It’s almost a cliche to say a person is more than their job, than the sterile stats produced over a career. But it really is true with Tim Duncan, the laconic, iconic basketball player who just retired after two decades of dominance, and decency.
Duncan lorded over the NBA for 19 years (during the terms of three U.S. presidents), winning five championship rings. There’s more than enough on the court to get him under any virtual velvet rope, into the glittering nightclub of immortality. Just crack open the archives, if you must.
Over his career, he scored 26,496 points and pulled down 15,091 rebounds. He averaged at least 10 rebounds per game over his first 13 seasons. He averaged a double-double (19.0 PPG, 10.8 RPG) over his career. He played in 15 All-Star Games. He shot a remarkable 50 percent from the field. He played in at least 60 games in 17 of his 19 seasons. One of the two years in which he played fewer than 60 was the truncated 1999 season, during which he played in all 50 scheduled games.
And, of course, there are those five NBA titles, which forever keep him in the conversation of the greatest players of all-time. He’s almost universally regarded as the greatest power forward in history. But since we too often confuse volume with virtue, we don’t reflexively rate Duncan at the top, which is a shame, if not a crime.
In a sport that too often hugs the hubris and ignores the low-key people and personas who make teams and players great, Tim Duncan is leaving behind a void in pro basketball. We just don’t know it yet because there are no extras with Duncan. He displayed none of the histrionics that have come to define the modern NBA. He had no sprawling entourage, like a great white shark swarmed by a thousand pilot fish.
Tim Duncan’s player efficiency rating as a rookie was 22.6. His PER in his final season? 22.6. He was so alarmingly consistent you could forget how consistently great he was.
Also lost in his epic career is his willingness to share the ball, spotlight and salary. Duncan was renowned for forgoing money to get better players, money that other teams would have happily paid him.
Duncan didn’t do it alone. And he was among the few modern players to realize he couldn’t. So he led his own version of the Big Three, flanked by Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. But there would have been no sparkling triumvirate without Duncan’s willingness to take a pay cut for the overall health of the franchise.
He wasn’t just a model of consistency. He was a model of decency. You don’t have to be a geriatric, calcified in the old-world ethos, to appreciate Duncan’s singular brilliance and selflessness.
The only modern player who seems share Duncan’s dominance and decency hails from another spot, in another sport. But they are twins in their twin-attributes of hunger and humility.
That would be Mariano Rivera, the iconic Yankee and singular closer. No one talks about Rivera now. Few fawned over him while he was pitching his way into immortality. Yet Mariano is always found atop the list of the best closers in history.
Like Rivera, Duncan did all of his talking in the arena. Duncan treated his tongue like his appendix, an awkward appendage that served him no tangible purpose.
You won’t get YouTube clicks or jersey sales when your moniker is the Big Fundamental, when your hallmark move is a soft bank shot from the block. You won’t short-circuit social media when your idea of histrionics is a fist-pump and a tap to the back of a teammate’s head. We say winning is all that matters, yet we don’t really feel that way. Duncan really did feel that way.
We are forever tethered to opulent handles, like Black Mamba, Magic and King James. We assume there’s some secret bridge between the celebrating and the celebrated.
Duncan was an inverted rebel, someone who was an anomaly for being so normal. If we didn’t properly appreciate him before, we will now. He’s only got one more basketball stop — the Hall of Fame. He’s so modest, you’d half expect someone else to deliver his speech.
Tim Duncan could have played in any era, and owned any era. He just won’t tell you that. So it’s up to us to double as the bards of his brilliance.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.