Tim Duncan over his 19 year career has brought excitement and joy to the San Antonio Spurs and the community. If you have to pick one word that perfectly describes San Antonio for the last 20 years, what would it be?
Perhaps consistency — they’ve never missed the playoffs and they never won less than 50 games in a season.
Consistency sounds appropriate.
What about success — 5 NBA championships, 6 Conference titles, 12 Division Titles. Ok, it sounds right.
Maybe model — their former staff members became head coaches of other NBA teams, implementing the “Spurs way” throughout the entire league.
That’s a strong case for model franchise. The truth is all these words could perfectly describe Spurs.
But there is one that is most important and fundamental, the one that reaches far beyond basketball and sports.
From the moment Tim Duncan entered the NBA arena, everything that he and Gregg Popovich were doing resembled the father-son relationship. When the Spurs selected Duncan first overall in the 1997 NBA Draft, Pop visited Duncan and his family in their home on Virgin Islands.
They spent some time together, just hanging out, getting to know each other. One thing that Pop never forgot from that visit was a message Timmy’s father gave to him: “I’m gonna hold you responsible to make sure that when he’s done, he’s the same person he is now.”
Pop understood from that moment that Timmy’s father expected from him to be not just a basketball coach to his son, but also a father figure in his absence.
That was a beginning of the most productive and successful player-coach relationship in basketball history. Over those 20 years they made a bond so strong and unique in basketball world, that even now, when Timmy is officially retired as basketball player, Pop is finning him “$2500 for each day that Tim doesn’t show up in practice.”
The results of this relationship are well known to any basketball fan. So instead of the results, let’s talk about the player who made them possible and how he made them possible.
Six games into 1996-97 season David Robinson broke his foot. Without him, the Spurs went 20-62, having third worst record in NBA that season. They ended up winning the Draft Lottery and selected Tim Duncan as their first pick.
For basketball romantics, it was a destiny.
From his rookie year Duncan established himself amongst NBA elite and remained there throughout his entire career. MVP awards, All-Star and All-NBA team selections speak for themselves, but what mattered most to Timmy and the Spurs was team success — and successful they were.
But what made it possible for one player to be in the center of all Spurs accomplishments for the past two decades?
“When I call your number on offense, it’s not for you to score, it’s for the Spurs to score.”
That was Pop’s philosophy. And that was Timmy’s philosophy. Get over yourself and be part of a team. There were times when Duncan was the best Spurs player (and the best NBA player), and there were times when it was Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, and now Kawhi Leonard.
Whatever the case was, Timmy didn’t care as long as it’s the best way for the Spurs to win. But whether or not he was the guy through whom the offense was running, Timmy was the leader of the Spurs in every season he spent with them – on and off the court.
He was Pop’s extension on the court. As a master of the game of basketball, he always knew where he should position himself and his teammates on the court at any moment. He was a vocal leader, always coordinating his team, placing himself and his teammates the right way on the both ends of the floor. His great understanding of the game enabled him to extend his career and to be productive even when his mobility and athleticism started to fade.
But he was also teaching his teammates to get over themselves, to play for each other, to fight for each other, to win together and to lose together – to be a family.
Over 130 basketball players were wearing the Spurs uniform during Timmy’s time with the team. Not a single one of them will tell you anything bad about him. On the contrary, they call him “The ultimate teammate.”
He was always there for them, helping them adjust to a new team and system, encouraging them when they make mistake and Pop get after them with veins popping from his forehead, celebrating victories with them and comforting them in loses. Timmy was the beginning of everything for the Spurs. When he got older, he wasn’t the end of everything, but he was always the beginning.
He allowed Pop to coach him from day one, to correct him when he makes a mistake, to scream at him in front of the entire team during timeouts, to change his role when other great players emerged. When you are a Spurs player and you see your leader allowing to be coached and criticized, the only thing left for you is to follow the example.
This made Pop’s job much easier, giving each player specific and clear role to fulfill, because if Timmy accepts his role then every player will, or he’ll not be a Spur. In San Antonio there are two ways of getting things done — the Spurs way or the highway.
Straight, simple, and honest.
Michael Jordan is the best basketball player in history. But in terms of basketball legacy, Tim Duncan is in a class of his own. There is no other player that carried a franchise for so long and with so much constant success like he did. And even more important is that when he retired last season, he left his franchise healthy, strong and still competitive. Look at the Chicago Bulls after Michael, or Lakers after Kobe, or Miami and Cleveland after LeBron, or any other franchise after their star left them. And look at the Spurs after Tim Duncan.
On the opening night of 2016-17 NBA season, new Duncan-less San Antonio Spurs destroyed Warriors’ super team. The Spurs showed to everyone that they’re still title contenders, still right there among the NBA best, again ready to compete.
They have a new leader, they added more depth on the roster, got younger and more athletic. There are players on this team that have been in the system for long enough to maintain it and help new guys accommodate with it. Of course, there will be losses and struggle in the beginning, but the Spurs know better than anyone to use regular season to figure all thing out and get ready for the Playoffs.
The Spurs have changed in order to remain the same, and there is no doubt that they will be contenders for at least 5 more years. This long period of continuous excellence is a standard that will hardly ever be matched by anyone, not just in basketball world.
When (or IF) someday this Spurs’ run ends and people start to analyze it and search for causes of this success, all the clues will lead to one guy – the one who transformed the meaning of a word “team player”, who treated his team like his family, taking care of it when he was its leader, but also making sure that the family lives on strong and successful when he’s gone.
His legendary No. 21 jersey will be retired and hung atop of AT&T Center on December 18.
He’s the Ultimate Teammate, a leader amongst equals, the best power forward ever and player with the greatest basketball legacy.
He is Timothy TEAM Duncan.