NEW YORK – Tim Duncan never wanted the spotlight, only the trophies. He never wanted the endorsements, only the camaraderie. He never wanted the accolades, only the collective achievement.
So when one of the most understated superstars in sports decided to finally call it a career after nearly two decades of excellence, he made the announcement with a 5-meter bank shot and not a boisterous slam dunk.
No big news conference. No victory lap. Not even a canned quote in the press release. Just a simple goodbye on Monday from the quiet anchor at the foundation of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty.
Just as he has for so much of his 19 seasons, the 40-year-old Duncan let others do the talking for him.
“Congrats to Tim Duncan. Probably a top 5 all-time player and undoubtedly a top 5 all-time teammate,” tweeted Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played with Duncan in San Antonio. “Wow, what a career.”
Fifteen All-Star appearances, five championships, three NBA Finals MVPs, two NBA MVPs, one coach, one team. Forever.
The Spurs made the playoffs in all 19 of his seasons and won 71 percent of their regular season games with No. 21 in the middle.
“The best (power forward) ever!” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge tweeted. “Thanks for the memories old man. A great player and teammate.”
Few would dare argue.
Duncan was the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 and teamed with coach Gregg Popovich, point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobili to turn the Spurs from a solid franchise that could never quite get over the hump into the model for American sports.
“The constant staple of their franchise,” Cleveland’s LeBron James said earlier this year.
The unassuming Duncan was the only player to start and win a title in three different decades. Nicknamed “The Big Fundamental” for his clinical approach that favored bank shots over dunks, he was a member of the All-NBA first team 10 times and is one of only three players — joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parrish — to win at least 1,000 games in his career. He is fifth on the NBA’s career list in blocks, sixth in rebounds and 14th in scoring.
He joined Larry Bird and Michael Jordan as the only players to be named college basketball’s player of the year, the NBA Rookie of the Year, and the MVP of the All-Star Game and the NBA Finals.
“Even tho I knew it was coming, I’m still moved by the news,” Ginobili tweeted. “What a HUGE honor to have played with him for 14 seasons! #ThankYouTD.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Duncan “one of the most dominant players in NBA history” and lauded him for an “understated selflessness (that) made him the ultimate teammate.”
“For two decades Tim represented the Spurs, the city of San Antonio and the league with passion and class,” Silver said. “All of us in the NBA family thank him for his profound impact on the game.”
The reluctant star was often overshadowed in the public eye by more outsized personalities like James and Kobe Bryant, who also retired this year after 20 seasons, all with the Los Angeles Lakers. But he leaves this game as one of the league’s true giants, perhaps the best power forward to ever play and one who left as indelible a mark on his franchise as any player to come before him.
“This will always be Timmy’s franchise. Always,” Parker said during the 2013 NBA Finals. “Should do a statue for him outside the AT&T Center.”
The last time Duncan spoke to reporters was on May 12, when the Spurs had just been eliminated by the Thunder in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.
There were hints in that game of Duncan’s plans, even though he later exercised a contract option to clear the way for his return. He had always said that he would walk away when he felt he could no longer have a significant impact on the game, and for most of the series the younger Thunder big men had their way with him and the Spurs on the glass.
With San Antonio getting blown out and the fourth quarter set to begin, Popovich and his veteran star had a brief conversation on the bench. Duncan then played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter without coming out for a rest, finishing with 19 points and soaking up every second he could in the last game he would ever play. And when the game was over, Duncan waved to the visiting crowd and pointed a finger toward the roof as he headed to the locker room.
“Timmy’s never been a very outspoken or emoting sort of individual on the court,” Popovich said earlier this year. “Everybody does it differently.”
And Duncan was truly one of a kind.
In 1997, after an injury to star David Robinson, the Spurs plunged in the standings and ended up with a chance at the No. 1 overall pick. They won the lottery, and it was a no-brainer to choose Duncan, the polished, two-way big man who had spent four years at Wake Forest.
The Spurs won 36 more games in Duncan’s rookie year than they had the previous season and were NBA champions in his sophomore campaign. They also won titles in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014, the last one a dominant run to redemption over James and the Miami Heat after losing to them in seven games the previous season.
He was a 38-year-old All-Star in 2014-15 and even as his minutes were reduced to save the wear and tear on his body for the playoffs, he remained a force on the defensive end and on the glass.
He had 140 different teammates in his career and he handled taking the baton from Robinson in 1998 just as gracefully as he did passing it to Kawhi Leonard in 2014.
The Spurs added Pau Gasol and Dewayne Dedmon to beef up their front-court depth in anticipation of Duncan’s decision. But even though Duncan’s production has been in decline, they will never be able to replace the backbone of the organization.
“I think it goes way beyond the championships and the winning,” said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a longtime Spurs assistant. “I think the culture that really, he’s kind of the pillar it’s been built around. It is almost impossible to quantify.”
And now he steps away, not stomping out the door like Bryant did with his 60-point finale, but tip-toeing away with no fanfare.
“The modesty with which he handles himself is so refreshing,” said Timberwolves GM Scott Layden, who spent the previous four years in the front office in San Antonio. “He’s a great example for everyone.”