I was only 13 when I had to quit playing the game of basketball due to, at the time undiagnosed, Scheuermann’s disease.
While my chances of becoming a poor man’s Rick Brunson were slim to none anyway, I did have my sights on playing professionally at some level in the future. But due to the pain, I quickly had to abandon any dream of that.
At that age, a realization like that was gut wrenching and, admittedly, terrifying. Basketball had not just become my favorite recreation, it had become the very platform in which I measured myself as a human being. Giving that up at that age was essentially losing a heavy chunk of my own self-identification.
Weeks, maybe months, went by where I refused to accept my physical limitations. I tried sneaking in several shooting sessions that all had the same outcome, with me barely being able to walk home with tears of pain dripping coldly down my face. It was hell.
It got to a point where basketball was, briefly, something I despised. Michael Jordan had announced his final retirement from the Chicago Bulls just a few months prior, which further advanced my frustration given the emotional investment I’d given him and his career. 13-year olds tend to do that.
In the early summer of 1999, my mom invited me to Chicago. I had never been, and given my infatuation with Jordan I was not about to reject the offer, my confusing feelings towards basketball notwithstanding. The Finals were going on, and as I was zapping around the television at the hotel, I caught Bob Costas’s voice.
Now, I’m Danish. From Denmark. So having NBA games on television was not something common for me. To get any at all, I had to buy VHS tapes off a cut-out form from a basketball magazine. All I could do was fill in the name of the team I wanted games of, check the mark of how many tapes I wanted, and then send it off with my mom or dad’s credit card information in the mail. In return, I got tapes each containing one-and-a-half games. That’s right, one full and another post-halftime game, both in low quality. And they were expensive, too. So I couldn’t stock up as much as I wanted, and the five or six tapes I had were worn down to the point where one of the rolls of film would just snap.
Costas, thankfully, had worked the Finals the previous year, 1998, which I had tape of. His closing monologue to this very day is goosebumps worthy, and had it not been for his instantly recognizable voice, I have no doubt that I would have kept zapping and missed what would eventually become the re-birth of my basketball interest.
I knew a little of Tim Duncan, but not much. I had some articles to start from, as well as some trading cards that provided me with his first year statistics. But I’d never seen him play. I’d caught highlights of David Robinson before, and read detailed descriptions of his career, but I was completely unaware that he’d missed almost the entirety of the 1996/1997 season and was no longer the athlete he once was. As far as I was concerned, Robinson was the headliner. There was no internet to tell me otherwise.
As Costas and Doug Collins further previewed game five of the 1999 NBA Finals, I struggled. The game that had hurt me so badly shouldn’t be allowed to do so again, damn it. But given the lack of availability in Denmark, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would be missing an opportunity, if I at least didn’t watch.
“From 20 feet, Tim Duncan is perfect.” The call from Costas still rings in its original non-YouTube form in my ears to this very day. There was 9:50 remaining in the first quarter when Duncan made one of the most fluid jumpers I’d ever seen from a big man. He followed that up with a bank shot from the left side, a spin-move on the low block against Kurt Thomas on the right side, and by halftime I knew I’d never hate basketball ever again.
As Duncan continued his dominance, forcing Jeff Van Gundy to throw every defender he had at him with the slim hope of slowing him down to no avail, I came to the realization that what I was seeing was something very special. Even Latrell Sprewell’s 35 points was an afterthought in the grand scheme of things. San Antonio adjusted to him, sure, but Duncan? You couldn’t adjust to Duncan. If he wasn’t scoring, he was rebounding. If he wasn’t rebounding, he was contesting shots. His presence was constant, unlike Sprewell’s which came in spurts, and wherever Duncan was he was having a positive, nearly flawless, impact.
After Avery Johnson made the 16-footer from the baseline to give the San Antonio Spurs the lead for good with 47 seconds to go, and the New York Knicks going scoreless afterwards, the Spurs were the new kings of basketball. I stayed up all night zapping around for further news coverage of the game. I soaked it all in. I had no choice in the matter. Duncan, ever unassuming and below the radar as anyone, was the bright light at the end of the tunnel I never knew I was looking for.
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Now, 16 years later, Duncan might have wrapped up a historic career which is entirely unnecessary to sum up. His mind may not be made up yet, but the possibility of him hanging it up looms larger with every passing spring. Writing an eulogy for his career is not only premature, it also rings hollow and doesn’t do it justice. Duncan’s many accomplishments are cemented in stone, but his impact, on people like me, are stories that would go lost in the mud between every blogger or news segment about the significance of him retiring.
So here, in my words, is what makes Tim Duncan so goddamn special.
His unwavering professionalism, continuous work ethic, complete lack of public scandals and his mythical sense of humor known only truest to people closest to him, all add up to something more than a terrific basketball player. It adds up to a role model, and one who isn’t trying to be one, but just is, in the inner depths of his core.
I learned from Tim Duncan. It didn’t matter that I never spoke to him, or that I was thousands of miles away. I saw him work his tail off every night, sacrifice his own career for the greater good of a team, and never making any fuss whatsoever about anything. If something went badly he would take responsibility, even where he shouldn’t have, and talk about progress and moving forward. Many athletes do this, but very few mean it. By being close to the game, you develop a sense of who carry substance in their words, and who doesn’t. Duncan’s words never ring hollow nor do they seem manipulated. He rests within himself, carrying with him a calm demeanor that I as a youth never had, but from which I learned.
Some people may look down, or even belittle, other people who use athletes to guide them towards their own personal development. That’s fine, that’s their choice. I can only talk about the impact this one athlete had on me, and what kind of life lessons I acquired due to him. I’m almost 30 now, I’m a father. When I see my son struggle with something, I don’t offer my assistance in fixing the problem, but rather teach him to face the problem from a different perspective so he acquires something else, hopefully more important, than just a quick fix to putting his toys together. How did Duncan help with that? You try being an unathletic big body with a torn up leg, going up against 265-pounders with 40 inch verticals. Tim Duncan is the essence of thinking outside of the box, and using different ways to attack a problem.
It’s funny. The media always talk about how Steve Nash thought the game out, and they aren’t wrong, but Duncan is right there, maybe even further along. There’s an analytical approach to his game which has always been drastically understated, even though it’s clear as day when you take the time to really observe him and allow yourself to be swallowed by the game and its surroundings. Yes, Duncan’s relationship with Gregg Popovich carries a lot of weight in how he developed as a player, and I suspect as a man, but you can only ever hope people take what you tell them to heart. Accepting what you’re being told is always considerably easier said than done, but here we are in year 18, with Duncan still demonstrating his dominance thanks in large part to listening and wanting to understand, to improve, to adapt. Traits that would make every parent proud.
Tim Duncan made me appreciate things no one else could have, even those close by. He indirectly helped me shape and design the person that I am today, and helped remove the burden of measuring myself through only basketball. Duncan helped me re-love the sport I had always loved but had turned on in frustration due to my disease. For that, I will always be grateful. And should we have seen Tim Duncan play for the very last time, my only hope is that he leaves the game satisfied. If anyone deserves that feeling, it’s him.
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