For twenty years Tim Duncan has been perfectly comfortable in an increasingly uncomfortable world. The Big Fundamental was one of the greatest players in a swagger-soaked sport, playing in most of the biggest games at a time of booming exposure. Think of his contemporaries: Shaq, Penny, Marbury, Iverson, Kobe, McGrady, Francis. Marketing and shoe deals and AAU ball. The explosion of the internet. The proliferation of social media. The world getting louder and showier, while he did the opposite. Duncan shunned the spotlight, hated the cameras, and lived a quiet existence of solitude. A Norman Rockwell painting run through a sparkle filter on Snapchat.
How serendipitous was it that San Antonio happened to have the winning ping pong ball in 1997? The Spurs became the perfect cocoon for Duncan, a small market, understated, consistent (to the point of monotony) franchise that protected him from the media wolves and the public gawking.
The Sixers took Keith Van Horn with the second pick that year. How would Duncan have dealt with an overwhelmingly critical Philadelphia fan base and press, within a franchise that could never find its way out of purgatory (although a Duncan/Iverson combo would have been fascinating).
The Celtics spent the entire season tanking for the chance at Duncan, ending up with the third and sixth picks (Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer). It’s easy to imagine Duncan filling out the classic green-and-white jersey, the next great big man for Boston. Russell, Cowens, McHale, Parish, Duncan. But imagine Tim playing within the chokehold of spastic Rick Pitino, in a caustic sports town like Boston. This was before all the winning and good vibes and broken curses. Duncan had resting sad face. I can’t imagine how miserable he would’ve looked aboard Pitino’s Titanic.
San Antonio was perfect, too perfect. There was an existing, gracious superstar already in place. The only reason the Spurs had a chance at Duncan was a fluke of the basketball gods, David Robinson played in only 6 games that season due to injury. The Spurs were a very good team, a playoff team, with a solid core and a front office that had Gregg Popovich in it. It’s one of the league’s smallest markets, a one franchise town, whose fans treat the beloved Spursies like a college team.
So Duncan was allowed to focus only what he did best: play sublime big man basketball. The few commercials he did were awkward at best (who can forget the Sprite rap battle against Kobe?). His postgame press conferences were the audio equivalent of warm milk. His eyes seemed sleepy. His body language like a guy with the flu. His game devoid of highlight reel dunks and vicious blocks.
But he’s the basketball metronome, so consistent, so methodic, it lulls you into a trance. He’s one of the greatest big men ever. He was a 10-time All-NBA first teamer. He won the league MVP twice. He went to the All-Star Game an incredible 15 times. And he won. Most importantly, he won. He took home 5 championships, as many as Magic, as many as Kobe, two more than Bird.
He was the perfect lieutenant for General Pop to carry out his marching orders, the basketball Brady to Belichick. Duncan ran every play to its specifications. He deferred attention. He sacrificed for other teammates. He never gave bulletin board material. It was like Pop had created him in a darkened Spurs-sylvania lab in the top of the HemisFair Tower. A cyborg for the rest of the team to follow.
“Do it like Tim! Why can’t you be more like Tim?! Tim gets it, why can’t you?!”
Last night was probably Duncan’s final game. Is he really going to come back at 40 years old to be a 5 points per game player? Unlike Kobe or Jeter, Duncan never wanted the attention, the farewell tour, the breathless media coverage of his final game. He wants to leave quietly, just like he played. The perfect player in the perfect place.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.