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Farewell, Timmy

A father and son say goodbye to the Spurs legend at an emotional retirement ceremony and think about what comes next

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This is not a thing about the nostalgic nuances of going to a Spurs game with my dad, or to any sports game with any parent. (You can read this if you want that.) And this is not a thing about what Tim Duncan has meant to San Antonio, and means to San Antonio. (You can read this if you want that.) This is a thing about the way those things got mushed together during the jersey-retirement ceremony for Tim Duncan following Sunday night’s Spurs-Pelicans game, because that’s exactly what happened.

Somewhere during the second quarter, a person sitting two seats down from me pointed out where Tim Duncan was sitting in the arena. I spent most of the remaining minutes of the game just watching him. I’d anticipated it was going to be strange to see him on the civilian side of things, but it was weird to see him where he was (about 20 rows behind the Spurs bench, rather than on it) wearing what he was wearing (regular clothes, rather than a Spurs uniform) for only a few minutes. After those minutes, it became normal, and then very quickly it became mesmerizing. The exact point that it became mesmerizing: There was a timeout a few minutes after I’d started creep-staring at Tim, and, in a surprise plot twist, he picked up a cellphone and started tapping at it. It was right then that I realized that, despite his having been in my life for almost two decades now, I’d never seen Tim Duncan touch a cellphone.

Part of me assumed he didn’t own a cellphone, or wouldn’t own a cellphone. I don’t know. I just know I was watching him mess with it and I wanted so badly to know what he was looking at. Was he sending a text message? (WHO DOES TIM DUNCAN TEXT WITH?) Was he playing some sort of game? (IS TIM DUNCAN ANY GOOD AT TEMPLE RUN?) Was he looking at a picture he’d taken earlier? If so, what does Tim Duncan take pictures of? (IS TIM DUNCAN A SKILLED PHOTOGRAPHER?) Has Tim Duncan ever taken a picture, been like, “This is fucking dope,” and then proudly shown it to someone? (DOES TIM DUNCAN HAVE AN INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT?)

The situation was oddly comforting. At that moment, it felt official: Tim Duncan is going to be fine in retirement, and so too will the rest of us.

My third-best guess of what he was doing on his phone: typing a review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in a notes app to read to himself later on. My second-best guess: He was looking at flight statuses to see what planes were on time and what planes were late (he didn’t have any flights booked, he was just curious). My first-best guess: His phone was actually one of those fake phones filled with candy you get at a corner store, and he was just pretending to do something on it because he knew people were looking at him and he wanted to look normal.

As the game was ending, Tim Duncan got up from his seat and walked toward the tunnel the players go into at halftime and at the end of the game. When he did so, everyone cheered loudly. So did I. It was the second-most excited I’d ever been to see anyone walk somewhere.

For what was probably 30 minutes (but felt like 30 years), he was back there, disappeared into the tunnel. An on-court host introduced a few different video segments while everyone waited (fans thank Tim; former teammates thank Tim; short recaps of all of the championships he’d helped win; things like that). The best part of it was they went through several of the H-E-B commercials Duncan and many of the other Spurs have been in together. Being from San Antonio, in San Antonio, watching San Antonio–famous commercials with 18,000-plus other people from San Antonio felt right. It felt warm. Each of the commercials was far funnier, more charming, and more heartfelt in that setting than it is when you’re watching it on your computer by yourself. I’d not begun the night expecting to get emotional watching millionaires talk about steak, and yet there I was. There we all were. Laughing together and feeling connected. I can’t remember a time I’d so clearly understood my feelings at a sporting event. I guess maybe because it wasn’t a sporting event I was at right then.

While we waited for Tim to come back out from the tunnel, my dad and I made guesses at how he was going to come back out. We’d hope for something wildly out of character, like riding an all-white horse, or on a motorcycle, or parachuting down from the rafters, or zip-lining in like Sting in WCW. None of that happened, though. He just walked out, with that extremely Tim Duncan gait of his. This was, by far, the most excited I’d ever been to see anyone walk anywhere. It was overwhelming. That was when it began to feel real, which is to say that was the moment when I began to feel that warm pang in my chest.

The part that got me, though, wasn’t Timmy’s walk, and it wasn’t the speeches given by his college coach Dave Odom, Manu Ginobili (he told a great story about Timmy calling him over and over and over and over again until he finally talked to him following Manu’s game-losing turnover during a 2006 playoff series against the Kings), Tony Parker (the most charming of everyone), and Gregg Popovich, who came the closest of them all to crying, particularly when he ended his speech by talking about honoring the wishes of Tim Duncan’s parents, both of whom have passed. The part that got me was right at the very end, right as they were raising the cloak up off the giant Tim Duncan jersey in the rafters. Right on the bottom of it, very clearly, it read, “1997–16.” That’s what got me. To see an actual end date on it. The feeling was clear. Fuck, man. It’s over. That got me.

The ceremony was exactly what I’d hoped it would be, and exactly what I was anticipating — juuuuuuust enough of a behind-the-curtain peek to make me, and to make my dad, somehow feel even better about having invested so much time and energy into caring about the Spurs, but not so much of a peek that anyone felt like the secrecy that’s very clearly a part of the relationships among Tim, Tony, Pop, and Manu had been compromised. It was nice to watch them say nice things to each other and make fun of each other, and it was almost too much to watch Tim and Pop hug at the end of it.

You know what I was most worried about? I’ll tell you what I was worried about, and I realize now how foolish this was, but:

I was worried that somehow watching them hang Tim Duncan’s jersey was going to close some sort of loop for my dad and me. I thought it would feel like finality. I thought it was going to feel like, OK, that’s it, no more Spurs games for me and my dad together, you know what I’m saying? I thought it was going to be like, “Well, that part of your life is over now. I hope you enjoyed it.” That’s what I was scared of. I thought us going to this thing together was going to be us ending that part of our relationship, and that was incredibly sad to think about. It’s not completely accurate to say that the entirety of our relationship has been threaded together by the Spurs, but it’s totally inaccurate to say that it hasn’t helped frame a whole bunch of things for us, basketball and otherwise.

I have my own children now. I’m in the dad role literally every minute and moment that I am with them. Being around my dad always makes me feel at least a little bit like I’m still a child — his child — and that’s especially the case when we go to a game together. He drives us there. He keeps track of where we park. He gets the snacks. He drinks an alcoholic beverage of sorts and I drink a soda of sorts. All of those parts have, for the most part, stayed the same for the 30 or so years we’ve been going to games together. A part of me thought that when Tim’s ceremony was finished, it was going to be the end of our ceremony, too. It didn’t feel like that, though. It just felt like it was another thing we’d done together, which is a good feeling. I love him very much.

Mostly, a sugar-free cookie tastes like a normal cookie. That’s a thing I learned Sunday night. My dad eats them now, and so after he’d taken a few out for himself for a late-night snack after we got home from the game I nabbed one when he wasn’t looking. He eats sugar-free cookies because he’s 54 years old and that’s what 54-year-old men do, I guess. Really, that’s just a way to say that he’s started to pay closer attention to what it is that he puts inside his body. His father, my grandpa, passed when he was just barely getting into his 50s. His mother, my grandma, passed earlier still. My mom’s parents are both gone, too. I figure that’s why he’s feeling that tug to take care of himself. I’m 35 years old and I’m pretty sure I’m starting to feel that same tug, too. While we were at the game he drank a regular rum and coke and then a double rum and coke because “they stop serving alcohol after the third quarter, so I got a double.” I ate a container of chili cheese nachos and a large pretzel and drank a coke. He’s figuring his thing out. I’m figuring mine out, too. We’ll get there. We’ll get it right. Eventually.