Mysterious, Wise and at Peace: Duncan is Just Duncan

Mysterious, Wise and at Peace: Duncan is Just Duncan

One of the best big men of all-time, ‘The Big Fundamental’ is just as good at age 37

Spurs great Tim Duncan is the same man he was 20 years ago: wise beyond his years and unlike anyone you’ll ever meet.

12:10 p.m. ET May 31, 2013

1. The layup line.

Elimination Day in Memphis, and a nervous energy buzzes through the crowd. It is not a happy energy; the FedExForum feels like a giant doctor’s waiting room with everyone anticipating the inevitable bad news. The Memphis Grizzlies are down 3-0 in this best-of-seven series to San Antonio. The Grizzlies will soon be knocked out and everyone, even the most hopeful, sees it coming.

The executioners — the San Antonio Spurs players — roll through their pregame layup line. There is a certain cold professionalism to an NBA layup line. The Spurs, in two lines, run at the basket in perfect synchronization. One makes a layup. Another grabs the rebound. One makes a layup. Another grabs the rebound. The Spurs have done this so many times that it is second nature, like driving a car, and like drivers of cars their minds roam. They visualize the game ahead. They warm up their bodies. They attune themselves to the moment. They reach into their memories for inspiration. The Spurs’ thoughts are everywhere, it seems, but right here, right now.

Everyone, that is, except Tim Duncan.

He’s the only player on the Spurs not wearing his warm-up jacket — Duncan, you will see, does not like jackets of any kind — and so the gray he wears clashes with the gray of the players around him. What is Tim Duncan doing? He’s skipping. This is how he gets his body loose, skipping around, and it’s a sight. He’s 37 years old, he’s at the end of his 16th season, he is playing in his 204th playoff game, and he’s skipping around joyfully like my 8-year-old daughter at a playground she’s never played in before.

Duncan is not only skipping. He’s also high-fiving. One of the general rules of the layup drill is that when you pass by a teammate, which you do constantly because of the geometry of the drill, you are supposed to high-five him. In college, players will do this with some gusto, but that’s college. In the NBA, you are in Cleveland on Tuesday, Houston on Wednesday, Atlanta on Friday, it’s a league of pounding music and late nights and morning room service, and there isn’t much energy for that kind of rah-rah nonsense. Players high-five because that’s supposed to help team chemistry or some such hokum. They do it coolly.

Everyone, that is, except Tim Duncan. He high-fives cheerfully and eagerly, again and again, no matter how many times he goes through the line. He happily punches those players in the shoulder who forget to high-five him back. He coaxes players to high five with a little more energy, a little more joy, hey man, this is the PLAYOFFS.

In movies, they use special lighting to highlight the main character, to make the star burst through in living color while surrounded by the grayness of the world. In Memphis, on Elimination Day, Tim Duncan — one of the best basketball players who ever lived — skips and high fives his way through the Spurs’ gray layup line.

2. The shoot-around.

Layup lines don’t end. They dissolve, like rock-and-roll bands. One guy decides to go solo and get his own basketball, another takes a long three-pointer instead of a layup, another refuses to chase the bouncing ball, and without any obvious transition the layup drill becomes a shoot-around with everyone doing their own thing.

Everyone, that is, except Tim Duncan.

He goes to the ball rack and gets three basketballs, which he promptly dishes out to three teammates. He then stands underneath the basket and rebounds his teammates’ shots. They are all shooting, all the Spurs, except Duncan. He grabs a rebound, looks for a teammate without a ball, and passes it to him. Again. Again. You keep waiting for him to take his own shot, but he doesn’t. Duncan is joined in the lane by a ballboy and a Spurs attendant of some sort. Basketballs ricochet and carom and bounce around them like popping kernels of popcorn, and they chase. Of the three, Duncan is the most enthusiastic. He acts like it is his life’s dream to retrieve balls for his teammates.
What drives this man? What bubbles inside him? Even after all these years, Duncan is a mystery to us. But he’s a rare kind of mystery — the kind of mystery no one seems especially interested in solving. Has there ever been a great player, a truly great player, who sparked so little curiosity in the American public?

Quick, name some things you know about Tim Duncan.

You probably know he’s from the St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. He went to Wake Forest to play basketball. He was a great college basketball player. He stayed four years. He was drafted with the first pick in the 1997 draft by a San Antonio team that was coached by Gregg Popovich and already had the great center David Robinson. Together, they won an NBA championship in their second season together.

Then the team drafted Tony Parker; they drafted Manu Ginobili. Popovich and GM R.C. Buford surrounded the trio with useful players, they won three more championships. They are now in the NBA Finals again, this time waiting for Miami and Indiana to finish their series — and, do you see what’s happening? We are getting away from Duncan. This is what happens when you talk Duncan — it soon becomes talk about the team instead.

OK. You know Duncan made first-team All-NBA at age 37 — the oldest first-teamer since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It is the 10th time he made the team. He’s closing in on 25,000 points, he has grabbed more than 13,000 rebounds. He averages 20 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two blocks a game, but more than average those numbers, he hits them night after night after night. His game is so dry you can go entire Spurs games without noticing him, only to find at the end of the night he scored: 20 points, pulled down 11 rebounds, dished out three assists and blocked two shots. He is a metronome of excellence.

What else? You might have heard that he has a great sense of humor that he almost never exhibits in public. Well, they say that about everybody don’t they? The stories about Duncan’s humor are always so unspecific (“He’s very funny,” teammate Tony Parker says, but does not offer examples). You know that his face rarely changes expression, but his eyes will sometimes open wide in disbelief, usually when a foul has been called on him. What else?

Oh, sure, you probably heard that he was a talented swimmer as a child. Sometimes people will mention the swimming when trying to pinpoint the origin of Duncan’s remarkable discipline and relentless consistency. Duncan swam until he was 14 and seemed on a path toward the Olympics like his sister, Tricia. That was when Hurricane Hugo roared through the Island and wrecked the swimming pool. More, that was the year his mother, Ione, died of cancer. She had been his greatest fan, the loudest cheers at the pool, the voice inside his head. He would talk about the little nursery rhyme that she would repeat to him over and over and over …

[i]Good, better, best

Never let it rest

Until your good is better

And your better is your best[/i]

You can’t help but think that if you cut Tim Duncan open, those words would be etched on his heart. What words better describe him? When Ione died, he stopped swimming. He started to play basketball. Duncan says that he sometimes thought about going back to swimming, but the basketball season never ended.

3. The 17-foot jump shot.

Duncan spends a good five minutes of the shoot-around standing in the lane, inside the rolling drum of basketballs, rebounding the balls, passing to anxious teammates, before finally he grabs one of the balls and begins to warm up himself. He goes to the free throw line and shoots a few there. And then he goes to the spot. His spot. And he starts shooting.

Tim Duncan’s spot is just to the left of the free-throw line and one step back. This is his little piece of real estate. He now begins shooting. Ten shots. Fifteen shots. Twenty shots. He does not move from the spot. Sometimes he just catches a pass and shoots immediately. Sometimes he takes a step forward, as if he’s thinking about attacking the basket, then steps right back into his spot and shoots again.

Duncan shoots this shot repeatedly and almost exclusively because all the years of basketball have taught him: This is where he will be open. He will finish the pick-and-roll here. On the secondary break, he will stop here. In the flow of the offense, he will naturally flow here. And teams — including Memphis tonight — will let him shoot this shot. They will let him shoot because he is away from the basket, and he might miss, and that is their best hope of stopping him.

Duncan knows there is no point in practicing a lot of shots in a lot of other places. The action is here.

Well, Duncan always did know where to be. Like George Bailey, he was born older. Here’s a story you might not have heard: Nobody really knew about Tim Duncan in high school. The number of coincidences it took for him to play basketball at Wake Forest staggers the mind. The Wake Forest coaches didn’t know anything about him in high school. Nobody really did.

Then, the summer going into Duncan’s senior year in high school, a group of NBA draft picks led by Alonzo Mourning came to the Virgin Islands to teach a little basketball and spread some goodwill. One of those NBA draft picks was a second-rounder named Chris King, who had gone to school at Wake Forest.

Months later, King was back at Wake Forest to work out and he ran into coach Dave Odom. They talked a little bit about Virgin Islands trip, and Odom — almost jokingly — said: “Hey Chris, did you see anybody there who was worth recruiting?” And to Odom’s surprise, King said, actually, yeah, there was this one kid, pretty tall, kind of skinny, he showed a few skills. He wasn’t great, but he could at least hold his own.

What’s his name? No idea. What school did he attend? No idea. What island was on? No idea. Odom shook his head and tried to forget about it, but once coaches know that there’s a player out there that nobody else seems to know about they must investigate. Odom asked assistant Larry Davis to look into it. Davis found a 6-foot-9 player named Tim Duncan, who was being mildly recruited by a couple of schools.

So, Odom went out to St. Croix, and Duncan was at the airport to meet him. When Odom got off the plane, he was relieved to see that Duncan was indeed 6-foot-9 or so — the entire flight over he imagined getting off the plane, seeing that Duncan was only 6-foot-5, and then wishing he could get right back on the plane.

Then, they went to a park — every Sunday at 4 p.m. people on St. Croix played basketball in the park. There were dozens and dozens of players there, so Odom settled in to watch Duncan play against some mishmash of adults and kids. Only then, to his shock, Duncan actually walked over and sat next to him in the grass.

“Uh, Tim, aren’t you going to play?” Odom asked.

Duncan looked away — he never was much good with eye contact. “Coach,” he said. “If I play in the first game, they will put me on the worst team. And then we’ll probably lose, and I won’t get into another game for a long time. If we wait for the second game, I can choose some decent players and we can keep winning and you can see me play more.”

“I was blown away,” Odom says now. “That just perfectly describes Tim. He had the wisdom beyond his years in understanding how the game is played, and he had compassion for me having come so far to see him play. I’ll never, ever have another kid do something like that for me.”

Duncan went to Wake Forest. He had visited Providence and Hartford and Delaware State, but realistically, they had no chance. Way too cold. Heck, Wake Forest was too cold. He showed up for his chilly visit day in short sleeves. “What were you thinking?” Wake Forest’s star Randolph Childress asked him as he watched Duncan shiver. Duncan shrugged and didn’t say a word. He was from the Islands. He didn’t have a jacket. He did not want one.

“I didn’t think much about him at first,” Childress said. He was two classes ahead of Duncan and figured that he would be of no use to the team during that time. Heck, the plan was to red-shirt Duncan his freshman year. Then, one day in the summer, Childress was walking by the gym and saw that Duncan was playing a pick-up game. He saw Duncan grab a rebound, dribble out, beat smaller players down the court and score on his own.

“Um, coach,” he said the next time he saw Odom. “This Duncan kid can play.”

4. The bank shot.

After shooting a bunch of shots from his spot, Duncan casually heads over to the left side, about 12 feet away, and he practices a few bank shots. He probably has the most effective bank shot in NBA history. Julius Erving liked using the glass, Scottie Pippen had a knack for it, Dwyane Wade and Larry Bird and Bob Lanier among many have worked the angles.

But Duncan has grazed on the bank shot for 16 years — think about how many times you’ve seen him shoot it. The bank perfectly fits his game. His nickname “The Big Fundamental” is so ridiculous that it’s perfect. Everything he does on offense and defense comes right out of the coach’s manual. And what could be more fundamental than a bank shot? “Use the backboard!” every coach from Naismith to Spoelstra has shouted.
The fundamentals thing is actually not that mysterious. When Duncan arrived at Wake Forest he was, in Odom’s words, “a basketball neophyte.” He knew almost nothing about the game; he had played basketball in St. Croix almost entirely on instinct. He knew nothing about drop steps or pick-and-rolls. In one of the early practices, they were working on post moves when suddenly and for no apparent reason, Duncan literally started spinning around like a top.

Assistant coach Jerry Wainwright looked over at Odom and saw his face turning red with anger. “It’s OK coach,” Wainwright said quickly. “He’ll get it. He’s learning.”

He was learning, every day, faster than any of them could have imagined. Childress was the team’s star and he was known throughout the ACC for his intensive work ethic, and even he found himself awed by how hard Duncan worked. When Odom tried to rest him during practices, Duncan would sneak back in. Every day, after practice, it was a hundred hook shots or two hundred bank shots or three hundred 17-foot jumpers. “You couldn’t throw him enough balls,” Odom says.

And though he couldn’t jump and he wasn’t especially smooth, he had extraordinary natural talents — just not the kind people notice. “Let me tell you something Tim has that nobody ever talks about,” Childress says. “He has the best hands for a big man I’ve ever seen. From the start, you would throw him the ball and no matter where you threw it, he would catch it. Velcro on those hands. I never played with anyone who had hands like that.”

Duncan did play as a freshman, and he was a developing talent. By the end of his sophomore year, he was the best player in America. It really did happen that fast. “The great thing about Tim being so inexperienced a player,” says Odom, who is now chairman of the EA SPORTS Maui Invitational, “is that he really was like a ball of clay. He handed himself to the coaches and said, ‘mold me.’ And he would do everything. No task was too menial. He would work every drill to the best of his ability. He never went through the motions. And you could see him improving not day-by-day but hour-by-hour.”

“But,” Odom says, “when you talk about what separates Tim, what makes him great, it’s a mistake to focus just on his basketball. That’s such a small part of it. He’s about so much more than that. OK, wait, here’s the story you’ll want to hear.”

Duncan almost certainly would have been the first pick in the draft after his sophomore year, but he came back to Wake Forest. He would have been the first pick in the draft after his junior year, for sure — and just about everyone thought he would go out — but once more he went back to Wake Forest to complete his senior year. Odom says that they were in the car after Duncan’s junior year and heading to the airport for the Wooden Award ceremony (Duncan did not win it until his senior year). He told Duncan, “You will get a lot of questions there about why you’re coming back to Wake Forest.”

Duncan, typically, looked out the window and did not say anything.

“No, Tim, this is important,” Odom said. “Let’s pretend I’m one of those reporters? Was it a hard decision to come back to Wake Forest?”

Duncan kept looking out the window, but he said: “No. It wasn’t hard.”

Odom: “It wasn’t? You didn’t agonize over leaving millions of dollars on the table?”

Duncan said: “I didn’t agonize. I just thought, why should I try to do today what I will be better prepared to do a year from now.”

Odom looked over at the best player he would ever coach, and he wondered: “What kind of college junior thinks like that? Who has that sort of confidence, that sort of patience, that sort of inner peace? And then Duncan said the words that Odom thinks about almost every day.”

He said: “You know something coach? The NBA can do a lot for me. It really can. But there’s one thing it can’t do. The NBA can never make me 20 years old again.”

5. The rest.

Tim Duncan misses most of the bank shots he tries in warm-ups. It looks a bit out of place — one thing that always amazes about these pregame routines is how rarely NBA players miss open shots — but Duncan seems perfectly content to clank shots off the mark and smack them too hard off the backboard. He’s too old to believe a good warm-up or a bad one makes any difference at all. Maybe he never believed it.

He then wanders back into the lane to gather a few more rebounds for teammates. He’s called out for a moment to shake hands with a young fan who won some sort of contest.

Then, he goes to the bench and sits down. The warm-up is still going on, there are still four minutes on the clock and his teammates are still shooting and getting tuned up. Duncan rests. He stares off into space, seemingly at nothing at all.

The career, like the game, has been utterly fundamental. After staying in school for four years, he served as David Robinson’s junior partner in San Antonio, and the Spurs won 36 more games than they had the year before. He was rookie of the year and first team All-NBA. A year later, the Spurs won their first-ever NBA Championship. Duncan was the Finals MVP.

Every year after that, every single one, the Spurs won at least 50 games. In 2003, he was at the height of his powers. He was the clear leader by then — David Robinson, in his last season, was more an emotional presence — and he won the league MVP and the Spurs won their second title.

Two years after that, in 2005, Duncan and the Spurs won their third title. In Game 7 against Detroit in the Finals, Duncan did what he always did: 25 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks, and the Spurs won the game in the fourth quarter. Two years after that, they won their fourth title, this time in a sweep over a Cleveland Cavaliers team featuring an ascendant LeBron James and, well, no, that was about it.

And here they are again, in the Finals again, and now Duncan is, well, old. His own coach Gregg Popovich once rested him for a game using that as the official reasoning was: DNP – Old. He rests a lot more. Then, at his age, Bill Russell was announcing games, Michael Jordan was in his second retirement, Bird and Magic were gone from the game. Other greats like Julius Erving and John Havlicek had occasional flashbacks of brilliance but, in sum, were mere shadows of what they had once been.

And Tim Duncan ages so gracefully that, minute-by-minute, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between the 37-year-old man and the 2003 MVP. Don’t believe me? Look at Duncan’s per 36 minutes:

2002-2003: 21.3 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.7 blocks, 0.6 steals.

Typical Duncan. And now:

2012-2013: 21.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3.2 blocks, 0.9 steals.

Impossible. Absolutely impossible. He is exactly the same player … he’s just not the same for quite as long a time. More, though, he’s also exactly the same teammate; when Popovich benched him at the end of Game 6 in the Golden State series this year, people poked around for a controversy. Duncan simply said it was the right move because he was playing lousy. Would another living legend say that?

“We’ve been riding Timmy’s coattails for a long time,” Popovich says as he shakes his head in awe. He has run out of ways to say how extraordinary Duncan is, everyone has. “He’s just Tim,” Parker says, as if those words say enough. And maybe they do. Good, better, best. Never let it rest.

“I was watching the Spurs play the other day,” Randolph Childress says — he’s now an assistant coach at Wake Forest. “And the Spurs are on the break. And Timmy beats everyone down the floor. The man is 37 years old. But it wasn’t just that. They passed the ball to him at the free-throw line. That’s like the Cardinal rule, right? You don’t give a ball to a big man at the free-throw line. He catches it with those great hands, takes one dribble, two steps, scores. Are you kidding me? There aren’t five big men in the whole world who can do that RIGHT NOW and he’s 37 years old.

“And I was thinking about when he was young, you know. When he was raw. Now, he’s the most fundamental basketball player in history, you know? I’m so proud of him, so proud to know him. But he’s still Timmy. He’s still the same. He came back when (Wake Forest) put me in the Hall of Fame. I teased him because he still didn’t have a coat. I said, ‘Man, you’re the richest guy in the world who doesn’t own a sportscoat.’”

I ask Childress: What did he say?

“Nothing,” Childress says. “You know, he’s just Timmy. He doesn’t have to say anything.”