I grew up as an only child with a single mother raising me. My mom and dad got divorced when I was young and I have lived my entire life with my mom. Given the hell I put her through growing up and how she still succeeded in parenting me, I am convinced that single moms are the most incredible people on the planet, somehow capable of playing the gentle motherly role while possessing the ability to act as a stern fatherly figure when the situation calls for it. The way she handled all that life threw at her with her head held high was inspiring; always putting on a strong face even in the toughest circumstances. I may call her “mom,” but she is much more than just that.
And then there was one day when that reliable rosy attitude was overtaken by the bumps and bruises of being a single mom. That one day when the struggles of everyday life were just too much, the burden too heavy, to not give in to a moment of weakness. That bad day at work, that day the bills came in. Whatever it was that got to my mom that day, it will forever be etched in my memory as the first day I saw her cry. Seeing that the strongest person I knew was capable of being brought to tears, that she was capable of being broken down, if only for a moment, was saddening.
This is the same feeling I got when I watched Tim Duncan’s press conference following Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Duncan is the rock of the San Antonio Spurs organization, the person that can be relied for a soothing directive in the worst possible times, the leader that always kept his composure. Duncan is the definition of a statuesque persona, someone who virtually never shows his expressions, always keeping his most exuberant and his most morbid thoughts and feelings hidden beneath the surface of his stoic face.
So when Duncan sat down at the podium and faced the media, folks like myself tasked with getting to the bottom of the big man’s feelings after such a heartbreaking loss, for the first time ever, I saw the Big Fundamental as a crestfallen and dispirited man.
As if the disheartening way that the Spurs had the title ripped from their hands wasn’t enough, seeing their leader, their protector, showing a crack added insult to injury for San Antonio fans. Just minutes after such a painful loss, there was Duncan on the verge of tears, showing that he wasn’t the robot he has been made out to be over the past decade, that he was just as human as us, that he was capable of feeling pain and emotion. Gone was that stoic statue, and it was replaced by a sensitive soul.
After Game 7, it was easy to feel sorry for Duncan, a true gentle giant, after seeing him miss a shot he could make in his sleep with the game on the line. It is that shot that will deprive Duncan of sleep from now until eternity – a hook shot over an undersized Shane Battier that caromed off the rim with less than a minute to go and the Spurs down two. Much worse is that Duncan’s post-game emotions likely included his realization that this series may have been his final shot at another title, and that he may never get the chance to redeem himself on that stage again, a stage he had previously been undefeated on.
Despite the four banners Duncan has already hung in the AT&T Center, he’ll never be able to shake the nightmare finish that he had to the 2013 Finals, when he failed to score in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 6 and missed several easy looks in Game 7. Pat Riley once said that there is winning, and there is misery, and the best of competitors dread defeat more than they adore winning, so Duncan may very well live in misery for years until he’s able to escape the memories of those final six quarters.
But once Duncan is able to look past the 2013 Finals, he should be able to take solace in the fact that he has accomplished more than just about anybody in league history. I view Duncan as one of the five best players of all-time, and the Bill Russell of this generation of basketball, both in terms of success and how they went about attaining it. For every season that Duncan has been in the league up until LeBron’s last couple of seasons, it was obvious that there was not a player in the league you’d rather play with or rather have as your captain than Duncan. Nobody was more reliable and nobody as good as Duncan was as committed to his team’s success over his individual accomplishments.
Duncan is incredibly unselfish and yet also more than capable of dominating a game with his own scoring. The fact that Duncan seemed to find the perfect balance between those two facets of his game every time his teammates evolved around him should not be overlooked. That Duncan has constantly shifted the way he plays to best complement those around him speaks to how marvelous a teammate he is, as does how seamless the transition was when Gregg Popovich recently decided that the offense would be better off with Tony Parker as the key cog and Duncan has the secondary option.
Duncan’s chivalrous style is right in line with the way that Russell is chronicled in NBA lore. Duncan is a more physically gifted offensive player than Russell, which is why Timmy has also been a dominant scorer during his career, but he never plays the role of a mercenary gunning for his own stats; Duncan always plays within the flow of the offense, picks apart defenses when they double him and pounds the rock when the situation calls for it.
Selflessness is not the only quality that Duncan shares with Russell, of course. Both are viewed as peerless defensive players that patrolled the paint better than any other bigs of their eras. Neither player exhibited the kind of highlight reel blocks that you’ll find on SportsCenter today; rather, Russell popularized the possession saving block by keeping his swatted balls in bounds while Duncan has racked up swaths of rejections without leaving his feet. Both players were also tremendous rebounders, experts in the monotonous art of terminating defensive possessions, and understood the craft of positioning and the importance of precise rotations.
Perhaps more important than anything Russell or Duncan did on the floor or any of the historic accomplishments that they compiled over their illustrious careers is the way that both players affected their teams off the court. You’d be hard pressed to find two other players in league history that were as universally viewed as Hall-of-Fame players and Hall-of-Fame people as Duncan and Russel, true leaders in every sense of the word.
At halftime of Game 6, I was certain that Duncan would be retiring after the next 24 minutes as a five-time NBA champion. Instead, the Spurs suffered some cruel twists of fate in the final seconds of that game and the Miami Heat took Game 7 to win their second title in a row.
Now I’m not sure what the future holds for Duncan, who will be 38 years old next season. Though Manu Ginobili looked like a shell of himself this post-season, I still think the Spurs are a top-four team in the West next season pending the free agency decisions they make. With the addition of a true back-up point guard and perhaps a Tiago Splitter replacement, the Spurs could probably go for another 50-win season. Then again, the West should be more competitive next year with the return of Westbrook and Kobe, a potential Howard-to-Houston scenario and the forming of the Los Angeles Celtics, so the Spurs would likely have a tougher path to the Finals than they had this year.
Whatever decision Duncan makes – whether he returns for one more year or retires on the heels of one of the greatest Finals ever – the league will be better for it. Either we’ll get to see a 38-year old Duncan defy the odds once again while he posts another 22+ PER and helps lead his Spurs to a 17th consecutive post-season, or we’ll see one of the best players of all-time begin his journey to the basketball pantheon as a Hall-of-Famer.
While Duncan will be tormented by that missed hook and that flubbed bunny for many years to come, likely running through those same emotions he showed during his press conference last Thursday as he tosses and turns at night, one thing’s for sure:
Tim Duncan will forever be the rock of the San Antonio Spurs.
And one crack – a crack, by the way, caused by one of the few players that could ever call Duncan a peer – is not going to change the fact that Duncan is a legend, a player with more championships than 26 NBA teams, a player as benevolent as he is dominant, as passionate as he is phlegmatic, as ruthless as he is caring.
A player, who is much more than just that.