Tim Duncan: The Ageless Wonder

Being “wide open” while playing a sport is a feeling unlike anything else you can experience in that specific world. As an athlete, everything is easier when you’re wide open, yet it creates a challenge within itself. For instance, in football, the wide open catches are the hardest to focus on because the task seems so routine. Or in basketball, sometimes you’re too open while attempting a three-point shot and tense up before releasing the basketball. While being wide open presents the idea of a task becoming the easiest, sometimes it adds the extra challenge of not screwing that up in front of a crowd.

While I was sitting in my living room June 20, 2013 I realized that this rule even applies to somebody that we question whether or not he’s an alien species. Tim Duncan is a man whose entire career was modeled on winning, individual consistency, leading by example, and always doing the right thing. Duncan’s pedigree shined game after game after game, year after year after year.

During Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Duncan showed the nation just how human he was by missing a running lay-up that he has unquestionably made hundreds of times in his NBA career. The only thing is that this one would have tied a Game 7 with less than a minute to play in the Finals.

Shocked. Astounded. Dumbfounded. I could not believe that of all people it was Tim Duncan that missed that shot. Wide open. Sure, Battier was defending him, but he didn’t even have his arms up to contest the shot. Under those circumstances, for Tim Duncan, that is as wide open as it gets in sports.  

In a dream scenario of that specific situation, what else would you even want? In the history of the NBA, what is a better scenario than Tim Duncan with the basketball only a couple of feet away from the rim? Give me that everyday of the week and twice on Sunday. I’m not sure if there is a better, more efficient, offensive possession that you can hang your hat on.  Maybe Kareem in the same spot (ehh)? maybe a Jordan midrange jump shot (a jump shot over a Duncan bunny?)? LeBron isolated (again, better than a Duncan bunny?)? 

For me, the feeling was exactly the same as watching Wes Welker drop that back shoulder throw that would have likely clinched another Super Bowl for the New England Patriots. You watched Welker break open up the seem, you saw the football’s perfect back shoulder trajectory from Brady, and it was a catch… until you stopped the premature celebration and realized that it wasn’t. It was a stunning blow to the Patriots. A feeling that rivals what Duncan had inside himself for missing that shot on what many thought was money before Duncan even let go of the basketball.

We take these plays for granted because of professional athlete’s super superior abilities. We assume they’re automatic because they’re legitimately plays we think we could make while we’re watching from the comfort of our couch. We’ve seen athletes make these plays time and time again, yet every athlete at some point makes these mistakes because they’re simply wide open.

For whatever reason, I assumed it’d never happen to Duncan. And for whatever reason, he missed the shot. Maybe he was too wide open. Maybe he had a flashback to the Derek Fisher shot. Or maybe he still had a Game 6 hangover from the Ray Allen shot — that I re-watched 13 times today in disbelief. 

For whatever reason, it happened to the most accomplished, most consistent player of my generation. And honestly, it’s the only thing we have that suggests Tim Duncan really was like everybody else.

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs - Game Two
Photo Credit: Huffington Post

The most implausible part of Duncan’s career may have been missing that shot. I say this because the only thing more incredible than that mistake was that it occurred at the age of 36. At that age, not only was Duncan counted on to bring his team to the championship podium, but we expected him to pull through in that moment. It’s why it was so shocking when he missed that bunny. It was a moment unmatched by nearly everybody in the history of the NBA, yet Old Man Riverwalk tested the concept of age being just a number.

Duncan’s career long consistency funded the thousands of internet jokes that insist he really is an alien, or at least some sort of species we’re just coming to realization with after watching him (barely) interact with the human race for the last 19 NBA seasons. I particularly believe that during the offseason he just rests on the beach of the Virgin Islands, looking like some sort of washed to shore creature. Duncan likely just sits there and eats rare fruit and nuts that humans have yet to identify before swimming back to the bottom of the Ocean where he is recognized as the basketball God of water.

This is an actual image of the day Tim Duncan broke the surface of the Ocean for the very first time:

tim-duncan-01
Photo Credit: Blame My Father

At the age of 36 Paul Pierce was in his last season in Brooklyn, Penny Hardaway played for the Miami Heat, Gary Payton played for the Boston Celtics, Chris Webber and Jalen Rose were both two years removed from the NBA, Magic Johnson was in his last season of his career after a 4-year break, Larry Bird and his back were enjoying their first year of retirement, Michael Jordan was retired (again), and Dwyane Wade will be getting some sort of German treatment on his body so that he’s capable of watching his son’s AAU games without getting up and walking around like your uncle does during your families Christmas party.

Not Timmy. Even during the last few years of his career, Tim Duncan was the centerfold of the San Antonio Spurs. It has been a run truly unprecedented by certainly any basketball player I’ve ever seen, and almost ever.

NBA players to average 19.0 points >, 10.0 rebounds > 2.0 blocks > over 19 or more NBA seasons:

Tim Duncan (19.0, 10.8, 2.2)

Shaquille O’Neal  (23.7, 10.9, 2.3)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (25.3, 11.5, 2.7)

… And to play over 45,000 career minutes

Tim Duncan (47,368)

Shaquille O’Neal  (41,918)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (55,751)

… And be selected to at least 15 All-Star Games

Tim Duncan (15)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (19)

… And be selected to 15 All-NBA Teams

Tim Duncan (15)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (15)

… And be selected to 15 NBA All-Defensive Teams

Tim Duncan (15)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (11)

I’m not suggesting Duncan was better than Kareem was — because he’s not — but I am suggesting he is more consistent, and accomplished more than anybody who isn’t named Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, or Bill Russell.

Tim Duncan has the most NBA All-Defensive Teams in the history of the NBA. 

Tim Duncan is tied for the most All-NBA teams in the history of the NBA.

Tim Duncan’s 19-year tenure with the San Antonio Spurs has recorded the best winning percentage in the history of professional basketball, football, baseball, and hockey at .710.

Tim Duncan has more post season double-doubles than anybody in the history of the NBA.

Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have more postseason victories than any three teammates in the history of the NBA. 

Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have more wins as a player-coach combination than anybody else in NBA history.

A pretty good resume to go along with two NBA MVP’s — one more than Kobe Bryant — and three NBA Finals MVP’s — as many as Larry Bird, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal.

Photo Credit: Wake Forest Sports

As the number one overall pick, Duncan went years — yearrrrrsssssssss — beyond what anybody expected. He was the San Antonio backbone from the moment he entered the league, to his final moments on the court this season. He remained that guy years after we expected him to slow down and stop impacting games. 19 years in the NBA with 4 collegiate seasons before that, Tim Duncan surpassed all expectations on his way to becoming one of the 5-7 greatest players we’ve ever seen.

Even in my young life I’ve watched too many professional athletes try to balance the scale of retirement. Most decide to retire too late, rather than too early. They almost always have the down years that make them irrelevant in their field.

For us fans it was painful to watch 57-year-old Kobe Bryant limp up and down the court for three seasons too many. It was painful to watch the ghost of Peyton Manning win a Super Bowl in his final season — even if it meant he was a bigger curse to the Broncos than he was a gift. Or even the salute season to Derek Jeter was brutal because we wanted to remember him for all of the wonderful moments he blessed baseball with, yet he could only give us a less than appealing .250 batting average his final two seasons.

He didn’t average the most points, rebounds, assists, steals, or even blocks for the Spurs this season. That being said, he was the co-defensive anchor on a 67-win team that had the back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year in Kawhi Leonard. They actually posted the exact same defensive rating as each other — 96. Tim Duncan just did it while being 15-years older than Leonard.

Even with career lows in minutes and touches, the offense was still ran through Duncan. Each punch thrown at the Spurs would still find the way back to Duncan during crunch time — until Serge Ibaka ripped the soul clean out of Timmy in his final moments, eliminating him as a basketball player.

Photo Credit: Hoops Hype

My earliest memories of Tim Duncan are the duels he used to have with Kevin Garnett.

While being from Minnesota, I obviously loved watching Garnett. We appreciated KG for the intensity and passion that dripped from his heart like the sweat from his bald head. It’s what made him so unique, so different from anybody. That characteristic is what made a connection for him to the Minnesota fans. Having Garnett on your team is a luxury that is unexplainable. You don’t fully understand what he offers until you watch him night in and night out for your team.

While Garnett brought that unexplainable intangible to your roster, Duncan was just the opposite. 

Don’t get it twisted, Garnett was really, really, really freaking good, and relentless. But Duncan was relentless in a different way. 

While the freakishly talented Garnett latched onto the minds of opponent’s and fueled himself off of their fear like the demon from Jeepers Creepers, Duncan abused player’s confidence as a silent assassin with an array of skills that earned him the narrative of a basketball technician. 

No matter how much Garnett would beat his chest, and scream and shout, Duncan was always there to answer the bell. Calm, relaxed, never forcing the issue, and always making the right play. It was an opposite view on leadership. Neither were right or wrong, but both possessed unworldly talent that they showcased in completely different ways.

What made Duncan special was more than his ability to score against anybody, or his elite defensive skill-set. He was genuinely, positively, not even close, the greatest teammate to ever play the game. 

He WAS the San Antonio Spurs for 19-years. Everything we have known the Spurs to be is because of Tim Duncan. He sets the tone, he’s the leader, he is the “San Antonio way”.

One of the funniest things to me is when people talk about the Spurs “system”. What system? You mean having Tim Duncan for 19 seasons? Only being completely serious about winning basketball games? Tim Duncan deserved to be more boastful than arguably anybody he has ever shared the floor with, yet he never let the self-pride be worn on his body. That is what was the most impressive thing to me about Tim Duncan. To me, his legacy will be remembered for that.

There was always more to get done, always looking at the road ahead. The most emotional Duncan ever was in his career was after winning a championship, or losing in the Finals.

It sets the tone for an organization when the best player in the history of the franchise rarely shows any emotion, or credits the coaching staff and team for everything they do collectively.

While he didn’t show it on his face, his heart and intensity is unquestioned by those who understand basketball. That steady focus for 19 seasons was the competitiveness Duncan had inside him. It was business as usual.

I’ve watched many players come into this league and do things at an astonishing level. I haven’t seen as many as your dad, or your grandpa, or even the basketball coach from the high school that I went to. That being said, I can say confidently that in my lifetime there hasn’t been a player that has accomplished more than Tim Duncan. Sure, LeBron might be a more talented player, and Shaq might have been more dominant at his peak, and Curry has taken over basketball the last two seasons, but with each superstar that has come and gone throughout the last 19 seasons, Duncan has steadily remained the same. Always there, rarely mentioned, but always appreciated when it mattered.

It’s time to appreciate Tim Duncan.

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