He’s got the ball in his hands at about 15 feet from the basket. There’s nobody around – a huge empty arena that can seat over fifteen thousand – and he’s got only the rim and the rafters for company. It’s OK, his demeanor says, this is how I like it. He rises up gently, his 7 foot frame not needing much elevation, and the ball almost slips out of his fingers. The ball banks off the blackboard and falls neatly through the rim, but it doesn’t matter. He’s already started posting up against an imaginary player, faking and swiveling, hitting layups or fifteen footers, his eyes wide and face expressionless. Fill in the stadium with thousands of eager fans. Increase the lights, the music, the tempo. There’s smoke in the air and an arena is swaying to the rhythm of a Spurs basketball game. There’s nothing ordinary about a live NBA game – it’s not just another practice. Except he’s still at it, eyes wide and face expressionless, hitting layups or fifteen footers. They call him Timmy.
Some athletes have just the right personalities for the age they excel in. Shaq, for example, was the kind of NBA superstar people wanted to see in the last decade. He was electrifying, mystifying, satisfying. And then there’s Tim Duncan, ‘Spur-for-life’. After winning his first NBA championship, SI asked Duncan to describe himself. “I’m just a boring guy”, Timmy said, and walked away into the Texan sunset with all the bling. Above all, perhaps the one thing the separates him from every other superstar of his age is his loyalty and reliability. People easily forget that, way back in 1999, Duncan resolved to be a Spur for life. In 2012, four championships and two MVP awards later, guess what? He’s still a Spur. No egotistical team-wrecking or public team requests a la Shaq and Kobe. He does not call himself the ‘King’ nor is he ‘flash’. He’s the Big Fundamental and his teams have never won less than 60% of their games, not once in fifteen seasons of NBA basketball.
He’s averaged 20 ppg, 11 rpg and 2.2 bpg in 35 minutes per game over his career, 21 ppg, 12 rpg, 2.5 bpg in 39 mpg during his rookie season and 15 ppg, 9 rpg and 1.5 bpg in 28 mpg last season, his fifteenth in the NBA. And that’s exactly why when he signed a 3 year contract with the Spurs this offseason, presumably his last, it appeared on a ticker somewhere before graciously making way for the next Dwight Howard trade update. Because Tim Duncan has been so good at what he does, for so long, that we need to pinch ourselves to remind us that he’s still there. It’s not breaking news. It’s not a good story. He’s just a boring guy who averages 20/10 like clockwork and is one of greatest players ever. And that greatness might just have never happened if not for a freak accident of nature and an emotional tragedy.
Timothy Theodore Duncan, native to the island of St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, was a competitive swimmer while young, with realistic ambitions of making the Olympic swimming team. When a hurricane hit and destroyed the only swimming pool on the island, Timmy was forced to swim in the sea, where sharks were plentiful. His fear of sharks made him increasingly reluctant to swim; when his mother passed away, he stopped swimming altogether. His brother-in-law, who played basketball at college, inspired Timmy to try basketball (he wears jersey number 21 for the Spurs, the same as his brother-in-law’s college jersey). At the age of fifteen, at least seven to eight years later than most NBA players, a tall, lanky and awkward Tim Duncan started playing the game of basketball.
Signs of the consistency and reliability that were to become his touchstones in the NBA could be seen in his NCAA exploits for Wake Forest University. He became the first player in NCAA history to record 1500 points, 1000 rebounds, 400 blocks and 200 assists. Apart from statistics, Duncan stayed on to graduate from Wake Forest despite being projected to go #1 in the NBA draft for three consecutive seasons if he chose to apply. He was just Mr. Fundamental, slow and easy, comfortable in a place in his head where the hype and hoopla did nothing to him. Duncan’s degree in psychology has been suggested as the reason for his placidity on court; emotion becomes a psychological weakness (LeBron circa 2012 playoffs was clearly listening). Duncan’s facial reactions are not plural, it is a single reaction. A single, pained look usually reserved for the refs after a call.
The thing about Timmy is that he’s not even especially gifted in terms of athleticism or physique. Sure, he’s tall, but so is Darko Milicic. Of the five best players of the previous decade, Kobe, Bron, Shaq, KG and Timmy, he’s easily the least physically endowed. Garnett was pretty close, but Duncan never played for a lottery-bound team, KG played for several.
Tim Duncan’s greatness is not in his brilliance. He is more of a perfectly smooth pebble; he doesn’t dazzle you, he astonishes you quietly. Chances are he’s not on any Top 10 Highlights or Youtube mixes. He’s not spectacular, defiantly so, in an age where nobody is anybody otherwise. Tim Duncan is the guy right in front of you that you don’t see, the everyday guy – cashier, clerk, delivery boy – who makes it all so convenient, all so easy. He just shows up and goes to work, knocking down his trademark bank shot again and again. Why does he love that shot so much, the shot that keeps falling in? “It is just easy for me”, he says, “it just feels good”.