Last Saturday, Tim Duncan entered the Basketball Hall of Fame — immortalized and enshrined among the pantheon of greats. As a Spurs fan who followed his career since the early 2000s, I’ve always known that this day would come. Still, watching the Hall of Fame speech of my childhood hero felt like the the culmination of a journey, and the memories came rushing back.
A Tale of Two Bored Brothers
I remember the first time I watched Tim Duncan play. It was a scorching summer day in May 2003. My brother Shaun and I were bored out of our minds in the middle of summer break. We turned on the television, flipped through the channels, and chanced upon a blue team and a black team playing basketball. It was our first time watching an NBA game.
We knew nothing about basketball at that time, so my brother and I randomly picked our teams just to make it fun. I bet on the black team and Shaun bet on the blue team. Shaun was smitten by the blue team’s star player — Dirk Nowitzki. I found myself drawn to the black team’s star player — Tim Duncan. We later found out that we were watching the Western Conference Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks.
The black team went on to win the championship that year. Tim Duncan closed the season with a near quadruple-double and bagged the Finals MVP. I felt like a triumphant bettor who won the lottery jackpot with the first ticket I ever bought.
I later found out that he was also the MVP of that season and the season before. How come all I heard about in the news were the Lakers and the Bulls when this unheralded team in black-and-white won it all? It felt like stumbling upon a hidden gem. I became a lifelong fan of Duncan and the Spurs.
The ‘Black-and-White’ Blue Chip
Over the years, I would tune in to almost every televised Spurs game on NBA TV or ESPN. I followed Tim Duncan’s battles with the greats of the time —the Kobe and Shaq Lakers, Nash and Amare Suns, and the Wallace and Billups Pistons.
I religiously tracked Spurs box scores on NBA.com and found almost equal thrill ogling at the stat sheet as I did watching the highlights. I marveled at the sheer efficiency of Duncan’s game. Another game of 20+ points, 10+ rebounds, 3 blocks, 50%+ FG%, another day in the office, another Spurs win.
Following Tim Duncan and the Spurs defined my teenage years. I would often get grief from friends who lamented the ‘boring’ playing style of the black-and-white, all-business Spurs. I knew even back then that the Spurs were an unconventional pick over the more exciting Lakers or the Suns, but I always stood by my stance that the Spurs played beautiful, breathtaking basketball.
More than being a fan of the Spurs and their playing style, I was foremost a fan of Tim Duncan and his game— his silent determination, unassuming leadership, and the signature bank shots that kiss the glass. His quiet demeanor downplayed but never muted the subversive impact he had on the game.
I learned to take pride in my contrarian choice of substance over style in opposition to fellow NBA fans who I thought placed too much value on flash and pomp. The Spurs rewarded my loyalty by being perennial contenders. What I got with the Spurs was not just a winning lottery ticket, but a blue-chip stock that yielded high returns with low volatility year after year.
Tim Duncan inspired me to pick up basketball. I read that he only started playing basketball at age 14. Coincidentally, I was also 14 at that time when I discovered basketball and developed an interest in the sport. As someone who lacked athleticism and could barely dribble, I found hope in Tim Duncan’s game of fundamentals as a template to emulate.
Growing up in the Philippines, I was considered a ‘big man’ at 5’9", so I wore a #21 jersey, copied his bank shots and post moves on offense, and aimed for rebounds and blocks on defense.
I was never able to translate that into much success on the basketball court, but I will always be grateful for the impact basketball had on my teenage years. The sport added a new dimension to my personality and spiced up my youth. Some of my fondest memories with my friends and my brothers took place on the basketball court. Basketball fostered our dreams and forged our brotherhood.
The Basketball Craftsman
I had a little more luck in applying life lessons from TD off the court. I saw him as a north star for the values in life that I hold in high regard. There is a quote associated with Tim Duncan on his slow and steady approach: "Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better is best."
He exemplified this quote by approaching basketball not as a showman but as a craftsman, applying consistency and discipline to the sport — one bank shot at a time. Tim Duncan showed us that that you can win the race by sticking to the basics and mastering the fundamentals of your discipline.
With his stoic demeanor, I found a role model who, like me, was not expressive but always strove to get the job done. He was unflappable even in the face of the most intimidating competition in the game’s biggest moments. He always marched to the beat of his own drum, letting his play speak for him, leading not through words but through example. It made me realize that even quiet introverts can be effective leaders.
Many argue about his place among the all-time greats, but there is little doubt that Tim Duncan would top the list of best teammate of all time. He simply made everyone around him better and elevated their game. Duncan always put his team above his own interests and showed that ego has no place in a winning culture.
Nice Guys Finish First
In one of his interviews, Duncan recounted that he completed his psychology degree to fulfill a promise he made to his mom before she passed away. It was always this commitment and loyalty that set him apart from his peers. He was the superstar who listened rather than complained, focusing on the big picture and willing to do whatever it takes — including pay cuts — so that his team can continue to compete. He is a reminder that nice guys can finish first.
From the late 90s to the mid 2010s, the Duncan-led Spurs were the most consistently excellent force in all of sports. As a fan, it is natural to want some drama and a hero’s journey progression from mediocrity to greatness. Tim Duncan on the other hand was just great from day one and stayed great for two decades until he retired.
He was one of the few champions who wore the same jersey throughout his entire career. It may be boring to follow such a steady story arc without much ups and downs, but that is just a testament to his legendary consistency and excellence on both ends of the floor.
Tim Duncan personified that Aristotle quote: "Excellence is not an act but a habit." You do not see his greatness shine through in a single play or even a single game. His game seemed easy enough to emulate when you view it in isolation, but when you zoom out and look at what he was able to produce across the totality of his career, that is where his greatness truly comes out.
It goes beyond the numbers — the nightly double-doubles, the player efficiency rankings, and defensive win shares. You only truly grasp his unparalleled greatness when you realize that he led his team to at least fifty wins and a trip to the playoffs throughout all nineteen seasons of his NBA career.
Playing the Long Game
Tim Duncan understood the value of playing long-term games with long-term people. Successful tandems tend to have a sort of alchemy in them. While it is true that the combination of Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Popovich was greater than the sum of its parts, it only worked because Duncan sets the tone as the anchor of the entire Spurs machine. He was not just a product of the system; it was built in his image and likeness. He was just humble enough to submit to it.
It is hard to pick a favorite Spurs championship, but the most character-defining championship for me was 2014 when the Spurs fought all the way back to the NBA Finals to take revenge agains the Miami Heat who escaped with the championship the previous year. Right before the Finals, Duncan remarked in an interview that he was happy to be facing the Heat again that year and that the team would be ready. It takes true mental toughness to follow through on that commitment.
That year, the Spurs bounced back and won the championship over Miami. It was a defining moment of redemption. Unlike other championship teams, the Spurs did not have to retool their lineup that year. They just trusted in each other and proved to the world that playing long-term games with long-term people paid off. It was also the championship that cemented Tim Duncan’s place as an all-time great of the game.
The Forever Legends
This year’s Hall of Fame class is especially close to my heart. Kobe, KG, and TD… these were the childhood heroes that my friends and I grew up watching and cheering. These legends owned the 2000s, those years when we lived and breathed basketball. I rooted against Kobe and KG because they got in the way of the Spurs, but deep down I held the utmost respect for them because they brought out the best in one another as rivals and competitors.
In his Hall of Fame speech, Tim Duncan was full of gratitude and effusive with praise. It was probably the longest I’ve ever heard him speak, and it was a worthy epilogue to a storied career. While there was no doubt about how hard he worked for all his success, he also recognized the role of luck and chance in his journey, from the hurricane that brought him to basketball to the coaches and teammates that supported him along the way:
This story and journey doesn’t make sense. I worked my butt off, but I was blessed and guided by so many people in improbable scenarios to get to where I am today.
Many say that Duncan does not get the recognition he deserves as a basketball player, but he appears to be fully contented with what he has achieved. Here was an island boy who capitalized on all the chances life offered, and who gave it his all in return. Reflecting on his career and what he would change if given the chance, Tim Duncan had this to say:
"Honestly, there’s not one thing I would do differently. […] There’s nothing I would change. It was a blessing all the way through."