My personal favorite Tim Duncan story:
It was the spring of 1997, and Duncan’s coach at Wake Forest, Dave Odom, was trying to prepare me for just how impactful Duncan would be in the NBA.
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“He’s going to be a better pro than he was a college player,” Odom promised.
I tried to contain my disbelief. After all, Duncan would have been the NBA’s top pick multiple years had he chosen to turn pro as an underclassman, rather than play out his four years of college eligibility. How would he exceed his college resume of 16.5 points, 12.3 rebounds and perennial All-American status?
Odom said if I was at practice every day, I’d know: Duncan had such an early mastery of the geometry of basketball that the limitations of his Wake Forest teammates held him back. Duncan would see plays his teammates couldn’t complete, with passes bouncing off their hands (or occasionally the back of their heads) rather than leading to layups.
Odom has said plenty of wise things to me over the years, but that was the wisest of all.
Nineteen seasons after Duncan walked across the stage at the Charlotte Coliseum (the original Hornets hosted the NBA draft that June), he retired Monday with the same understated grace that marked his career. No news conference, no Players Tribune goodbye, no celebration of his legacy.
Attention has never been what drives Duncan. To him, it’s never been about the talk, only the actions.'
Best power forward ever?
Duncan, 40, leaves the NBA with five NBA championships, two league Most Valuable Player awards and 15 All-Star Game appearances. He might be the best power forward in the history of basketball. What made his nickname – “The Big Fundamental” – so cool is it was so accurate.
Duncan played the game not to log gaudy numbers but to create advantages for his team. The Spurs’ culture is all about finding the open man, relentlessly searching for an even better shot. Duncan didn’t just accept that premise, he epitomized it.
That’s what made him a connector from David Robinson to Bruce Bowen to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. He helped salvage Boris Diaw’s career after that ugly divorce from the then-Charlotte Bobcats.
Hornets forward Nic Batum used to quiz fellow Frenchmen Parker and Diaw about what made the Spurs so dominant. He got his answer when Parker told him no one on San Antonio’s roster cares who takes the shot that decides a game so long as it goes in.
Sustaining the culture
Certainly, coach Gregg Popovich played a major role in creating that culture, but Duncan sustained it. Duncan allowed Popovich to maximize his effectiveness by never thinking he was too big a star for Popovich to yell at him.
Over a 19-season journey, Duncan went from being the Spurs’ undisputed superstar to a role player, focusing on solid team defense last season and the occasional 15-foot bank shot. He was looking for one more title before feeling so beaten up he’d have to give up this game.
It was funny a few seasons ago when Duncan missed a game, and the explanation Popovich provided was “old.” Sure, he was old, but Duncan was always so professional about maintaining his body that you thought he’d play on forever.
I suspect the Spurs signing free agent big man Pau Gasol – a player with skills and philosophies so similar to Duncan’s – made it easier for Duncan to walk away with a clear conscience. The Spurs are in good hands.
I just wish I’d paid more attention when Odom laid out everything that came to pass about a first-ballot Hall of Famer.