bounce of the ball to go differently in 2013, or 2006 or 2004, the whole beauty of sports, the reason we keep coming back for more and more is that no matter what we think is going to happen, we don't truly know. Everything is guesswork and possibility and nothing is promised. It's the time spent in anticipation of the moment, the journey toward it, that makes the payoff so rewarding. And like life, sports is often about disappointment and finality and things not going the way you wanted them to.
"That's the beauty of it," Duncan explained. "I don't have a script. For the first in 20 years, I don't have a script."