SAN ANTONIO – The last of the reporters had departed the locker room, and as the doors closed they could hear the voice of Tim Duncan being unusually joyful. “YESSSS.” It was a blend of excitement and relief. He’d never been one to enjoy media attention.
Duncan, who has retired at age 40 from the Spurs, was as constant as the San Antonio River that meanders through town, and about as turbulent. Old Man River Walk, he was called as he ever so gracefully advanced into his athletic twilight.
Bob Ryan, the ultimate media expert on pro basketball, proclaimed Duncan “the greatest power forward of all time.”
But other pundits argued that you couldn’t characterize the 6-foot-11 Duncan as a power forward. Much of the time he played more like a center, directing action in the middle of the front court with his accurate, timely passes.
He was a reliable midrange shooter, averaging 19.0 points per game. And he was a ferocious rebounder and stalwart defender. Twice he was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, and he made the All-Defense team 15 times in his 19 seasons.
He and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only NBA players to have 26,000 points, 15,000 rebounds and 3,000 blocked shots.
Main thing Duncan did was win championships: five of them, all for the Spurs. Three of those times he was Finals MVP.
Here we saw the perfect confluence of unselfish player, brilliant coach and nurturing, undemanding city.
The Spurs were a franchise struggling to survive in 1997, when their futility blossomed into the No. 1 lottery pick. The team’s new coach, Gregg Popovich, met at length with Duncan, kept meeting until he was sure this player was committed to his share-the-ball system of multiple scorers.
Just as Popovich hoped, Duncan wanted nothing more than to help his teammates win championships, to play his best basketball without having to be a salesman for a product, even if — especially if — the product was himself.
No coach could understand that better than the taciturn Popovich, who sees the media as, at best, a necessary evil.
And no city could understand him better than unbustling San Antonio, the city Charles Barkley decried as “boring.”
Duncan would have been unhappy in the swirl of New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago or LA, where he would have been pressured continually to uphold civic traditions or advertise global corporations or help a throng of reporters and photographers earn a living.
Here he would be loved for who he was and who he wanted to be. For the most part he’d be left alone.
He retired the way he played, with as little flamboyance as possible. No farewell tour, no last press conference, just a brief prepared statement.
Appearing on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, Ryan said, wistfully: “We all knew there was a very good mind there. He just didn’t want to share it with us.”
Duncan, who was born in the Virgin Islands and schooled at Wake Forest University, never wanted to be someone special. He noticed that when athletes talked to the national media, their egos became inflated.
In a research paper for a psychology class at Wake Forest, Duncan had written: “Few interactions are as annoying, exasperating and unpleasant as those with people whom we perceive as behaving egotistically.”
So when he made the big time, he would not trash-talk, or rant, or tweet. He just quietly played his sport at a level few have reached.
Even now he would be good enough to retain his starting position with the Spurs. Last season he was still one of the best half-court defenders in the game. But he did not want to be remembered as a shadow of himself, as just another eroding athlete making millions of bucks on his way out the door.