October 18, 2018

She rose slowly from the driver’s seat and gingerly stepped out of her car. Braving the oppressive July heat, she shut the door, locked the car with her keychain remote and walked toward the makeshift shanty built from a worn, blue tarp and milk cartons. Seated behind a folding table, two men greeted the old woman as she stepped between piles of cantaloupe and cartons filled with tomatoes and squash. Strewn about the shaded enclosure were cardboard boxes full of mangoes and oranges. And life in San Antonio went on.

Like so many basketball fans today, I’ve been in a bit of a daze. So this afternoon I drove south to Produce Row, east of downtown in a bustling area containing huge warehouses with cold storage and loading docks as far as the eye can see. There, fruits and vegetables are diced, packaged, and sold to grocery stores and restaurants across the country. Tiny fruit stands dot the street corners along South Zarzamora Street, so I pulled into the parking lot of one and watched an old lady buy a basket of fresh tomatoes–if for no other reason than to reassure myself that my city is still alive.

Tim Duncan
Random murals of the Spurs can be spotted around the streets of San Antonio.

After a few minutes I continued south on Zarzamora to Nogalitos, where I turned back west toward downtown. Driving past the bright yellow and orange buildings housing sundry muffler shops and taquerias, I listened to local sports radio where the hosts and callers each described what Tim Duncan personally meant to them. Unique; fundamental; city-saving; lottery; Pop; Big 3; mile-marker; anchor; statues; all words floating in the ether to describe what Duncan has meant to San Antonio. Some called in to share their brief encounters with the man. And yes, he’s been seen at all the haunts you’d most expect him to frequent: GameStop, Bed Bath & Beyond, comic book shops, gas stations, CVS, and the local grocery chain.

If New York has eight million naked stories, San Antonio has at least a couple hundred thousand. And it is in these hours and days when all those that have been impacted by Tim Duncan, both large and small, deserve to tell theirs. The sport’s most eloquent writers will masterfully weave his career numbers and stats into engrossing narratives that humanize the man. Teammates and foes alike will share amusing anecdotes and stories that balance what an exceptional teammate he was against his all-consuming desire to win. And fans will reminisce about games they got to witness or brief interactions they had with him off the court.

I count myself as one of those fortunate few that got to watch his greatness, quiet grace, and goofy facial expressions made for his kids up close during what turned out to be his final championship season. I’ll always cherish those nine exhausting months, watching and writing about Duncan and the Spurs from as close as anyone is ever allowed to get.

And as is always the case with the Spurs, that closeness is uniquely frustrating. Tim Duncan lives less than five miles from me. We shop at the same grocery store, drive the same roads, squint through the same haze that engulfs the city in July and August. Yet his greatness, his single-minded approach to mastering excellence is something I can only dare to aspire to. It’s so close, yet so far away–but that’s the legacy he leaves for me. That’s the legacy he leaves for that little old lady shopping for tomatoes at an outlaw fruit stand on Produce Row. That’s the legacy he leaves for our city.

Perhaps the tragic events of recent days make Duncan’s retirement sting a little more. If we’re honest, most of us will admit that we knew the end was coming sooner rather than later. But for so long he’s served as the anchor that we lash our hopes and dreams to. The void Duncan leaves behind makes the churning upheaval and strife roiling through our country just that much more scary. Yes, of course it’s silly to think a simple basketball player as a calming force, but for so many of us he was. Whatever else was right or wrong in our daily lives, we always had Tim Duncan’s stability to lean on. And now that’s gone.

My daughter will be a sophomore in high school this fall. She’s a remarkable young lady and is turning out to be quite good at basketball. She’s worked extremely hard this summer on getting better at the game, at mastering the small things that could lead to bigger things for her down the road. Like Duncan, she’s quiet and completely lacking in swagger. But she can play ball. Tomorrow morning, she and I will be on the court at 6 a.m., just as we’ve been for most mornings this summer. She’ll be working on fundamentals and chasing a bit of the greatness that Tim Duncan taught us was out there, ready to quietly scoop up just by doing the things that not everyone else is willing to do. And that’s the legacy he leaves for her.

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Travis Hale

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