March 1995—That’s when I first discovered Tim Duncan, a tall and lanky but strong sophomore center for Wake Forest University’s basketball team.
It’s a day I’ll never forget because the vivid pain of seeing my beloved UNC Tar Heels fall to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament championship game is forever fresh. I watched the game during my usual Sunday night youth group gathering at church, and I had a few fellow UNC fans fall on the floor alongside me when the Tar Heels eventually came up short.
So there’s a negative memory from this first recollection of Tim Duncan, the man who played sidekick to guard Randolph Childress during that Wake Forest season but who became a National Basketball Association legend and decided this past week to retire after 19 seasons as a pro. Yet in my reflection on Duncan’s career and the figure he became, it’s the final and only tally in the negative column for “Timmy.”
The man, who grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands and came to Wake Forest relatively unknown to the casual basketball fan, has been one of those generational athletes who transcends his sport. He was the young star and then the wily veteran for a San Antonio Spurs franchise that won five NBA championships in a 15-year span. Fifteen—that’s the same number of NBA All-Star games Duncan was invited to. He’s also a two-time NBA most valuable player and a three-time NBA Finals most valuable player.
He has the successful part taken care of through his unquestionable statistics. But what’s more important is the kind of personality he maintained as a professional athlete. Duncan wasn’t the kind of guy you have to worry about showing up in the police reports, or the player who always lost his cool at the first foul or travel called on him.
No, the only memory I have of Duncan truly finding the wrong side of the argument with a referee was when Joey Crawford ejected him for laughing on the bench in a 2007 game between the Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks. And how bad was that, really?
Duncan was the calm in the middle of the storm that is the NBA, a league often rightfully criticized for its opulent contracts, misbehaving players and excessive wanderlust. He was at times a dominant player, but he was always the definition of a solid No. 1 overall draft pick and franchise player. Only Kobe Bryant played more seasons for one team than Tim Duncan.
He has become a San Antonio Spur so much that the city, the team, the very uniform will not be the same without him wearing the black and silver or black and white No. 21.
It’s easy to salute a solid player at the end of their career, but it’s conversely difficult to say farewell to a player who has had so much success without the controversy and negativity that surrounds much of today’s pro sports environment.
Every time someone laughs on the court. Every time someone says Timmy. Every time someone intentionally banks a shot off the backboard. Every time I see the San Antonio Spurs. I’ll think of Tim Duncan.