“I’ve seen the future and he wears No. 21.”
On July 11, 2016, the bank closed on a Monday. Tim Duncan announced—or rather, he had the Spurs announce—his retirement after 19 glorious seasons of bank shots, trophy-raising, head-palming, and quiet diligence.
Where do I even begin? Pop’s words during his press conference last Tuesday illuminated the man off-the-court more than anyone else possibly could. The immense outpouring of respect from his peers and fans shows just how far-reaching his impact on the court was, even if it was largely ignored by mainstream NBA media most of the time—which he clearly preferred. Despite the accolades, his selflessness was demonstrated time and time again: from team-friendly contracts structured to re-sign whoever was needed for another title run, to how he often draped a reassuring arm over a teammate’s shoulder and whispered words of encouragement. Duncan consistently put winning and family above all else.
Having spent the last couple of days digesting the news, I came to realize it would be foolish to try to write a concise summary that can encapsulate all the qualities I admire in Duncan – and his many highlights – that I fondly remember into a single written piece. There are simply too many of both.
I could reiterate his mind-numbing production, but numbers fall way short of placing an appropriate value on his contributions to the franchise. Instead, I’ll do my best to speak on the impact he had on me and generations of San Antonians who had a chance to watch him play.
My first memories growing up in San Antonio mainly revolved around the random basketball-related conversations I would pick up on in the checkout line during grocery trips to H.E.B. with my mom.
I can recall hearing the collective groan from locals when Michael Jordan made his comeback in ‘95, bemoaning their teams’ missed opportunities during his baseball sabbatical. That Christmas, I begged my parents for basketball cards after Jordan captured my imagination. They relented, and gave me a sweet Upper Deck set that inexplicably listed each player’s physical attributes in French.
Because my parents never watched sports, it was then that I finally put a face to the name “David Robinson” that I kept hearing so much. Now, with the knowledge gained from staring at frozen dunk faces, and trying to decipher the metric system, I could look at a Spurs team photo in H.E.B. before the season and pick out the jacked big man wearing number 50, rocking the high-and-tight.
At the time, however, basketball greatness seemed like something destined to happen in other places. Jordan played in a distant land called Chicago, and seemingly won everything every year. A huge human named Shaq was shattering backboards where Mickey Mouse lived, or so I was told. Houston had the Rockets, which seemed like a way cooler name.
But then, one year, I noticed a new, excited chatter start to swell in the long lines leading up to the cash register.
“That kid, Tim Duncan, looks like the real deal.”
“He might be better than Robinson.”
“Did you see those numbers he put up against the Bulls? 19 and 22 in his 3rd NBA game!”
Maybe those aren’t direct quotes. I was young – my ears were at knee-level. Sue me. But still, I remember the murmurs growing louder and the eyes lighting up when the name “Duncan” was uttered. So, one day, I checked the team photo to see who they were talking about. Through the process of elimination, I singled-out the skinny number 21 next to the musclebound Robinson and remember being unimpressed. “He doesn’t look anything like MJ, Robinson, or Shaq,” my seven-year-old self probably thought.
When I finally saw him play, my brain melted. His game didn’t display the in-your-face forcefulness I had come to associate with domination, but remarkable efficacy by way of unwavering efficiency. He used smooth, seemingly ordinary movements to do extraordinary things on the court at his will—all without an expression, without the histrionics. He fit next to The Admiral seamlessly: it looked like they’d been playing together for years, taking turns stamping “return to sender” on any ball that was sent to the hoop’s zip code. He displayed passing and unselfishness I’d never seen in a big man before.
After delighting fans in his first year with his preternatural feel, blue-collar approach, and stoic demeanor, Duncan drop-stepped his way into San Antonio’s heart forever by giving the city its first championship. His understated prodigious talent was such that he didn’t have to boast to prove it; all you had to do was ask an opponent.
“He’s obviously the best player in the NBA. Not just because of his skill level. I think it’s his maturity and knowledge of the game,” then-New York coach Jeff Van Gundy said after the Spurs defeated his Knicks in the ’99 Finals. “You can just watch a guy play and know if he’s truly into winning or not. That guy’s truly into winning. To me, he’s not only the best player, but he’s somebody that obviously San Antonio is going to have for a long time and be able to build around because of his unselfishness.”
Jeff Van Gundy, Fundamental Greatness: The Oral History of Tim Duncan
Only a courtship from Orlando in 2000, featuring a scary billboard image of Duncan wearing a Magic uniform alongside superstars Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, ever threatened the process. I still shudder when I think about the what-ifs; but Coach Pop and Robinson were able to convince a man who wanted his nickname to be “Merlin” when he entered the league to stay – there was still a Camelot to build in the heart of Texas. And build around Duncan they did: from the international star influx of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in the early ‘00s, to the additions of equally stoic superstars in Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, Duncan has managed to not only fit, but excel in any situation—not unlike the famous shape-shifting wizard of Arthurian lore.
In the following decades—after a couple of NBA MVP awards, numerous All-Star appearances, and 4 more championship banners—most fans of other teams glossed over his name when discussing the best player in the league. Meanwhile, kids in San Antonio grew up taking bank shots, shouting “Duncan!” Adults reverted back to their childhood when talking about him, sometimes reaching for comparisons to their own idols. My uncle even compared him to another number 21 he watched growing up—Roberto Clemente, which is literally the highest praise you can ever receive from a Puerto Rican. Both hailed from little islands in the Caribbean, played with a brand of silent excellence, and simply exuded qualities one would associate with a great human being.
Yet despite the rabid fan base and sustained success, year after year, the Spurs entered the playoffs unnoticed, like a celebrity sneaking through the kitchen of their favorite restaurant to get a table in the back where nobody can bother them. Then, all of a sudden, you hear a champagne bottle pop in the dark corner and you’re like, “wait, what, they’re here? How long have they been there – and why is confetti raining down on me?”
To us, he was the best in the world, and we didn’t particularly mind if anybody else acknowledged it because he didn’t seem to care.
Duncan made greatness look grounded, and, in lifting the trophy five times for all of San Antonio—and the world—to see during championship parades on the Riverwalk, he made it feel attainable.