In today’s world, big personalities and self-promotion dominate the sporting landscape. An outspoken player such as D’Angelo Russell can dominate a news cycle with his hidden camera antics, while a skilled player like Mike Conley could go months without getting mentioned. The silent ones, the ones who get it done, are a dying breed in the NBA, and the pack just got a little slimmer.
Yesterday afternoon, Spurs legend Tim Duncan announced his retirement after 19 seasons in the NBA. Immediately after the announcement, former players, analysts and fans showered him with praise and well wishes, sentiments that were often much too sparse during his historic playing career. In an era where we criticize the building of super teams, place a bewildering amount of importance on winning titles, and praise loyalty to fan bases, Tim Duncan should be our poster child. Let’s be honest, Duncan didn’t just play for the Spurs, he was the Spurs. Duncan had the good fortune of learning under Dave Robinson, a Spurs legend in his own right. By the time Robinson’s retirement came around in 2003, Duncan already had 2 NBA Championships under his belt, earning NBA Finals MVP in both of them. After Robinson’s retirement, Duncan continued the winning ways, securing titles in both 2005 and 2007. Sure, other players have joined him along the way; Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard all come to mind, but Duncan has been the one constant on the Spurs roster since the turn of the millennium. He won 5 NBA Championships, 2 MVPs, 15 All-Star selections, and is still somehow grossly underrated.
Of course, we would be crazy to reminisce on Duncan’s storied career without including Gregg Popovich. Never in this era has there been a more harmonious marriage between player and coach, and this bond allowed Duncan to soar to even greater heights. Rarely ever do we see a player and a coach together for so long, sharing such great success. Duncan and Popovich are in the same category as Brady and Belichick, Russell and Auerbach. Not every great player had the opportunity to play for a great coach, and the synergy between Duncan and Popovich was no stroke of luck. Duncan came into the league an eager rookie out of Wake Forest, and at the time Popovich was in the early stages of his long tenure with the Spurs, not yet the established veteran he is today. As Duncan grew as a player, he slowly became a leader in the locker room in the subtlest of ways. You know that boss or coach you had that could shut up a room by speaking? That was Duncan, but in the least imposing way possible. Don’t get me wrong, he showed intensity when he needed to, but Duncan will perhaps be remembered as one of the most composed players in NBA history. As Duncan grew as a leader, he still remained receptive to Popovich’s coaching. Many star athletes begin to get complacent or arrogant with success, but Duncan set an example for everyone on the Spurs roster. If Duncan doesn’t cooperate with the coach, the coach isn’t commanding the locker room, and the team doesn’t win. Popovich set the attitude of the Spurs, but Duncan brought it to the rest of the team.
It almost seems fitting that Tim Duncan retired amidst a wave of free agent frenzy, debates between the old and new school NBA, and sweeping changes to almost every roster. As you watch Charles Barkley and other retired players bicker about Kevin Durant joining the Warriors, combated by a younger generation insisting that Durant is entitled to his own choices, Tim Duncan is a welcome distraction from the noise. Tim Duncan is something we can all agree on, a universally accepted figure. He’s like Coca-Cola, or an ice cold beer. It’s hard to find something about Tim Duncan that isn’t likable. The major shift free agency has created in the league combined with Duncan’s retirement almost makes it feel as if the league is ending an era. The Spurs will still be a contender, Popovich, we assume, will still coach next season, but so much of their identity resided in Tim Duncan. Spurs fans, however, can take comfort in the fact that he surely leaves a mark on those left behind; it’s what Dave Robinson did for him.
As time passes and people begin to look at our current age of basketball in retrospect, they will likely compare the career of Tim Duncan to that of Kobe Bryant. Both came and left the league at roughly the same time, and both made a huge impact. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this comparison, however, is the polar opposite ways in which they did it. Kobe was flashy. He could sell himself like no other, and had an unrivaled flare for the dramatic. Duncan just put his nose to the grindstone and worked. Both were very passionate about basketball, but displayed it very differently. Kobe had his game face. Aggressive. Powerful. Duncan had his poker face. Calm. Collected. It’s strange how both players were able to enjoy such dominance and success in the same decade, despite being in the same conference. Bryant got a lot more attention during his career, but something tells me that when it’s all said and done, people will look back at Duncan’s stats and truly see how great he was. One thing is for sure, with the retirement of both players this season, a little piece of the 2000s NBA has died, and my inner childhood got a little sad.