[h2]San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, a National Hoops Treasure, is Winding Down His Career. Let’s Take a Minute to Appreciate His Fleeting Brilliance.[/h2]
As the wacky, lockout-shortened regular season halts to its merciful end, we can now resume some sense of normalcy with the tip-off of the NBA playoffs. But while the SportsCenter crew is appealing to the attention-span-challenged among us with their corny, worn-out one liners describing Blake Griffin’s latest slam dunk of the moment, pardon me for not being impressed.
Don’t get me wrong, the aerial pyrotechnics of Griffin, along with the superfluous skills sets of LeBron, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, Kobe, Melo, Chris Paul and others in that elite category will always be admired and appreciated.
It’s just that this year, at this particular time, I’ll be concentrating on the fleeting brilliance of the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan with more of an emotional investment than normal. Because I know that the end is near.
One day soon, this human national treasure of basketball brilliance will walk off into the sunset, taking the last vestiges of supreme post play with him.
Over the last few days, I’ve been marinating on Duncan’s incredible journey and transformation from Virgin Islands Aqua Man to the greatest power forward in history.
And with the commencement of this season’s playoffs, I will make sure to not miss a single moment of San Antonio’s post-season run, cherishing the understated beauty of a true basketball team, an absurdly effective and successful coach, and the player who continues to (paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling here) walk with kings and not lose the common touch.
But in order to fully appreciate the essence of Timothy Theodore Duncan, we must go back to the beginning.
If it weren’t for a destructive tropical storm in 1989, the intense ray of sun that has warmed and nourished the hoops landscape for close to twenty years might have remained hidden under a cloak of obscurity.
When Hurricane Hugo completed its wrath on the U.S. Virgin Islands in ‘89, one of the fortunate consequences of its terror was flinging Tim Duncan into the welcoming arms of basketball.
Prior to that, he was a wunderkind of another kind, a 13-year-old competitive swimmer dripping with Olympic potential in the 50-meter, 100-meter and 400-meter freestyle events. His sister Tricia was a world class athlete in her own right, who swam the 100-and 200-meter backstroke at the 1988 Olympic Games.
“Timmy was even better than me,” Tricia told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Crothers in 1994. “There is no doubt in my mind that he would have gone to the 1992 Olympics and held his own against the world.”
His mother, Ione, was his biggest fan, often sitting poolside, holding a stopwatch and offering encouragement. A nurse/midwife who provided prenatal and postpartum care to expectant mothers, Ione re-arranged her work schedule so she could support her children’s activities, often working the 11p.m.-7a.m. shift.
She’d instilled in her offspring the mantra that would come to define Timmy’s internal drive.
“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better, and your better is best,” were the Duncan family words to live by. And she extracted a promise from all of her children, that they would all finish their college degree requirements.
On the day before Tim’s fourteenth birthday, his mom transitioned into the spiritual essence after succumbing to a brief battle with breast cancer. When Hurricane Hugo ravaged St. Croix, destroying the lone Olympic-sized pool that Duncan had trained at, he swam with his teammates in the ocean to keep sharp. But after his mom passed, he began to lose interest in swimming.
“The hurricane broke Tim’s routine by taking away our pool,” Tricia said in SI. “Then when Mom passed, he lost his motivation.”
He gravitated toward the backboard that was attached to a pole right outside of his front door. His older sister, Cheryl, had given it to him as a Christmas present. His pops, a mason by trade, had secured it so firmly in the ground that even Hugo’s vicious stealth could not remove it from its foundation.
Cheryl moved back home to the Virgin Islands, from Ohio, after her mom died. Her husband, Ricky Lowery, a former D-III basketball player at Capital University in Ohio, would often grab his young, gangly, brother-in-law and say, “Timmy, let’s shoot a few.”
Tim embarked on his hoops apprenticeship in games of one-on-one at his outdoor hoop. Lowery taught the 6-foot, 14-year-old Duncan the guard game and perimeter skills from the outset. Timmy was by no means a dominant force from the jump. But he became a fixture on the island’s outdoor courts, slowly picking up the pieces to the game’s mental puzzle.
“I remember thinking that after basketball season ended, I’d go back to swimming,” Duncan told SI’s Crothers. “But then basketball season never ended.”
An eight-inch growth spurt in high school transformed him into one of the tallest men on the island. He starred as a senior at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal High School, averaging 25 points per game, while incorporating his perimeter skills into the subtle, yet intricate manifestations of post play.
Because of where he played his high school ball and the lack of elite prep competition on the island, only Wake Forest, Providence, Hartford and Delaware State had shown an interest in offering him a scholarship.
Wake Forest coach Dave Odom went after Duncan harder than any other college coach. His prescience came from a scouting report that former Demon Deacon Chris King assembled when had toured St. Croix with an NBA rookie team.
King told Odom that Duncan, then a 16-year-old high school senior, held his own against former Georgetown great, and man amongst men in the combat zone of the paint, Alonzo Mourning.
“When Timmy came here, I heard stories from our coaches that he was a project,” teammate Randolph Childress told SI, recalling his first impression of Duncan. “So one day I walk into the gym and see this tall guy who grabs a rebound, puts the ball between his legs, dribbles coast to coast and slams. I went to see our coaches, and I told them, ‘Hey, there’s a tall kid in the gym doing some incredible things, and if he’s not Tim Duncan you better recruit him fast.’ ”
Wake had actually planned to redshirt Timmy, who was a 17-year-old freshman. They thought he’d need a year of seasoning in practice to get ready for the ACC. But when Makhtar Ndiaye, a big man from Senegal, was ruled ineligible, Odom had no choice but to throw Duncan to the lions.
Take a quick mental flashback to the mid-‘90s, a fantastic time for college hoops, when Georgetown’s Allen Iverson, UCONN’s Ray Allen, St. John’s Felipe Lopez, Syracuse’s Lawrence Moten aka “Poetry in Motion”, UMASS’s Marcus Camby, Villanova’s Kerry Kittles, Arkansas’ Corliss Williamson, Michigan’s Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard, Kansas’ Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn, Georgia Tech’s Stephon Marbury, Cal’s Jason Kidd and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, UCLA’s Ed O’Bannon, Arizona’s Mike Bibby and quite possibly the greatest college hoops team of all time, the ‘96 Kentucky Wildcats aka “The Untouchables” were in full effect.
And in the midst of all of that talent, the Demon Deacon coaches, players and fans soon found that Tim Duncan was not merely ready to compete. He was, they’d soon learn, the new king of the college basketball jungle.
Wake was supposed to have a down year after losing the wondrous talents of big man and lefty shooter supreme, Rodney Rogers. But Timmy and Childress surprisingly led Wake to a 20-win season.
In only took 51 games for Duncan to set the school record for blocked shots. As a sophomore, he led the Demon Deacons to the ACC Tournament championship. In the ensuing NCAA tourney, he dominated Bryant “Big Country” Reeves with 22 rebounds, 12 points and eight blocks in Wake’s narrow Sweet Sixteen loss to Oklahoma State.
By now, most opposing student sections took to calling Timmy “Spock”, due to his stoic facade. But every player who had to deal with him knew that, internally, he was a vicious assassin.
After his superb sophomore year, where he averaged 16.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, the ACC’s other elite second-year studs – Maryland’s Joe Smith and North Carolina’s Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace – made the jump to the pros. They were among the top four picks in the draft. And the consensus was that had he come out, Duncan would have been selected #1.
As a junior in ‘95-’96, he put up 19.1 points and 12.3 rebounds per, and repeated his reign as the ACC Defensive and overall Player of the Year, while spearheading a run to the Elite Eight.
During his final year, he posted 20.8 points, 14.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 61% from the field. He won the Defensive Player of the Year for an unprecedented third straight season. He added another first team All-American nod, a psychology degree, and the universal recognition as one of the college game’s greatest players. EVER!
He was also the first player in NCAA history to reach 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 blocked shots and 200 assists. Just let that one marinate for a second.
As an NBA rookie, he grabbed 22 boards in his first game against Dennis Rodman. After hitting Charles Barkley up with his arsenal of simple but effective low-post moves and array of pump fakes, spins, up-and-unders and mid-range bank shots, along with some tough rebounding and defense, Sir Charles was moved to say, “I have seen the future and he wears number 21.”
Throughout compiling his first-ballot Hall of Fame credentials, he has maintained the same mild-mannered, quiet elegance that he exhibited back at Wake Forest. It’s easy to appreciate the majesty of some of the game’s greatest players, guys like Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
But savoring the genius of Tim Duncan takes a little more of a concerted effort.
Some can’t find the patience to recognize his worth, often referring to him as a boring robot. I respectfully disagree.
When you factor in the bizzaro stats, the titles and how he’s elevated San Antonio into one of the sports world’s elite franchises with an organizational reputation that is the industry’s Gold Standard, I find it incomprehensible that the public allows his excellence to fade into the background, often as an afterthought, celebrating a Russell Westbrook dunk with too much gusto and Duncan’s complete brilliance with not nearly enough.
This season, with Duncan receiving a DNP (that means Did Not Play, for all of the non-basketball junkies) for being “Old”, and posting pedestrian scoring and rebounding numbers, some might suggest that, with the ascension of Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the thrill is gone, as BB King would say.
But I’m betting that Coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan have been complicit in pulling the okey-doke on everybody, getting the big man some much needed rest for a sustained playoff run and title push.
So when you see Timmy winding back the hands of time, making something remarkable look regular – like a 26 point, 17 rebound, 5 assist, 4 block masterpiece – and you find yourself being lulled into boredom, do me a favor and smack yourself in the face!
To draw a parallel, Timmy is similar to pugilistic great Bernard Hopkins, aka “B-Hop” aka “The Executioner”. He’s one of the certified greats in the history of his sport – a man who’s been so consistent in the elevated mastery of his profession that he’s often taken for granted and won’t fully be appreciated until all of his achievements are calculated in full.
Since the minute of Timmy’s pro arrival, the San Antonio Spurs have contended for championships. He never yelled or break-danced, donned a Superman cape, executed a Discount Double Check, subscribed to the Shawn Kemp and Calvin Murphy School of fathering 157 children by 27 different women, or even showed an unsportsmanlike inclination for that matter. He just went about his business of winning titles and MVP’s, putting together a scrumptious resume behind a stunning, vicious arsenal of skills that is remarkably nutritious in its simplicity.
He didn’t touch a ball with earnestness until he was a sophomore in high school, was nowhere to be found on the recruiting rankings and incubated in a remote outpost that was far from a basketball hotbed.
But nevertheless, he is who he is, has become one of the best to ever lace ‘em up, and I will watch him with a mixture of joy, for what he does, and sadness, for what I know will not be around much longer.
And if you’re 6-foot-8 or taller and the only thing you can do is dunk a basketball, please watch film of Tim Duncan and his basketball brothers from other mothers like Kevin McHale and Akeem Olajuwon. Because that is, although unattainable to most, what exists in an offensive repertoire that is pregnant with possibility.
And remember the words of Tim’s mom as you venture forth – “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better, and your better is best.”
Thanks for the memories Tim. Now give us some more.