In the history of the San Antonio Spurs, they have had the No. 1 overall pick on two occasions and overall have had selected in the Top Three on three occasions. The first time they selected at No. 1 was back in 1987 when they took David “The Admiral” Robinson back in 1987 out of the Naval Academy. From his first year until retirement, the Spurs were a perennial playoff participant and a 50-plus regular season win team. The championships did not come until they selected at No. 1 10 years later selecting forward Tim Duncan out of Wake Forest University. In the years that followed, the Spurs won five NBA titles with the first coming in 1999 and in the second year of Robinson and Duncan playing together. Back on Sunday night at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, TX, the paid the highest honor to the man also known as “The Big Fundamental” that aided in taking the team over the top in the NBA.
Following the Spurs’ 113-100 win versus the New Orleans Pelicans (9-20) back on Dec. 18, the team retired Duncan’s No. 21, which made him the eighth Spur to have their number raised to the rafters of the AT&T Center.
He joined No. 00 guard Johnny Moore (1980-88; 1989-90); guard Avery Johnson (1991-2001), who hit the game-winning shot in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks to capture the Spurs’ first title back in 1999; current NBA analyst for ESPN, No. 12 forward/guard Bruce Bowen (2001-09), who number was unretired on July 9, 2015 and reissued to newest addition LaMarcus Aldridge with Bowen’s blessing; No. 32 forward Sean Elliott (1989-93; 1994-01), the No. 3 overall pick in the 1989 draft who was the starting small forward on that 1999 title team, who now works alongside Bill Land as the team’s color analyst for FOX Sports Southwest; No. 44 Hall of Famer George “Ice Man” Gervin (1974-85), who played with the team when they were in the American Basketball Association before joining the NBA starting in the 1976-77 campaign and No. 50 Robinson (1989-03).
Among those on hand for the ceremony were Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan’s only coach in his 19-year career with the Spurs; Robinson; Spurs’ general manager R.C. Buford; Duncan’s head coach when he was at Wake Forest David Odom; his former Spurs teammates Bowen, Robinson, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Also on hand were Duncan’s two older sisters Cheryl and Tricia were on hand; his girlfriend television personality and former contestant on CBS’s “The Amazing Race” Vanessa Macias and his two children daughter Sydney and son Draven from his first marriage to Amy Sherrill.
This was a special way to honor a one of a kind athlete, who for the entirety of his career did most of his talking with his play on the court. Led a quiet life off the court, to the point that he managed to get married and build a family without pressures from the press.
Duncan not only played his entire career for one team in the Spurs, which is remarkable in of itself, but he played for just one coach in Gregg Popovich, which is even more remarkable.
Before the start of the festivities, a video was played on the big board in the middle of the AT&T Center where many of Duncan’s teammates past and present, Coach Popovich, Buford and Hall of Famer George “The Ice Man” Gervin expressed their feelings about the 1998 Rookie of the Year; two-time NBA regular season MVP; 15-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA selection; 15-time All-NBA Defensive Team selection and the 2003 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year as well as Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
Former Spurs’ guard Antonio Daniels, who was part of that first title team in 1999 and played for the Spurs from 1998-2002 and is an NBA analyst for FOX Sports today called Duncan, “the best teammate in professional sports history.”
“He put us on a level along with David where we were a championship contender every year,” Johnson said of Duncan. “You can imagine getting ready to play against a Tim Duncan Spurs team where you have to plan and scout on how to defend Tim Duncan. I mean he had the foot work. The hands. The drop steps. The timing. He had the I.Q. of guard on the team.”
Elliott, who served as the Master of Ceremonies for the postgame ceremony said how great it was to play with another front court player who loved playing the game and how he took all the physical tools from his size and ability, which many players in the league have. What separated Duncan from the pack was that he had the work ethic and the passion from practice to game action to be great.
“He had all the ingredients and they came together perfectly and on top of that he’s a great individual to be around,” Elliott said. “He made it better for us because we all want to be around guys that are nice guys and it always helps your team when your star is that way.”
Elliott also gave a fitting introduction to the postgame ceremony when he said, “Tonight we celebrate and show our appreciation for not only one of the greatest Spurs players, but also one of the greatest players to ever player in the rich and storied NBA.”
Robinson concurred those remarks by his former teammate and fellow Rookie when they entered the league back in the 1989-90 season with the Spurs when he mentioned in the video tribute that Duncan’s achievements can be matched with anyone of the greats in NBA history, but it was how he conducted his business as a person and as a leader to take the Spurs’ organization and build it into a consistent winner and champion four more times over is something special.
“I think Tim has cemented his legacy in many areas. As a leader. As a player and as a person,” Robinson said.
Perhaps the greatest attribute of this humble and quiet future Hall of Famer came from former Spur and current General Manager of the Brooklyn Nets Sean Marks said is that he was “so inclusive,” like for instance he would bring some of his teammates together in the off-season to work out over the summer.
“Those summer work outs started the culture and brought the team together and so forth and it was easy just to watch him and emulate what he did.” Marks, who played for the Spurs from 2003-06 said. “If the best player on the court is working this hard in August then we’d better be working that hard too.”
Another great attribute of Duncan was how much he enjoyed the success of the rest of his teammates. If you ever watched a Spurs game over the past two decades, you saw how much he would cheer for his guys when they made solid plays on both ends. How he communicated with them on the bench, in practice or even when the cameras could catch them off the court. He made sure that from the starting quintet of that season to the 12th man on the bench felt that they were all in this together. That is was not just about him, which is a very rare thing in pro sports today.
“Late nights on the road. During The Finals, we would just kind of hang out a little bit,” Bowen, who played for the Spurs from 2001-09 said. “A lot of times we would share that moment. That’s when I really got a chance to see how vested he was towards everyone. He gets joy out of other people’s success and that’s hard in this day in age. In this game, where it is so much about me, me, me, T.D. is very comfortable with who he is.”
The best example of what Bowen just mentioned came when the Spurs swept the Cavs in the 2007 Finals to garner their fourth title in franchise history and All-Star guard Tony Parker was named Finals MVP and one of the first Spurs to congratulate him on the stage was Duncan. Right there in that moment showed the greatest attribute of “The Big Fundamental.” He showed that same kind of love to Kawhi Leonard when he won the 2014 Finals MVP when the Spurs beat the Heat in The Finals that year 4-1.
The success of what many consider one of the best trios, referred to today as the “Big Three” of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker was due to what they learned from Duncan in terms of putting the hard work in practice and in the off-season, but in their first couple of years in the league, they also learned a lot about the mental aspect of what it takes to be great in the NBA.
Ginobili talked during the ceremony how Popovich put him and Parker through a lot of as he said, “mental test.” On days when those mental test were tough to handle, it was Duncan that was there for them with a simple gesture like a pat on the head or a hug to let them know that if you can get through this, it will make you a better player, which it did and we have seen the results of the kind of players they have become.
“He’s a great leader on and off the court,” Parker, who been with the Spurs since being drafted in 2001 said. “He cares so much. It’s very rare that you have superstars that’s so unselfish because he didn’t care who scores, who pass, who rebounds. He just wanted to win. When you have your main guy being like that, everybody has to follow.”
The greatest beneficiaries of what Duncan has meant to the Spurs are Buford Coach Popovich, who mentioned something that happens between the entire coaching about how he feels about the former No. 1 overall pick.
“When I go to dinner with the other coaches, before the meal comes we raise our glass and say thank you Tim,” Popovich said.
In true Popovich fashion before he spoke, he turned the microphone over to the guy who introduced the basketball world to Duncan and that was his college coach at Wake Forest David Odom, who was the head coach of the Demon Deacons from 1989-2001 and coach Duncan from 1993-97.
Odom, who received a call 22 years ago from Duncan about coming to Wake Forest and earning his degree. In his first game as a collegiate, Duncan had zero points, three rebounds and one block in a loss to a NCAA Division II team from Alaska. Odom said to Duncan after it was over, “Timmy what gives?”
Duncan’s answer, “Coach. I’m leaving a lot of room for growth.”
Duncan grew for sure and the answer to that phone call in the words of Odom, “Changed our fortunes as a university at Wake Forest. He was the right player for our team at the time and I would submit to him and I think he would agree that Wake Forest was the right school for him at the time.”
He became a great collegiate player and earned his degree, in four years and Odom in his office got a phone call from Popovich and said that the Spurs were going to draft Duncan in the opening round.
“That in my mind was a fortuitist phone call and decision that he made to keep this franchise moving and move it upwards in of a notch,” Odom said. “That decision that Coach Popovich and his staff R.C. made to draft Tim Duncan No. 1 proved to be the right decision for the Spurs as a franchise, but just as important, it turned out to be the right decision for Tim as a player. Because he got a chance to play for the best coach in all of basketball.”
That player that Popovich and Buford drafted raised the standard for the Spurs organization from top to bottom and made them a champion.
“He set such a high bar for himself that I think it just held us to a standard that was challenging, but it was real because he was engaging himself so much,” Buford said.
When Popovich spoke after Odom to the audience, he said how we all should be thank Coach Odom as he put, “Delivering a product to San Antonio that was already baked in the oven. We didn’t have to do much because of what Coach Odom did at Wake Forest and that’s not an exaggeration. That’s the truth. Timmy was very, very ready to go when he got here.”
When they first met each other in the Virgin Islands back in 1997, Popovich learned very quickly who he was, but what he did not mention was that everyone drives on the other side of the road, which brought a nice chuckle from the audience.
Popovich said that they hung on the beach for a few days going swimming and talking and none of the talk was about hoops and from that moment he knew that he had a special player in the fold.
Coach Popovich said that Duncan was a strange player who had a love for all things carrot cake, which he brought to his room whenever the Spurs were on the road at 2 or 3 p.m. for 20 years.
In the first practices, Duncan wore his shorts backwards, which Popovich said reminds him of one of his players now.
The other difference Popovich pointed out is that when Duncan first arrived, communicating with him was like mental telepathy because he did not speak much. He would say something to him in practice and Duncan would stare at Popovich.
“I realized that he understood everything I was saying. Probably agreed with about half of it, but he’s so respectful that he wouldn’t say anything until later,” Popovich said. “He won’t do it in front of the team and sometimes I’d be merciless.”
That is something Popovich was very thankful for because it allowed him to coach the team. By his superstar player taking some constructive criticism now and then, everyone else as Popovich said, “can shut the hell up and fall in line and that man did that for me. He allowed me to coach.”
Popovich closed by giving one of the greatest compliments one can give about another person. He said to audience to the memory of Tim Duncan’s parents that, “That man right there is exactly the same person now as he was when walked in the door.”
Popovich capped the moment by giving the player that allowed him to coach the way he did back then and how he does now a hug heard around San Antonio, TX.
The other great thing about Duncan’s career is that he came into one of the best situations that one can come into. He had Robinson alongside of him to start his career. He had a chance to learn from the very best and he took every lesson and word from the eventual Hall of Famer and 1995 NBA MVP to heart and not only did they form a great tandem on the court, but an amazing bond, friendship and a level of respect for one another that is very rare. On top of that, he continued the foundation of an organization that began with “The Ice Man.”
“I’m the roots of the tree. David Robinson is the trunk of the tree and Tim Duncan is the branches and the flowers of the tree and here you got a beautiful tree that’s been around a longtime man,” the Hall of Famer said. “It’s sprouting nothing but beautiful flowers.”
The best way to symbolize what Tim Duncan has meant to the Spurs, without him there are no five titles in San Antonio. Before he came along, the Spurs going back to the 1990s were a 50-plus win team under the guidance of Larry Brown, John Lucas and Bob Hill before Popovich, but made only one appearance in the Western Conference Finals in 1995 where they lost the eventual champion Houston Rockets in six games. In the career of Tim Duncan, the Spurs made it to the Conference Finals and won five titles.
“No Tim, no championships,” Popovich said.
“I think that the key,” Gervin said. “Your whole goal is to put a team on the floor that understand that the objective is to win.”
In the middle of all that winning and joy was Duncan and he brought everyone along for the ride including another gem found in the draft in the early 2000s who became an All-Star Manu Ginobili from Argentina.
“I think the most unique and remarkable thing about him was just the quality of player he was on the court and how he wanted to be recognized as a player and about getting your team to the situation that you dream of,” Ginobili said. “I like his way of being absolutely the best, without just having to say it. Just people notice.”
He was more than just his statistics, which were an impressive 19.0 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game on 54.9 percent from the field in 19 regular seasons and 20.6 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks on 50.1 percent shooting in the playoffs. Tim Duncan played the game with a focus, joy confidence and humility that earned him respect from not just his teammates, coaches for the and the fan base, but from opposing coaches, players, and other organizations, not to mention the NBA community.
He had an empathy to where he made every Spur that he took the court with welcome, but he held them to a high standard of being ready to play and bring their best to the court win, lose or draw. He let his game on the court do all the talking for him and we all heard it loud and clear.
Tim Duncan set a standard of excellence both on and off the court and even with every accolade that earned, he never let that get in the way of the team and what was important to the entire group. Winning and playing cohesively together.
He demonstrated that at Winston Salem, NC where he is revered to this day by those at Wake Forest University and with the San Antonio Spurs and he thanked all of them, in a quick speech that lasted more than 30 seconds and he did it wearing suit, but not a tie.
“To all of you in here. The fans. All of San Antonio. Thank you,” Duncan said. The love and support is overwhelming, especially over the last couple of weeks. “Just an amazing response and just an overwhelming amount of love these guys for what I meant to them and it doesn’t even explain how much they meant to me because I got so much more from you guys. From my teammates. From these guys, over here than they can explain that they got from me.”
Information, Statistics and quotations are courtesy of the Tim Duncan Retirement Ceremony from You Tube, published Dec. 19, 2016; www.nba.com/games/20161218/NOPSAS#/video; 7/11/16 piece by www.heavy.com, “Vanessa Macias, Tim Duncan’s Girlfriend:5 Facts You Need to Know” and http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Duncan.