ON PASSING THE TORCH TO NO ONE (Occasional Sports Moments #24)

I’ll pay tribute to the swashbuckling spirit, which is also vanishing, some other day. For today, another ode to a stoic.

Or:

“When Tim Duncan retired from the NBA”

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I’ve been following the NBA since 1970. That means I missed Elgin Baylor and Bill Russell and saw Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson only in the twilight of their respective careers.

I caught most or all of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the still-going Lebron James.

If you asked me which player I would start a team with if my life depended on them winning a championship in the next five or ten or fifteen years, I’d pick Tim Duncan, who just announced his retirement after nineteen years, all spent with the San Antonio Spurs.

During that nineteen years, Duncan’s teams had the highest winning percentage of any franchise in the four major sports. This was despite being in one of the smallest pro sports’ markets (bottom ten percent); despite playing in a league which is built to reward large market teams like no other (outside San Antonio’s five championships, small markets have won a combined total of three titles in the last sixty years); and despite never playing with an in-prime teammate who was an elite all-timer. (Duncan did play the first few years of his career with an aging, past his prime, David Robinson).

I detailed some of Duncan’s unique greatness here (he did not win the championship that year but went on to win another the following year–it’s one measure of his greatness that he was 2-1 against LeBron in finals, and it was only an epic meltdown from Duncan’s Hall of Fame coach that kept it from being 3-0).

I put up most of what Duncan did in the linked post–the most impressive stats being leading those five small market teams to championships and leading four title winners in both scoring and rebounding, an achievement he shares with Jabbar.

But, impressive as they sometimes were, he was never about stats. All he ever cared about was winning–low post, pick-and-roll, run and gun, big stats, not-so-big stats, my best teammate is a center with creaking knees, a crazy swing-man who gives you twenty-five points with eight assists one night and five points with eight turnovers the next, a flashy point guard who can’t shoot or play defense.

Just win. Any which means. Any which way.

Let me enumerate just a few of those ways and means:

For nineteen years, defeat was his fault. Victory belonged to the team.

There was no fanfare. In the league that defines bling, he showed up to receive an MVP trophy wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.

When Kobe Bryant retired from the Lakers this year, he did it with a pre-season announcement accompanied by a rock star-style farewell tour, complete with gifts from all the teams he was visiting for the last time.

When Duncan retired today, in the middle of the off-season, he sent a text.

When Michael Jordan got tired of carrying the weight, he went to a bad team and settled for being an exhibition. Tim Duncan, playing longer, never got tired of carrying the weight. The Spurs won at least fifty games every year of his career except a strike-shortened season in which they won the championship.

Unlike Jordan and Bryant (and Magic and Bird and LeBron) he never ran off a coach, even though his coach made blunders that probably cost him two championships. Not only did he not run off his coach, he never said a bad word about him. He never said a bad word about that crazy swing-man Manu Ginobli either, even though Ginobli’s mental blunder in one playoff probably cost him yet another championship. None of the other players i mentioned, ruling in dynastic NBA cities like Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago would have let any of that go.

Like I said. Defeats were his, no matter who caused them.

The result?

He got called boring. He didn’t care. He got jibed for failing to market himself. (As Garry Trudeau once said: “America is the only country where failure to promote yourself is seen as a sign of arrogance.”) He didn’t care.

Excepting Robinson, his Hall of Fame teammates will be there because they played with Tim Duncan. His Hall of Fame coach will be there because he coached Tim Duncan. That’s one of those “subjective” achievements that really isn’t subjective at all.

I can’t speak to hockey, but, in the three team sports I watch, only Duncan and Russell consistently raised the level of their teammates’ play to such an extent.

If mental toughness is the hardest to achieve (and it is), and mad consistency is the truest measure of that toughness (and it is), then, along with Russell and Chris Evert, Tim Duncan was, from first day to last, the toughest athlete to play a major American sport.

Like them, he will never quite get the credit for it. This is not coincidence, because, like them, he was a supreme stoic. Maybe the two qualities–stoicism and mad consistency born of attention to detail–stem from a basic personality type. I don’t know. But I suspect Timmy is the last of his type we’ll see rise to such heights. There’s too much pressure to conform to the preferred self-promotional style in this better world we made for his like, once common in type if not degree, to come round again.

He played beautiful basketball, much of it beyond the comprehension of the experts who spent two decades failing to make that beauty evident to the average fan.

He didn’t care about that either. Great as the basketball was–fun as the basketball was–I’ll miss that more.

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