July 12, 2016
The best basketball player of his generation played his final game in the N.B.A. this year. But that player was not Kobe Bryant, of the Los Angeles Lakers, who spent the season on a carefully choreographed, aggressively marketed, and statistically abysmal farewell tour. Instead, it was Tim Duncan, of the San Antonio Spurs, who quietly announced his retirement on Monday, a few weeks after the end of his nineteenth year in the league.
Duncan’s final tallies: five championships, two M.V.P. awards, playoff appearances every year of his career, and top rankings in various advanced metrics that you can parse out if you want. Duncan didn’t tweet about his retirement or sit for an interview with his favorite reporter. He didn’t write a poem for the occasion. Word came via a simple statement, issued by the Spurs. A few years ago, Duncan summed up his sense of himself to ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz: “I’m just a basketball player. I play the game. I go home.” Duncan will reportedly speak at some point this week. But, in a fitting move, he wasn’t there to bask in the praise, on Tuesday afternoon, when Gregg Popovich, the only coach he ever played for as a professional, met with reporters to talk about Duncan’s career. He’d gone home.
Duncan had a story worth telling, even if he didn’t insist on telling it. He grew up on the island of St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He spent his early years as a competitive swimmer, until a hurricane destroyed the swimming pool where he trained. Rather than swim in the ocean—he was, sensibly, afraid of sharks—he quit. He only started playing basketball during his freshman year of high school. Three years later, he was good enough to attract offers from a few college programs, and he accepted a scholarship from Wake Forest, in North Carolina. By his senior year, he was unanimously considered the top college player in the country, and N.B.A. teams were racing to the bottom of the standings for the chance to take him with the first pick of the 1997 draft. News stories at the time were already stressing how normal and unassuming he was—a regular psychology major who just happened to be nearly seven feet tall. As the basketball writer Tom Haberstroh reminded people on Monday, Duncan co-authored a paper in college titled “Blowhards, Snobs, and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism.” The Spurs lucked out in the draft lottery and selected Duncan; two years later, with Duncan playing beside the Hall of Fame center David Robinson, they won the N.B.A. championship for the first time. When the Spurs won their fifth and most recent title, in 2014, Duncan became the second player in history to win a championship in three different decades.
Every great basketball player has a signature move. Kareem had the skyhook. Jordan had the tongue-wagging dunk. LeBron has the full-court fast-break bull rush. Duncan, less thrillingly, had the flat-footed bank shot—not exactly the kind of thing that kids are eager to try out on the playground. That shot, and Duncan’s game generally, seemed to emerge not from some physical joy of play but instead from a studied understanding of geometry and efficiency. It was hard to resist drawing connections between his play and his personality. Duncan didn’t give himself a nickname. (The closest he got to one, the Big Fundamental, came from Shaquille O’Neal. People close to him just called him Timmy.) He wore dumpy clothes. He appeared in lame commercials at the beginning of his career, and then mostly stopped doing them. The ones he did do played on the very notion of his own lameness. Like Joe Biden, Duncan had a personality that lent itself to parody in the Onion. In dozens of fake stories over the years, he was lovingly mocked as a paragon of caution, moderation, and good sense. On Monday, the headline read, “An NBA Legend Rides Into the Sunset at a Safe and Prudent Speed.”
During postgame press conferences, which more media-attuned players have turned into runway shows and personal-brand infomercials, Duncan never had much to say. He was so reticent and mild-mannered that his mere laughter on the bench was once construed by a hotheaded referee as being enough out of character to merit an ejection. About the worst thing you could say about him, in his nearly twenty years as a professional basketball player, is that he never once seemed to think that a foul called on him had, in fact, occurred. After every whistle, Duncan’s eyes would go wide as saucers, and he’d open his mouth in an expression of outraged disbelief. This foible was reassuring—a sign that he was, after all, a human being.
Sportswriters might, at times, have resented Duncan’s one-sentence answers and limited availability, but his detachment also afforded them the chance to do some real work. Over the years, many writers made the case for Duncan’s greatness with special zeal and often from a particular angle—praising his effort and consistency, while often underselling his immense physical talent. (Young Duncan was a marvel.) He and the Spurs were vigorously defended against charges of boringness. Pick and rolls, subtly great defense, head fakes, and bank shots, we were told, should be recognized by real connoisseurs as things of beauty. (It helped that the Spurs’ most recent championship team, in 2014, actually did play an especially beautiful version of the game.) The fact that Duncan played his whole career for a single team, in the comparatively sleepy city of San Antonio, has been taken as evidence of moral superiority. This argument—that Duncan and the Spurs did things “the right way”—has always been heavy-handed, as Duncan might himself have pointed out, if he had ever bothered to address it.
Still, it’s tidy and comforting that Duncan played for just one team, like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and even Kobe Bryant. For the fans in San Antonio, it must have been a gift to see their star player age before their eyes, always in black and silver—to allow for the fiction that favorite players are like family members. Duncan’s retirement has, because of its timing, been discussed in connection with Kevin Durant’s recent departure from Oklahoma City for the hipper pastures of the Bay Area. But prizing and praising a certain notion of loyalty among professional athletes risks ignoring the financial realities of sports, which no player can transcend: Duncan himself, in the early two-thousands, nearly bolted for the Orlando Magic. Instead, he stayed, which makes him a rarity, and perhaps among the last of a certain kind of athlete that sentimental writers and fans—nostalgic for the era of restricted employment—have chosen to valorize.
For much of his career, Duncan was defined in the popular imagination by what he wasn’t: not flashy, not self-important, not entitled, not greedy. He was the star you could count on. Was it a burden—or boring, at least—to constantly be called the good guy, even if you were, in fact, a good guy? Maybe it was easier to disengage with all the storytelling, to leave writers to their plotlines, and to just do the job of preparing for and playing the games. That’s what Duncan did for nearly twenty years, until his fortieth birthday, and it’s what he should be remembered for. It will be up to those of us who saw him play to explain it. There’s got to be some way to make all those bank shots sound exciting.