For a long time, far too long really, I was one of those bad NBA fans who thought the Spurs were boring. I was turned off by their constant presence in the playoffs. The way they methodically beat opponents year after year after year, in ways that were always thorough but never sexy, felt mind-numbing.
Tim Duncan was the embodiment of that. He was quiet, reserved and unbelievably dominant.
Kobe Bryant may have gotten more headlines, but Duncan was the greatest player of his generation. He entered the league in 1997 and leaves it after 19 seasons with a 1,072-438 regular-season record. No other player in any of the four major U.S. sports has won more games over the past 19 years. He never once missed the playoffs.
He won five NBA titles, (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), made eight NBA All‐Defensive First Teams and is only the third player in league history to win 1,000 games. He was about as close to Bill Russell as someone of his generation could get.
He succeeded and won a title as part of a “Twin Towers” lineup playing next to David Robinson. He succeeded as the Spurs helped revolutionize the NBA with their “pace-and-space” offense. He was a force on both sides the ball and was just as impactful as the focal point of an offense as he was simply rebounding and doing the defensive dirty work.
Even in his last season, when he clearly struggled at times to get up and down the floor and could seemingly only jump off of one leg, he was as important to his team as ever. He was the Spurs’ best rim protector and still managed to make his team better at 40 years old. Even when he missed the Spurs’ first regular-season matchup with the Warriors, we wondered how different the game would have been if Duncan had been active.
Naturally, he’s going out the only way he knows how. There will be no fanfare, no tedious year-long retirement tour.
Even more than the wins, Duncan’s defining characteristic was his selflessness. There is lots of talk about players willing to sacrifice for the good of the team, but so many want to sacrifice on their own terms. Duncan truly did not care about points or egos or money or endorsement deals. He didn’t care about brands or notoriety. He only wanted championships.
He was named Finals MVP the first three times he won a title, but in ’07 and ’14, when Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard took home the honor, no one was happier for them than Duncan.
That level of team-first commitment spawned the greatest franchise of my lifetime and created an organizational culture that nearly every other team in professional sports has and will attempt to emulate.
Perhaps that lack of ego did him a bit of a disservice as well. Duncan is never talked about with Kobe or Shaq as the greatest players of his generation. He should be. His career was better.
Let’s all remember that. Duncan was the greatest Power Forward of all-time and a true legend.