Friday, July 15, 2016
My heroes are family members, some friends, and an occasional religious, political, or academic figure. I enjoy sports but I don't engage in hero worship of athletes. There is, however, one exception: Timothy Theodore Duncan. Through an announcement put out by his team, the San Antonio Spurs, Timmy retired on Monday after 19 seasons in the NBA.
His individual accomplishments are legion and have secured for him wide acknowledgment as the best power forward to ever play basketball. Selected first in the 1997 draft, Timmy earned the Rookie of the Year award in 1998. Timmy was named All-NBA a record-tying 15 times, was the league MVP twice (2002, 2003), and was the Finals MVP three times (1999, 2003, 2005). Unlike many modern players, Timmy was at least as focused on defense as offense; he was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team a record 15 times. Timmy is one of only two players in NBA history (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to record at least 26,000 points, 15,000 rebounds, and 3,000 blocked shots.
One of the things that made Timmy so special was that his individual accomplishments were nowhere near as important to him as team wins. He made that clear in every way possible, including taking salary reductions to recruit other players and accepting a reduced role to allow those players to flourish. It paid off in spades. Timmy's Spurs won 5 national titles (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014). Timmy is one of only three players in NBA history to win over 1,000 games, and the only one to do so with a single team. His consistency and longevity while winning is astonishing. He is the only NBA player to start on teams that won titles in three different decades. Timmy's Spurs posted at least a .600 winning percentage in each of his 19 seasons. During his tenure, the Spurs had a .710 winning percentage, which is the best 19-year stretch in NBA history and was the best in all of the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB over the last 19 seasons.
What truly sets him apart, though, is how he carried himself during this dominance. To begin, there are the things Timmy did not do. There were no Tim Duncan scandals. He was not arrested. He never embarrassed himself or his team. Instead, he dedicated himself to his craft. Much of modern sports elevates style over substance. Flashy plays garner a player a spot on ESPN's "Top 10 Plays of the Day". In this world, Timmy focused on the fundamentals and defense. His trademark shot was not a vicious dunk, but a bank shot. Shaquille O'Neal, fond of nicknames, dubbed Timmy the "Big Fundamental". His discipline was legendary. During hot San Antonio summers, he worked out relentlessly to be ready for the next season. As he aged, he lost dozens of pounds to keep the strain off his knees and extend his career.
In an era when almost everyone screams for attention, Timmy was old fashioned. He didn't need attention. He wanted to do a good job and win games. He preferred that attention went to others. In 2003, the Spurs beat the Nets in 6 games to win the NBA Finals. Timmy was a monster in the final game, nearly earning a quadruple double. He had 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 blocked shots. His teammate, David Robinson, had just played his last game and the two of them were being interviewed by a reporter. Timmy made a brief, polite comment, got up, slapped Robinson on the shoulders and walked off. The message was clear: talk to David Robinson, not me.
This, perhaps, is the most unusual of Timmy's traits. Contrary to his bland public image, he has a rich personal life. He is a terrific practical joker. He dotes on his children. He practices martial arts. He loves comic books and video games. He owns his own car shop. He doesn't talk about these things, or speaks of them only rarely, for two reasons. First, Timmy is a humble man. He doesn't understand why people would care about his personal life. Second, he has an admirable sense of the private sphere. Even if people want to know more about him, he understands that some parts of yourself should be reserved for loved ones.
Timmy cared about his teammates. He was the last player to leave the floor, waiting until everyone else headed for the locker room. He wanted to make sure everyone was okay. He cared about people, generally. He once spent $12,000 to save the life of a stranger's dog. The essence of the man is best summed up by those who played with and against him:
Steve Kerr (former teammate and current coach of the Golden State Warriors): "One of the best teammates I ever had. Incredibly confident with his game but humble with his approach, always taking the criticism for the rest of us. He'd come into the locker room after a loss and he'd say, 'My fault,'and you'd look at the stats and he's got 38 points and 24 rebounds. Pretty sure it wasn't your fault, Tim."
Tony Massenburg (former reserve teammate; played on 12 NBA teams): "This is the first team I've been on where everybody is treated the same. Usually a coach will yell at the man next to The Man to make his point. Pop (the coach) gets in Tim's face and Tim takes it. That lets everyone know that when Pop chews you out, it's strictly about what you need to do to get better. He can do that because of Tim--the most laid-back superstar I've ever known."
Shaquille O'Neal (former rival): "The Spurs won because of Tim Duncan, a guy I could never break. I could talk trash to Patrick Ewing, get in David Robinson's face, get a rise out of Alonzo Mourning, but when I went at Tim he'd look at me like he was bored."
Draymond Green (former rival): “I do have a Tim Duncan story. My rookie year I kind of talked junk to everybody. In the middle of the game I started talking to Tim, and I had already got into it with somebody on their team. I don’t remember who it was. But I started talking to Tim and he kind of just stared at me. I just kept talking junk to him and he kept staring at me. At that point I realized during the rest of my career that I might as well not talk to him. Either, one, he is not going to talk back because he has no respect for me. Or, two, he is not going to talk back because that is who he is. Or, three, both. I figured then that was the last time I would talk junk to Tim. And that was the last time.”
Few athletes, few people, are worthy of the phrase "role model". Timmy is. The world would be a better place if people went about their jobs the way Timmy went about his. He will be missed.