I was watching Tim Duncan highlight videos this weekend and a thought occurred to me that I suppose I’d thought about obliquely before but had never fully confronted. It’s going to sound dumb when I tell you what it is because it’s obvious, but here it is: Tim Duncan has gotten old. Pretty old. Very old, even. At least for a basketball player, anyway. Tim Duncan is 40.
I knew that before but I know it now. I’ve been watching Duncan play basketball for nearly two decades. I’m from San Antonio, and I was living there when he was drafted. A couple of years later, when I went off to college in a different city, my dad started buying me NBA League Pass each year as a Christmas present so I could watch the Spurs play. When I moved to Houston after college, I started buying League Pass for myself. I’m not certain how many times I’ve watched Duncan play basketball. It hasn’t been every game, but it’s been a lot. He’s played something like 1,600 games total if you count the playoffs. I’m guessing I’ve seen him play, in one form or another, around 1,200 of them these past 19 years.
Which is to say I guess I’ve always had such a close-up look at him that I rarely ever stepped away to take a macro-level view of him, or his career, or his legacy. When you have kids you don’t really notice or think about how much they’ve grown because you’re with them every day. One day your baby is a baby and the next day it’s 13 years later and it’s just like, "Oh, fuck, you’re as tall as I am. What happened?" That’s what it felt like when I was watching those highlight videos. They were all these clips stitched together from his first five or six years in the league, when he was springy and agile and quick and elastic. He looked the same, but like a different person entirely. I only ever watch the current version of Duncan play, so I guess all of my memories of him got retrofitted to match the current version of him. Does that make sense? It feels like it makes sense. I don’t know. Am I rambling? I feel like I’m rambling. Fuck, man. Tim Duncan is retiring.
This is heartbreaking but also beautiful but also devastating but also wonderful but also torture but also art but also very hard to deal with but also fantastic and cathartic, as closure tends to be.
Tim Duncan is retiring.
I’m going to miss him so much.
My first memory of Tim Duncan is from 1997. It’s of my dad telling me that the Spurs were going to draft him and then making a joke about how he was going to be a surefire success because his name sounded so much like "dunking," which could not have been an accident. "The Flash was called the Flash because he was fast, son," he probably said. "The Incredible Hulk was called the Incredible Hulk because he was incredible and because he was a hulk. All superhero origin stories are obvious in retrospect."
My dad started taking me to Spurs games when I was 5. When I got older I always wondered if he felt extra pressure for the Spurs to win because he’d made me a Spurs fan and he wanted me to be happy. That’s what I feel when I watch Spurs games with my sons, whom I’ve made Spurs fans. I’ve never asked him to answer that question, though. I probably never will. I wonder if my sons will ask me?
I remember watching in 1999 when Latrell Sprewell missed that fadeaway jumper over Tim and David Robinson in Game 5 and the Spurs won their first title. My dad and I were in the front room of our house on the southwest side of San Antonio. As soon as the buzzer sounded — LITERALLY AS SOON AS IT SOUNDED — he ran outside and started honking the horn on his truck over and over again. I didn’t know if that was how you were supposed to celebrate a championship or not; I just know other people in the neighborhood started doing it, too. And then after a minute or so it felt like (and sounded like) everybody was doing it. It was just a whole bunch of horns being honked by a whole bunch of Mexicans. That was the first time I understood that people could be truly tied together by sports, and that San Antonio was tied together by basketball.
Prior to that moment, San Antonio had never won anything that big. It felt like the city had never won anything at all. The Spurs were the only men’s professional sports team in the city (and still are), and in the years before that the conversation around them was always about how they couldn’t win. Then they won and you didn’t hear that much anymore. After 2003 and then 2005 and then 2007 and then 2014, you definitely didn’t hear it. You mostly just heard car horns.
I ’m glad Duncan didn’t retire after the Spurs won the 2014 championship. I thought he was going to, and maybe he should have — if not for his evaporating game then because hanging it up right there and then would have made for a tidy story:
- He became the first player in the history of the league to start on a championship team in three different decades.
- Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili became the winningest Big Three in NBA playoff history.
- It looked as though the Spurs had perfected team basketball; or, rather, solved basketball, a seemingly impossible goal we’d all watched them try to chase down all decade.
- Consider this: They had the highest positive scoring margin of any Finals matchup ever, and also the highest field goal percentage, while their highest-scoring player (Parker) averaged fewer points than any other scoring leader on a championship team (17.4). But nothing was more surreal than this:
- They’d erased the Game 6 nightmare from the year before (when Ray Allen and the Heat snatched the championship rings off their fingers and also all my emotions out of my soul). More than that, they’d turned that horrifying memory into something cool, a gruesome wound that healed into an intimidating battle scar. Allen hitting that 3 transformed from a historical marker of pain to a symbol of resilience and fortitude, the accelerant for the greatest, most fulfilling season in the history of the franchise.
So it would’ve been an easy story to write if Duncan had decided that that was the ending he wanted. But he didn’t. Because it wasn’t. And I’m glad that it wasn’t. Retiring after winning a title is like taking a bath with your spouse: It sounds like a good idea before you do it, and it always looks dope in movies, but it never ends up being as romantic as you’d hoped. You mostly end up just sitting there talking about how you never realized how small the tub is.
Duncan spent his whole career trying to win. So that’s how I thought his career should end. I wanted him to try to win and try to win and try to win and then finally not be able to. And that’s where we are right now. He died on his shield in the 2016 playoffs. It’s exactly the right thing.
There’s a way to be pretentious and philosophical about this. Duncan’s legacy will forever be told in gradations, in subtle genius, in the moments between the championships and the awards and the accolades and the overwhelming stats; Duncan being a winner meant that San Antonio was a winner, and San Antonio being a winning city meant that the people who lived there (and live there) got to feel (and get to feel) like winners. That is a very powerful feeling that an athlete can put in a person’s heart. Maybe Duncan aging into basketball folklore means I’m aging into obsolescence and darkness. That’s terrifying. But that’s not the point right now. The point is this:
Tim Duncan is retiring. He’s really retiring. He’s really actually retiring. Next October, when the new NBA season begins — for the first time in 20 seasons, for the first time in more than half of my life — Timothy Theodore Duncan will not be there.
I’m going to miss him so much.