CHICAGO – In this NBA season of Kobe, his season-long farewell tour perhaps the only thing distracting from the Golden State Warriors fast break to history, it is fitting that this likely is the final season for probably the greatest power forward of all time in the NBA. He’s a player who may even rank above Bryant in the all time sporting fantasy Valhalla.
Tim Duncan hasn’t said he’s retiring. Though many believe this 19th season with less play and career low statistics will be Duncan’s last with the still mighty Spurs making the transition to LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard.
Of course, it’s not only typical Duncan not to let on about his plans, but predictable that if it is Duncan’s final season he may not tell anyone until he’s not on the roster next October.
I don’t have many memorable Duncan interview stories because he answered most questions with a simple, “yes” or “no.”
Sometimes a “could be” or a “that’s possible.”
Couldn’t be bothered. Not that he was Rasheed Wallace angry and Ron Artest erratic; he just didn’t like to draw attention to himself.
Kobe gets compared to Michael Jordan, Bryant nicknamed the Black Mamba, I think, by himself.
Duncan is the Big Fundamental. That’s right. The most elementary category — named by Shaquille O’Neal during an All-Star Game when everyone was doing lob dunks and Duncan was working on a drop step move — for maybe one of the 10 best players ever.
Duncan has been the fulcrum for the amazing two-decade run of titles and contending for the Spurs, fittingly the quietest dynasty, but a dynasty still with five championships and one of the winningest records in league history.
It all came because of Duncan, who as a rookie in 1997 quickly surpassed David Robinson in effectiveness and brought Robinson a title after 10 years of trying, then adjusted to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and was in the middle for their titles, and then for Leonard.
There never has been a bigger star celebrated less.
But that’s also who Duncan really is, and he’s comfortable that way.
Teammates will universally tell you he’s a cutup, fun to be around, a prankster.
No one outside his family or teammates can attest to that.
“Not Joe Pesci,” says former teammate Brent Barry. “Funny, a good guy, fun to be around, funny.”
“He has a dry wit,” Steve Kerr told me. ” He’s not Laurel and Hardy. He’s not dropping banana peels on the locker-room floor and waiting for guys to slip, but he’s fun to be around.”
But the Tim Duncan we all see, the gentleman, the humble superstar — as your oxymorons go — is no fake.
Kerr came to the Spurs after the Bulls’ breakup in 1998.
It was Duncan’s second season, and he already was a star, Rookie of the Year, rare rookie to make the All-Star team, first team all-NBA as a rookie, grabbed 22 rebounds on Dennis Rodman the first time he played him, second team all-defense as a rookie.
So it’s Kerr’s first training camp with the Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich has ordered the first- and second-year players to take the bus over to the practice facility. The veterans can drive their own cars. Kerr told me he saw Duncan getting on the bus and asked where he was going. “I’m a second-year player,” Duncan told Kerr. “No!” Kerr said, “He doesn’t mean you!”
“Life is too short to be with jerks,” Popovich, in his unique way, explained about his regard for players like Duncan.
Not to diminish anyone like Bryant, and certainly not Jordan or any of the stars of the game’s history, but there’s really never quite been anyone like the 211-cm Tim Duncan.
He stayed in college (Wake Forest) four years when he could have been the No. 1 NBA overall draft pick after his second year and certainly would have been after his third year. He felt he had more to learn and loyalty to the college that took a chance on the kid from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Yeah, big chance. But that’s the way Duncan sees things.
It’s also why he stayed with the Spurs in 2000 when the Orlando Magic offered him as a free agent everything but Disneyworld, and if he had negotiated harder he might have gotten that.
Duncan averaged at least 20 points and 11 rebounds his first eight seasons as Popovich played a post game around Duncan. Then came the emergence of Parker and Ginobili and the evolution of the NBA to 3-point shooting and running. So Duncan saw his scoring and rebounding averages decline with fewer chances in the offense.
Never a word questioning the decision even at a time teammates will say Duncan was treated as tough by Popovich as anyone. No special treatment.
But it’s also the great quality of quiet leadership.
As Chuck Daly used to say, they have to allow you to coach them.
Few have like Duncan, the ideal student who accepted every assignment with grace and dignity and performed to the highest level without demands.
There’s no Duncan sneaker or advertising campaigns. There’s no highlight films or hip hop songs. There’s just the fundamentals.
It’s why Duncan is as special as any of them. Because perhaps other than Bill Russell, no player in NBA history has molded a franchise as Tim Duncan has.
The Boston Celtics, with their amazing run of 11 titles in 13 years that kicked off their great dynasty, built around the defense and fast break play signified by Russell.
Jordan did great things for the Bulls, but for maybe a decade. Same with Bird and Magic, though they had plenty of ancestors.
The Spurs have become the model franchise of the NBA with their quiet efficiency. They are always forgotten about or overlooked, yet basically always there in the midst of title contention for two decades in the image of Duncan, overlooked, overshadowed, but rarely outplayed.
San Antonio doesn’t seek any celebration or distinction; just what it earns. It’s the Duncan model it’s all been built upon.
Quiet, effective, efficient, a star in all the ways that really matter.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5