A Song of Old San Antone
Larry Thornberry
by

OK, perhaps the ageless wonder Tim Duncan isn’t ageless after all. Though one easily could have concluded he was ageless watching him perform at the highest level in the final years of his championship 19-year, NBA career, all of which was with the San Antonio Spurs. There will be no debate over which uniform Duncan will wear after he’s inducted into the basketball hall of fame.

The announcement most who follow such things expected came Monday. Duncan, 40, is hanging it up after five NBA Championships and 15 All-NBA selections, two regular season MVP awards, and three NBA Finals MVPs. This is one hell of a fine basketball player. One of the best in the history of the game, and by all accounts a fine man as well.

To say that Duncan will be missed is a world-class understatement. The Spurs have signed center and power forward Pau Gasol, formerly of the Chicago Bulls, to take Duncan’s place. Big shoes, brother. Really high bar. Good luck.

Playing at power forward and center, Duncan was a good shooter and rebounder, a tenacious defender, and a good shot blocker. He dominated the inside game. A quiet fellow who led by example, he was always a good teammate, whom many other Spurs have given much credit to for their own success. He combined over-the-top talent with work habits that coaches dream of instilling in players. Duncan brought these work habits (and a degree in psychology) with him from Wake Forest, from where he was the first round draft pick in 1997.

Rookie Duncan joined another outstanding big man on the Spurs, David Robinson. And it took little time for the Spurs to become champions, winning the NBA Finals in 1999. Both Duncan and the Spurs ran off a 19-year record of unparalleled excellence. The Spurs reached the playoffs in every one of Duncan’s 19 seasons, compiling an eye-popping record of 1072-438 in regular season games. That’s a .710 winning percentage (SEVENTY ONE PERCENT!), the best 19-year stretch in NBA history. In fact, no team in Major League Baseball, the NFL, or the NHL has posted a .710 winning record over the last 19. No, not even the New England Patriots.

No suggestion here that this was all Tim Duncan’s doings. There were stylists like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili who helped make Spurs basketball so successful and such a treat to watch for the unmatched ball movement and always, always team play. And of course there was and is that basketball magician on the sidelines putting it all together, one Gregg Popovich. Parker and Ginobili are getting a bit long in the tooth themselves, and will soon join Duncan on the sidelines. Is the new generation of Spurs players, starting with the multi-talented Kawhi Leonard, enough to make it profitable for Duncan, now a civilian, to watch Spurs basketball on the tube, or from the sidelines at the AT&T Center? Too early to tell. But you don’t get rich betting against Gregg Popovich.

There are some other Duncan numbers of note. Indulge me just a few. Duncan scored more than 26K points, had more than 15K rebounds, and blocked more than 3K shots. Only one other NBA player has reached all three of these plateaus. That would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who, basketball fans will remember, had a bit of game himself. (Both men had that sky-hook down pat.)

But numbers don’t tell the whole story of how good Duncan the player was. He’s a humble man who had a distinctly non-flashy style. No LeBron, Michael, or Dr. J is our Tim. But the steady play, on both sides of the ball, was always there. He was always making a difference. Always leading. Always focused. And always a treat to watch for the savvy basketball fan. Tony Parker’s gymnastic runs to the basket, and Manu Ginobili doing those things that only Manu Ginobili can do, made fans’ hearts race for their sheer brilliance. While this was going on, Duncan had scored inside, rebounded, and blocked shots in ways that may have gotten fewer style points but were crucial for yet another Spurs win.

Tim Duncan will play no more NBA basketball. But he’s old only in the way major league athletics are measured. He has plenty of time left in what is already a significant life, but with many chapters left. I’m sure he’ll be successful in whatever he chooses to do. The same hard work, intelligence, concentration, humility, and team-play that made him a champion on the court will make him a champion elsewhere. There are other Tim Duncans out there that we don’t know because they don’t apply their talents to a popular spectator sport. They’re what made, and will keep, America great.

Thanks for the memories, Tim Duncan. God’s speed.

Larry Thornberry
Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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