It’s never easy watching an NBA legend step away from basketball, especially for the second time in a calendar year. Careers vary, as does talent level, jersey color, quality of play, and a million other things. The truly great are often remembered for their peaks; Kobe winning 3 titles and scoring 81, Jordan’s three-peats. Tim Duncan is unique because over a career spanning two centuries and three decades, he never really changed.
Tim Duncan is a monolith of consistency and excellence, a singular example of the rare player whose loudest moment, somehow, was the one he walked away. Duncan was great from October 31, 1997 when he played his first NBA minute, right up until May 12, 2016, his final minute. The level of consistent greatness achieved by Duncan isn’t just rare, it’s seemingly impossible. He spoiled NBA fans to the point of making a team that never missed the playoffs with him seem uninteresting. More than anything, that’s why his absence from the league will be felt more than almost anyone who ever played the game. That’s why no single minute of his 47,368 total is louder than the last one; the one where the clock stopped.
Tim Duncan never really meant to be a basketball player. He wanted to be a swimmer. Leaping into an Olympic pool to compete was his dream growing up in the Virgin Islands, until his local pool was destroyed by a hurricane and his debilitating fear of sharks prevented him from practicing. That’s when he turned to basketball. He didn’t take to it immediately; his first coach called him “huge…but awkward”. He generated buzz, especially from Wake Forest, after allegedly playing Alonzo Mourning to a draw at age 16 in a game of 5-on-5 pickup ball.
One of the first things that made Duncan unique was his four-year college career. Not just because of winning the NABC Defensive Player of the year three times, the ACC Player of the Year twice, and two consensus first team All-American selections. Not just because he led the conference in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, and blocks in 1998. Not just because of Wake Forest’s 97-31 record during his tenure. Rather, because it lasted all four years and ended with a degree in Psychology. Duncan lost his mother to breast cancer just before age 14, and promised her he would earn a degree. Amid the onset of the prep-to-pro era, he kept that promise.
Drafted by the San Antonio Spurs first overall in 1997 after a disastrous, injury riddled 20-62 season, Duncan became a twin-tower partner to David Robinson. He established himself right away as a defensive monster with polished, fundamental offensive skills and top-tier game on the glass. In his second road game ever, he grabbed 22 rebounds while matched up against Dennis Rodman in Chicago, the greatest rebounder ever. Duncan averaged 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.5 blocks per game in his first season.
The Spurs won their first title the next year, a lockout-shortened 1999. That title was the first of five that San Antonio would amass during Duncan’s tenure. That coincides with the dominant runs of Kobe’s Lakers, each picking up five chips from 1999-2000. During that span, Duncan also picked up two MVP awards, three Finals MVPs, the majority of his 15 All-Star selections, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, 3 All-NBA Second Team selections, 2 All-NBA Third Team selections, 8 NBA All-Defensive First Team selections, and 7 NBA All-Defensive Second Team selections.
Duncan’s career is a masterclass in consistency. His points per game didn’t dip under 18 for the first time until the 2010-11 season. He has never logged a season under 48% from the field. He logged 13 straight seasons of 10+ rebounds per game. Despite being a centerpiece of his team, he has never averaged over 3 turnovers a game. In his time with the Spurs, they finished with less than 50 wins a single time: the 1998-99 season, which featured 50 total due to a lockout. They still won 37. They even picked up 50 wins in 2011-12, another lockout season that featured 66 total games. He might well be the first player of the modern era where every single season was a quality one.
Let’s take a moment to note that a pair of dominant stars may never so perfectly reflect their environment more perfectly at the same time than Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Kobe’s flashy, self-absorbed, offensive-based game under the lights of Los Angeles in a gold jersey; Duncan’s strong, consistent, quiet career down in Texas wearing gray and black. How San Antonio picked up a “boring” reputation while featuring an all-time great is beyond me.
Tim Duncan is a Hall of Fame player. The greatest power forward to ever play. The best player of his generation. One of the 10 best basketball players ever. Most impressive of all, Tim Duncan was so great that he made greatness seem dull. He was the personification of the identity the Spurs built in his tenure; selfless, fundamental, unassuming, and devastatingly talented. The Spurs have been great for so long that young adults entering college now have never seen an NBA without them as a dominant force. The Spurs’ playoff streak is older than some university sophomores. That’s in large part due to the man in the middle, one of the greatest constants in sports. No single player has meant as much to their team’s culture on and off the court with the single possible exception of Derek Jeter.
The weirdest part of writing this is that Duncan probably wouldn’t approve of its length. He’d say it’s about 10-15x too long. He’d call the character limit on Twitter unnecessarily high. All he’d ever need to say is,
“I won’t be at practice this fall. -Tim”
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another star whose presence was so quiet, but whose absence will be so deafening.
We’ll miss you, Tim. Thanks for the memories.