The Spurs retired Tim Duncan’s No. 21 last night in a muted, charming ceremony, proving that you can still celebrate a guy’s legacy even if that guy’s central myth is his complete absence of flash, ego, or pomp. That image of Duncan can sometimes feel reductive or parodic, but last night it was just nice to see it burnished by a whole a slew of anecdotes from coaches and teammates past. Fans of fundamental basketball were treated to a highlight reel of Duncan operating in the low post, demonstrating immaculate footwork, setting screens, pulling Fabricio Oberto up off the floor, adjusting his jersey in the locker room, embracing teammates, embracing trophies, and embracing basketballs. It was a fine sendoff for Timmy, who came across as nothing short of a perfectly moral being and basketball automaton.
“I can honestly say to Mr. and Mrs. Duncan, who have passed, that that man right there is exactly the same person now as he was when he walked in the door,” says Pop at the teary end of his address, underlining the thesis of the whole ceremony: Duncan’s selflessness, work ethic, and empathy.
“My first two years in the league he won MVP two years in a row, and every night I look and am like, ‘Wow, 40 and 26, I didn’t even see it.’ That’s crazy to do that. It’s so hard,” said Tony Parker, joking about the quietness of Duncan’s dominance. Manu Ginobili spoke about once having a terrible game, wallowing in his hotel room, getting harangued by Duncan’s constant phone calls to his room (even unplugging his phone), until he finally relented, and let Duncan take him out to a pick-me-up dinner and hours of conversation about computers and cars.
Popovich added plenty color and humor to the stoic picture of Duncan, especially as he explained how he bought Duncan a special dessert whenever they were on the road during their 20-year partnership. The coach said he would purchase a carrot cake, come by Duncan’s hotel room in the late afternoon, often while the star was napping, set the cake down at the door, knock, and then walk away.
You can watch the full ceremony below. Pop, who takes the mic around 24:30, is especially worth watching: