This is how long Tim Duncan has been around: Hours after he made his summer league debut in 1997, and only weeks after being drafted No.1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs, I called Gregg Popovich from a pay phone at Los Angeles International Airport.
Then, as always, Popovich cracked wise on his Timmy. He said the lanky rookie out of Wake Forest struggled to make a shot, mishandled the ball, made poor decisions and, in essence, was far from the formidable force he would become. And about that last part? Popovich never had a doubt.
Nineteen seasons later, Duncan retires as one of the greatest and most unique players in the history of the game. Power forward? Center? Does it really matter? The St. Croix, Virgin Islands, native — a converted swimmer, no less — navigated the often treacherous NBA waters with smooth, subtle, but spectacular strokes. He dictated the pace for the better part of two decades, establishing and then adhering to parameters both professionally and personally.
Duncan, 40, was the most private, even mysterious superstar of his generation. It wasn't until these past few seasons, particularly during the Spurs' final title run (in 2014), that he more willingly shared hints of his humor and insights into his personality. In an era when pro athletes travel with entourages and enhance their earnings and profiles with endorsements, commercials and paid appearances, he preferred a life behind the curtain.
"He was always about winning, never about making a brand out of himself," Dirk Nowitzki told ESPN's Marc Stein. "That's what I appreciated the most."
The "Big Fundamental" was a basketball masterpiece. Good luck finding a flaw in his game; 29 teams tried and failed. What will we miss the most? The soft bank shots from either side? The post moves that appeared so effortless? The passes to open teammates? The defense that anchored the Spurs during their five championship seasons, including his epic eight-block performance that clinched the 2003 title against the New Jersey Nets?
Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Kareem Abdul Jabbar. LeBron James. Steph Curry. John Stockton and Karl Malone. All already are Hall of Famers or awaiting the invitations that will be in the mail. And that includes Magic Johnson, whose Abdul-Jabbar imitation against the Philadelphia 76ers is one for the ages. But Duncan's Game 6 performance against the Nets very quietly speaks to his understated brilliance. He scored 21 points, grabbed 20 rebounds, passed for 10 assists and blocked eight shots, tying the NBA's single-game record.
Afterward, while the Spurs celebrated, I approached Popovich in a hallway with a question: Had he ever witnessed anything remotely comparable to Duncan's performance? And why wasn't the long-limbed center lionized that very night? Pop laughed, then shrugged. No, he had never seen a superior effort. But that was Timmy and these were the Spurs; the limelight always tended to shine elsewhere.
True, but Duncan will enter the Hall of Fame with Kobe Bryant in 2021, inducted as a five-time champion, two-time MVP, and perennial selection to All-League and All-Defensive squads. The only thing missing is an Olympic gold medal, though not because he didn't try. Unlike the majority of his original teammates who withdrew before the 2004 Athens Games mostly because of terrorism fears, Duncan and Allen Iverson endured an altogether disappointing experience.
Besides stumbling to the bronze medal, Duncan was so frustrated by the officiating that he vowed to never again represent the United States in an international event. Whether he would have changed his mind if Popovich had been named the next Olympic coach — that would be Mike Kryzewski — well, we'll never know.
But in retrospect, Duncan's refusal to spend his summers training with the U.S. national teams might have prolonged his career. Though he retires at 40, and has the lean, sculpted frame of a superbly conditioned athlete, he has the knees of a 60-year-old.
A brace protects a left knee that he hasn't been able to straighten for years. His right knee was even more problematic in his final season, forcing him to miss games and play limited minutes. So he leaves with a legacy that includes those five rings, a bond with a coach that likely will never be rivaled, and with this, too: Duncan and his Spurs not only proved small-market franchises can thrive, they devised the model for all 30 franchises.
That, friends, is quite a legacy.
— Sacramento Bee (TNS)