The first time I ever watched Tim Duncan play basketball, I had no idea who he was. I’d tuned in to an ACC telecast expecting to be paying attention to Randolph Childress and Scooter Banks for Wake Forest, but possession after possession this tall freshman kept materializing right in the middle of things, exactly where he was needed. Within minutes, I called my father over to the TV, so he could see what I was seeing: This skinny kid, No. 21—he just knows where the basket is.
It was the winter of 1993-94, a ridiculous season for big freshmen in the ACC. At North Carolina, there was Rasheed Wallace, wild and rangy, who seemed to be in a hot personal spotlight every time he got his hands on the ball. We were Maryland fans, and Maryland had Joe Smith, a teenager who’d somehow arrived with the fully formed post game of a pro player 10 years older and five inches taller than he was.
But Tim Duncan was something else. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in sports, in my life. I sat in the press box watching Priest Holmes grind out short gains in an overcoached Ravens offense, and I believed he was a definitively mediocre and boring running back. I once thought Felix Pie was on the verge of a breakthrough.
Duncan, though, I was sure about. Or rather Duncan himself was sure, and we were just watching the obvious. For the rest of my father’s life, as Duncan piled up trophies and milestones, it was our little running gag: That skinny guy, No. 21? He’s pretty good.
It mystified me, and still does, that not everyone felt that same delight. There was nothing technical or connoisseurish about my response to Duncan’s game; it was a plain instinctive reaction. He made a hectic, complicated sport look smooth and fun. Five people were trying to stop him, and he would go where he wanted. Four people were trying to help him, and he would turn them loose in space and time.
Duncan read the floor and solved it. Sometimes the solution was a neatly angled bank shot. Sometimes it was a pass that lit the fuse on the string of firecrackers that was Manu Ginobili driving to the basket. And sometimes it was a great, long-limbed swoop to the hole. There was a joke in it, when Duncan dunked. It was the same joke as Indiana Jones staring at the frenzied swordsman, then remembering he has his revolver and plugging him. There was the little basketball in his big hand, and there was the high hoop that so many people leaped and strained to reach, and there was Duncan just reaching up and banging it through.
It was impossible to care about the people who professed not to care about Duncan’s game. But the people who praised it could be even worse. The backhanded nickname Shaquille O’Neal gave him, the Big Fundamental, stuck, with its message of underlying ordinariness. Tim Duncan was supposed to be proof that if someone just practiced hard enough, with meticulous attention to the rules about the right way to play the game, they could succeed.
The truth was, Duncan was a kinesthetic genius. If he worked hard and focused on details, it was because that’s how geniuses make the most of their genius. Reducing it to diligence missed the whole point. There was no back story that would account for Duncan.
You could tell the opposite tale if you wanted, not about his deep devotion to basketball but about his late and accidental adoption of the sport, after Hurricane Hugo destroyed the main swimming pool on Saint Croix and with it the teenage Duncan’s goal of being an Olympic swimmer. But that too mistakes illumination for explanation, like the fact of Jim Brown being in the lacrosse Hall of Fame, or the fact that Wilt Chamberlain was a college track and field star.
Duncan’s gifts were larger than the game. That’s the only lesson that matters, and it’s why he dominated the NBA from end to end, for 19 years. Eight other franchises won titles in that span, and five of those franchises got beaten at some point in the playoffs by the Spurs, coming or going—or both, in the case of the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers’ three straight titles, bracketed by a pair of Spurs championships. Duncan’s Spurs won playing uptempo and they won playing downtempo; they won with Duncan as lead scorer and as facilitator.
There was nothing he couldn’t do. Sometimes he did it all: In 2003, he won the Finals MVP by leading both teams in points, rebounds, and blocks—32 blocks, in a six-game series*. He had 32 assists in the series, too, which left him second overall in the aggregate behind Jason Kidd, an all-time great point guard who was singlehandedly carrying the other team.
This kind of greatness can’t be reduced to a morality play about max effort and selflessness. The most pleasing Duncan story circulating yesterday had to be the one from Etan Thomas, about how Duncan once blocked his hook shot and immediately began coaching him, in mid-game, on how to adjust his move to avoid getting blocked next time. What kind of player gives tips to an opponent in the heat of competition? A nice one, sure, and maybe a goofy one, if you wish. But mostly a player who is so far beyond everyone else that he doesn’t need to pretend otherwise.
There, too, was the real message of Duncan’s quiet retirement. Letting the Spurs do the work of announcing that he was walking away was not humble, but a sly act of supreme swagger. Let Kobe have the branded retirement logo and the final 61-point chuckfest and the scripted farewell message. Kobe was always needy, scuffling to impress the fans to the end. Duncan didn’t stoop to ask for your approval. He knew what he’d done. If you didn’t appreciate it by now, too bad for you.