A great chapter closed, an era ended, the ink is finally dry on the career of Tim Duncan. Of course, we’ll be arguing legacies and positions played until time immemorial because that’s what we do, but there is no next with Tim Duncan. In the early morning when I found out about his retirement, my mind was clear, not yet polluted by the noise of the day and corporate worries. I trust my morning mind and for some reason, my first thoughts of Duncan were his failures.
Back in 2013 when the Heat battled back from a game six fourth quarter deficit and eventually won the series in game seven, a major footnote of the series happened in the fourth quarter of game seven with Miami up 90-88 and less than a minute remaining in the game. Duncan, guarded by 6’7” Shane Battier, caught the ball on the left block and dribbled across the middle of the lane where he attempted and missed a driving layup. He perfectly timed his miss and used his great length to tip the ball back up, missing that as well. Miami rebounded the ball and went on to win the game. Duncan and the Spurs got the shot they wanted, but he missed. For a guy who’s considered by many to be the greatest power forward of all time, this was a low point.
“To be at this point — with this team, in a situation where people kind of counted us out — [it] is a great accomplishment to be in a Game 7,” Duncan said. “Or to be in a Game 6 up one and two chances to win an NBA championship and not do it, that’s tough to swallow.”
But now that the world has turned and left Duncan here, so close and yet so far away from the fifth title he so desperately craves, the Game 6 meltdown isn’t what he’ll remember most.
“For me, no. Game 7, missing a layup to tie the game … Making a bad decision down the stretch. Just unable to stop Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron [James]. Probably, for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me.”
Tim Duncan’s greatness has never been up for debate. Since he stepped onto the court as a rookie and averaged 21-points with 12-rebounds and 2.5-blocks, he’s been firmly entrenched as a top player in the league. And yet, I’ll always remember his early career bugaboos from the free throw line. He never reached Shaq-level struggles, but battled the yips on multiple occasions over the years; most notably against the Pistons in game five of the 2005 Finals when he went 0-6 from the line in the 4th quarter including 0-3 in the final minute. It was remarkable to see a player who was otherwise so fundamentally sound lose focus or over-focus at critical points in big games. He was a 7-foot expressionless (except when disagreeing with calls) tactician with his own flaws and struggles.
I assume I’m attracted to Duncan’s failures in part because as a Lakers fan during the Shaq/Kobe era, Duncan and his Spurs were a fear-causing foil. If Shaq was a human wrecking ball patrolling the paint, Duncan was the Excellence of Execution, a player whose overall game was so refined as to appear pre-programmed, Terminator style. Some guys are so great that you that their success is assumed. If you root against these players or their teams, you become conditioned to them snuffing out your hope by just doing what they do.
But it was never just about Duncan. In some ways, Duncan and the Spurs were too good to be true, too good to resist. Part of the indelibleness of his and their failures is rooted deeply in the 19-year-long crush of a narrative that trails these Spurs around as a model of virtue and righteousness. It’s this unbudging narrative (and lack of questioning it) that pushed me to write this in 2014 and drove my friend Jacob Greenberg to write this a few months later. Duncan isn’t guilty of crafting these narratives, but Spurs and Popovich exceptionalism have always generated incessant storylines that made any deviation from the flawless particularly enjoyable.
But as I look back and re-watch some of these old misses, there’s no longer any joy. Removed from the passion that accompanies being a fan fully engrossed in the live moment, it’s empathy and feeling that stand out. For all the descriptions of being a stoic and being a robot, Duncan is composed of the same moondust that makes up all of us. And in seeing his failure and the weights of those disappointments, I can’t help but feel some of what he feels even if I only ever hoped his team would be defeated.
So in my pettiness, it’s failure that stands out and it isn’t just the free throws I remember. As has become a theme of this blog, my own personal fan experience is one that relishes the defeat of true foes as much as it celebrates my own team’s victories. May 13th, 2004 delivered an iconic basketball moment and Duncan was a significant figure in the memory. I was at my apartment in Iowa City, a fifth-year senior grinding through his final classes, watching a Lakers/Spurs Western Conference Semifinals grinder from bed while my wife (then my girlfriend) studied or worked or just chilled next to me. The game unfolded on my crappy 19” TV, a low-scoring affair in the 70s of which I remember little except two shots.
With just over five seconds on the clock and a 72-71 Lakers lead in San Antonio, Duncan caught Ginobili’s inbounds at the right elbow and with a 7’1”, 350lbs-plus Shaq draped over him, took a couple hard dribbles to his left and elevated with his momentum carrying him that direction and flung a shot at the basket. He didn’t follow-through, it was just a quick trigger of a line drive that seemed to be magnetically pulled into and through the hoop.
The Spurs, their fans, and of course Duncan erupted. The camera zoomed in on Kobe, on Shaq. They’re stunned, disbelieving. The clock read 0.4 seconds and in my room as a 23-year-old, I am deflated. Even re-watching it now, a stain of disappointment is still there, just barely, but there it is; knowingly bested even if by a fluke shot. Even if it didn’t play out that way, the likelihood of defeat was all too real to the point I still carry it with me more than 12 years later.
The Lakers come back down with Gary Payton inbounding. Shaq peels back checking for the lob, but Rasho Nesterovic denies it. Kobe tries to break away north of the three-point line, but it’s Derek Fisher making a hard cut to the ball, catching and barely turning and shooting all in one motion. From a sitting position, I jumped off my bed, nearly hitting my head on the ceiling. I shrieked or screamed or yelled and my wife nearly had a heart attack. And all those Spurs, Kevin Willis, Bruce Bowen, Hedo Turkoglu, and of course Tim Duncan are struck down by their own incomprehension which is only made more agonizing by the review process that confirms it all: shot is good, Lakers win.
That the most controversial aspect of Duncan’s career is whether or not he was a power forward or center is the vanilla of NBA controversies. He made no waves, just dominated. He won two MVPs, three Finals MVPs, an All-Star MVP, and five NBA Championships. I guess people want to debate if he’s the best power forward ever or how he stacks up against Kobe as the best player of their shared generation, but there’s not much to argue for me. I’ll always remember the failures and even if I understand how and why my memories drift that way, I can’t help but feel that in relishing the losses, I missed out on some great moments from one of the greatest basketball players of my lifetime.