Only very briefly did I have a front-row seat to Tim Duncan’s masterful 19-year NBA career, and only in his earliest days with the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan was 22 years old at the time, in his second pro season. He was then, as he remained until his retirement this week at 40, the antithesis of the clamorous NBA culture. Amid the sport’s garish theatricality—raucous crowds, deafening music, enabling acoustics—Duncan’s game was one of muted perfection.
The occasion was the 1999 championship finals against the New York Knicks. Because a labor dispute had delayed the start of the 1998-99 season until January of ’99—and because my Newsday editors had failed to replace our departed Knicks beat writer during the NBA owners’ lockout—I became a last-second stand-in to chronicle that abbreviated Knicks campaign.
That the Knicks wound up in the finals against the Spurs and Duncan was a most unlikely development. Through 42 games of the truncated 50-game schedule, hurriedly pieced together with the labor cease-fire, the gyroscopically challenged Knicks barely were able to maintain any equilibrium, slogging along with a shaky 21-21 record.
But they evolved into a spunky outfit at just the right time, the first No. 8 seed to ascend to the finals by shocking top conference seed Miami, sweeping Atlanta and knocking off Indiana. Along the way, they lost perennial all-star Patrick Ewing with a torn Achilles and arrived in San Antonio—the two teams had not met during the season—with former all-star Larry Johnson hobbling on a sprained knee.
The Spurs, meanwhile, were at a full gallop, about to set an NBA record of 12 consecutive post-season victories during the Knicks series. Steve Kerr, the former Chicago Bulls sharpshooter who now coaches the 2015 champion Golden State Warriors, was a role player on that San Antonio team. Avery Johnson, who spent five years as an NBA coach and now coaches the University of Alabama, was a vital Spurs factor who scored the championship-clinching basket with 47 seconds to play in Game 5. Imposing 7-foot-1 all-star David Robinson, who was late in his 14-year-career, was the Spurs inside force.
But the primary motor for San Antonio was Duncan, the high tide who lifted all teammates’ boats. Against the Knicks, Duncan scored 33, 25, 20, 28 and 31 points in the series. He took 16, 15, 12, 18 and 9 rebounds. He blocked shots, delivered assists and was the obvious final-round MVP—the first of three such honors in the five championships he eventually won with the Spurs.
Seldom has one player made so much noise. Yet so quietly. Throughout his career, Duncan betrayed so little emotion, on and off the court, that The Onion, the satirical news source, once posted the farcical headline: “Tim Duncan Hams It Up for Crowd by Arching Left Eyebrow Slightly.”
His was not a false humility. Pressed during that Knicks series whether he could see himself as a 6-11 point guard, since he seemed to play every other position effortlessly, Duncan acknowledged that he would be happy to try. And that he believed he would have an impact in that little man’s role.
But he never indicated any desire whatsoever to seek the spotlight. Instead of narcissistic showboating and self-promotion, instead of angry slam dunks and demonstrative chest-beating, Duncan was restrained eloquence. Turn-around jump shots banked gently off the glass. Spinning layups. Rebounds. Shtick-less efficiency.
It was typical that Duncan skipped the kind of season-long farewell tour Kobe Bryant embarked upon this past season and left his retirement announcement (without comment) to a Spurs press release.
He came to be Old Man River Walk, as much a landmark in San Antonio as the network of restaurants, bars and shops along the city’s eponymous waterway. Yet, just as his basketball home was not the definition of glamour, his style was not the sort that spread his name beyond hard-core fandom. My own informal poll has concluded that, while casual sports observers easily can identify Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, they struggle to place this Tim Duncan fellow.
All those years ago, during the 1999 finals in which Duncan put the Knicks on the road to extinction (their last NBA finals appearance, by the way), his opponents and teammates offered reviews that never needed revising….
Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy: “Nobody on the planet can guard Duncan. [And on defense], he is the long arm of the law, does a great job of turning us into a jump-shooting team.”
Knicks forward Latrell Sprewell: “He is long, excellent with the ball, has a great touch for a big guy. We have to go back to the drawing board.”
Spurs teammate Mario Elie: “He just does his job, doesn’t complain, doesn’t bring attention to himself.”