Credit John G. Mabanglo/European Pressphoto Agency
Tim Duncan retired Monday morning, and his retirement announcement was so appropriately Tim Duncan-like it almost made one misty: not a ceremony, or a television interview, or a gooey letter in Derek Jeter’s star-cozy Players Tribune, but a 538-word press release, from the only NBA team he ever played for, the San Antonio Spurs. A press release! It was so modest and charmingly retro it may as well have arrived by fax, or better yet, snail mail.
Would anyone have wanted it any other way? Duncan’s exit was always going to happen like this. No one who loved Duncan ever thought he’d engineer a final-season vanity lap through the league, standing through awkward midcourt celebrations among opponents bearing unwanted gifts. No way. I believe Duncan would have rather spent a season curled in the baggage hold of the team bus than collecting personalized rocking chairs and electric guitars from teams he tried to bury.
He went quietly, humbly, much as he arrived, out of Wake Forest the first pick in the draft 19 seasons ago to the Spurs, who soon became a team transformed. San Antonio was a factory of consistency, winning the first of five NBA championships in 1999, a young Duncan pairing with a towering predecessor, David Robinson, and a coach, Gregg Popovich, who put himself on the bench after leaving the general manager’s office. Back then, Spurs basketball was unfairly maligned as bit of a snooze, disciplined and unflashy, a departure from a star-driven game. But nobody denied they were ruthlessly good.
Duncan’s collected numbers are just absurd. The Spurs won 71% of their games in Duncan’s near-two decades, a run of success that team retirement press release pointed out has been unmatched in basketball, baseball, hockey, or even by those Patriots. Duncan’s the only NBA player to ever be part of 1,000 or more wins with one team. He is one of only two players in league history to record 26,000 or more points, 15,000 rebounds, and 3,000 blocked shots. The other was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was pretty good himself. There are 15 All-NBA team selections, 15 All-Defensive team selections, two regular season MVPs, three Finals MVPs…
We could go on. But it would only mortify Duncan.
In an era in which the NBA expertly crafted its superstars into global celebrities, Duncan hid in plain sight. He was never a national advertiser’s dream (though those local H.E.B. supermarket spots were sublime), a blustery interview, or a style icon. If he harbored Hollywood ambitions, he never shared them. He dressed like a member of the junior high school turtle club.
He was deadset on being a brilliant basketball player, which he was pretty much the entire time he played. There are a zillion ways in which Duncan’s impact can be measured—the stats, the rings, the honors— but his true power was as a teammate. He played basketball the way your coaches always told you to play basketball: relentlessly, unselfishly, at both ends of the court. Along with teammates Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, he will be remembered as a member of a historic trio, as part of something that was bigger and even better than he was. The Spurs are a vanguard franchise that changed the way basketball teams—actually, sports teams in general—are made. Everyone knows Duncan was the foundation of the structure.
He is 40. Is he really 40? Duncan has always seemed ageless. Sure: there were a few flecks of gray here and there, and his old springiness had faded, but Duncan could still bring it from time to time, that little jump hook shot in the paint, swish, back up the court, head down, like he was ducking out of a party. Was there an athlete with more recognizable body language than Duncan—those slouchy shoulders, those incredulous eyeballs, those appeals to referees in which he looked like a guy who found an extra bottle of wine on the bill?
Toward the end, Duncan was used less, but he always mattered. He would have mattered if he played until he was 60. He was the center of that selfless Spurs universe. He fit in with whatever San Antonio wanted to do, with whomever they brought in, and he departs his franchise in very competitive condition.
It is a close-to-perfect career.
If you saw him play, it will be your job to remind the generations who did not. Basketball is a tantalizing game of individual creativity, and it is easy to get caught up in the momentary dazzle, and ignore the genius of consistency. Even if Duncan never was the flashiest or the noisiest or the most celebrated, in his play you saw true NBA greatness, for nineteen uninterrupted years. You saw history. You saw Tim Duncan.