Tim Duncan, the most decorated player in Spurs history, and the consensus greatest power forward of all time, IS #21. But before Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997, the jersey was worn by some celebrated Spurs. As a prelude to a story dedicated to the GOAT and his retired trademark, we will investigate the men who wore that now famous number before The Big Fundamental made sure it was
HANGING FROM THE RAFTERS
This series celebrates the numbers that have been retired by the Spurs. To date, there have been eight men whose impact on the culture of San Antonio has been so permanent that their personality and style of play is part of the Spurs lexicon. Each player is deserving for more than statistics, a game winning shot, or a championship. These are the numbers that swell in the hearts of the truest Spurs fans. No matter who else wore that number, the jersey in the rafters belongs to the legend who hung it there.
For previous articles on these Spurs Legends, visit Hanging from the Rafters.
Not every player to wear #21 was memorable. But not all of them are unknowns, either. Spoiler Alert: It’s a slow burn, but it will get hot.
Bob Warren 1974-1975
Warren’s claim to fame is that he played the entirety of his career in the ABA. Although Jeffrey Congdon and Skeeter Swift both wore #21 as Dallas Chaparrals, Warren was the Spur. Warren had worn #23 as a Chaparral in 1972, but he left for Utah (the Stars, not the Jazz) for a two-year stint before returning to the newly named and freshly re-located San Antonio Spurs. His tenure ended before the 1976 ABA/NBA merger, which meant he was the lone ABA-era #21. He put up 4.8 points per game with the Spurs and then headed to San Diego for his final season in 1975.
Louie Nelson 1977
The first NBA Spur to put on #21 went largely unnoticed. Nelson signed with the Spurs at the onset of the 1976 season but was waived after 4 games.
Tim Bassett 1980
After a prolific career in the ABA, including a championship with New York Nets, Bassett played 5 games with Spurs. Although his NBA career ended in San Antonio, Bassett continued to play in Italy.
Irv Kiffin 1980
His only NBA season was with the Spurs, and he played 26 games — averaging 3.2 points in 8.2 minutes.
Roger Phegley 1981-1984
Phegley predominantly served as backup shooting guard to George Gervin during his time as a Spur, averaging 5.1 points during the less-successful period of Spurs history.
Alvin Robertson 1985-1989
Robertson began his career drafted 7th by the San Antonio Spurs in 1984, highly regarded as one of the most talented groups in NBA history. Do you know who went before him? Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley. Do you know who followed him? Kevin Willis and John Stockton. Impressive company, to say the least.
An argument could be made that had the Spurs been a more defensive-minded team in the 80s, Alvin Robertson might have had the number 21 retired in his honor.
For starters, the young shooting guard made the All-Star Team four times. Yet, that is not his most notable honor. Alvin Robertson was awarded the first ever Most Improved Player Award in 1986, which was quite a year for Robertson as he made his first NBA All-Star game, as well as the All-NBA Second Team as well as being named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Robertson lead the league in steals that year, becoming the first Spur to win the award. Despite being named DPOY, he somehow only made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. From 1986-91, Robertson garnered All-Defensive First or Second Team honors each season.
Steals were his forte, so much so that he was the NBA steals leader in 1986, 1987, and 1991. He tallied a striking 105 consecutive games with a steal during his days as a Spur, a stat only to be bettered by Chris Paul some two decades later. Robertson’s steals per game average of 2.71 is the best in NBA history, and he ranks 9th all time in steals with 2,112.
Alvin Robertson is in an elite group of four: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Nate Thurmond and Robertson are the only NBA players to record a quadruple-double. He is the only player to do so with steals as one of the four categories and the first to record a quadruple-double in a regulation game.
He is the only player in NBA history to record 10 steals in 4 different games. With defensive skills so remarkable, his 16.2 points per game average during his Spurs tenure was gravy. Together with Johnny Moore, the “Twin Terrors” destroyed defenses night after night.
With David Robinson’s first season looming, a rebuild began and Robertson was traded to Milwaukee along with Greg Anderson for power forward Terry Cummings. Still, the argument could be made that Robertson could have been the last to wear 21 if he had been able to stay in San Antonio. Fortunately for all Spurs Nation, the number remained available.
Sidney Green 1991-1993
Sidney Green was drafted 5th overall in the 1983 by the Chicago Bulls after a successful senior year as a consensus second-team All-American with the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. He is one of the elite college players in NCAA Men’s Division I basketball to finish his career with over 2000 points and 1000 rebounds. He is in the company of fellow ’83 draftee Ralph Sampson as well as the likes of Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, and David Robinson. The Runnin’ Rebels found his contributions so substantial that they retired his #21 from UNLV. Alas, his two years with the Spurs coming off the bench were not enough and the #21 jersey stayed in rotation.
Eric “Sleepy” Floyd- 1994
Sleepy Floyd has the unique distinction of being the only retired NBA player to have led his team to a playoff victory while scoring more than 50 points without having been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. His 29-point quarter and 39-point half is a playoff record that has remained for 30 years.
Georgetown listed him #2 behind Patrick Ewing on the list of Hoya alumi who have made the greatest impact on the sport of basketball. In his lone year with the Spurs, he came off the bench just under 14 minutes a night while averaging 3.8 points per game.
Dominique Wilkins 1997
“The Human Highlight Reel” spent the lion’s share of his noteworthy years playing for the Atlanta Hawks. By the time he was #21 for the Silver & Black, Wilkins was predominantly coming off the bench. That said, he still averaged 18.2 points per game, a team high in 1996-97, while playing just over 30 minutes a night. The Spurs’ abysmal record of 20-62, due to injuries to David Robinson, Sean Elliott, and Chuck Person, led to the Spurs being awarded the 1st draft pick in 1997. A new #21 then emerged. But don’t feel bad for Dominique, in addition to his Hawks retiring his #21 jersey, there is also a statue of Wilkins outside Philips Arena.
Hmm, speaking of statues …
NEXT WEEK: Tim Duncan, for real this time.