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. Always. 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 layup that he has unquestionably made hundreds of times in his NBA career, and thousands upon thousands of times while The Big Fundamental perfected his fundamentals. The only thing is that this one would have tied a Game 7 with less than a minute to play.

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. For Tim Duncan to have a chance to tie Game 7 of the NBA Finals from only 2 feet away from the basket, something had to have happened. 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, really?)? 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 clinched a 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 must’ve had inside himself for missing that shot on what many thought was money while watching the shot happen before Duncan even began his move.

We take these plays for granted because of athlete’s super superior abilities. We’ve seen athletes make these plays time and time again, yet every athlete at some point make these mistakes because they’re 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 our 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 scientists 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 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 unprecendted by any basketball player I’ve ever seen.

As the number one overall pick, he went years — yearrrrrsssssssss — beyond what anybody expected. He climbed through the highest of ceilings that draft “professionals” were projecting him to plateau at. He was the San Antonio backbone from the moment he entered the league, to the moment he left this postseason. 19 years in the NBA with 4 collegiate seasons before that, Tim Duncan surpassed all expectations on his way to becoming one of the all-time 5-7 staples of basketball.

Image Credit: NCAA.com

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 an 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. 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.

That was supposed to be this season for Tim Duncan. Sure, he averaged a mediocre 5.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game during the playoffs, and while standing on the outside it appears Duncan had one of those seasons. However, that wasn’t the case because Tim Duncan remained the center of everything the San Antonio Spurs did on both sides of the basketball. He wasn’t just the key for a team that won 67 games, he was the key ring via leadership, maturity, intelligence, and his aura of greatness.

He didn’t average the most points, rebounds, assists, steals, or even blocks for the Spurs this season. However, he was the co-defensive anchor on a team that had the back-t0-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. 15-years older.

Offensively, Duncan had his moments in his last few seasons. He wasn’t running around and pushing the break the way he used to in his young days, but he showed the flashes of who The Big Fundamental used to be. He had games where he showed why he’s ultimately respected above names like Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — in regards to having more stuff on the block.

Even with career lows in minutes and touches dipping each season since the *Brett Favre stage* The offense was still ran through Duncan. Each punch thrown at the Spurs was usually thrown back during crunch time by Duncan — until Serge Ibaka ripped the soul clean out of Timmy in his final moments as a professional basketball player.

My earliest memories of Tim Duncan are the duels he would have against Kevin Garnett. 

While living in Minnesota, I obviously loved 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 than anybody. That characteristic is what made a connection to the Minnesota fans that I’d fully understand once he was traded to my Boston Celtics. 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 extra 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 uber talented Garnett latched onto minds and fed off of opponent’s 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. 

But on the court isn’t even where Duncan will leave the biggest mark. He is 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”.

Tim Duncan
Photo Credit: One Man Fast Break

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 and not taking a chemistry risk because of player X’s gigantic ego? 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.

It sets the tone for an organization when the best player in the history of the franchise rarely shows any emotion

Duncan never displayed the body language that Kevin Garnett, or even Draymond Green get wheelbarrow loads of attention for. Sure, that’s there thing, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it was never who Duncan was. The most emotion I remember Duncan showing was when he slapped the floor out of anger after he missed the shot that started this Duncan piece.

His heart is unquestioned by those who understand basketball, and those who can read into the competitiveness he displays from the love that pours out onto his teammates and coaches after the final game of each season, win or lose.

In fact, there might not have been a player in the history of the NBA who loved the game more than Duncan. Why else would you play until you’re 40 and only make $20 million dollars in just 3 of your 19 seasons? He spent thousands and thousands and thousands worth of hours perfecting his game in the gym, trademarking his game for the millions that learned how to play the game like Duncan. I’ve watched players — Shaq, Garnett, Kobe, Dirk, Pierce, Wade, Nash, LeBron, Durant, Curry — come into this league and do things at an astonishing level, but none have or will accomplish more than Tim Duncan.

Sure, LeBron might be a better player, and Shaq might have been more dominant at his peak, and Kobe and Dirk have won championships by themselves, and the rest are better than Duncan at certain parts of the game, but with each star that has came 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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