San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan did not retire with much, or any, fanfare. Unlike fellow icon Kobe Bryant, there were no season-long farewell tours. Instead, Duncan assessed his options after the 2015-16 season, made his decision, and had the Spurs announce his retirement for him. He didn’t even address the media — that role fell to head coach Gregg Popovich, who said a few affecting words on the team’s practice court in mid-July.
Duncan finally got a more formal goodbye on Sunday night, when the Spurs retired his No. 21 jersey following a 113-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. The ceremony featured comments from teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, coaches Dave Odom (his college coach for four years at Wake Forest) and Popovich, and Duncan himself. Throughout it all, one thing became perfectly clear — that everyone who had the pleasure of working with Duncan found him not just a legendary player, but a special person, teammate, and friend.
The event began roughly 30 minutes after the final buzzer as master of ceremonies Sean Elliott introduced Parker, who provided the funniest jokes of the night and plenty of memories of the way Duncan pushed him to be great when he arrived in San Antonio as a 19-year-old rookie. This line summed up his speech:
"I will always look at you as the great example to follow, except for the clothing." – Tony Parker, for the win…
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) December 19, 2016
On the other hand, Parker was happy to honor his ex-teammate with special socks worn during Sunday’s game:
— Tony Parker (@tonyparker) December 18, 2016
Ginobili followed with more fond memories and tributes to Duncan, including the revelation that he calls him “Nanu.” Like Parker, Ginobili emphasized the high standard that the Big Fundamental set for the rest of the Spurs and his willingness to work with his teammates to improve their games.
Odom followed by thanking Duncan for his contributions to Wake Forest (an odd sentiment for a Spurs event, if we’re being honest) and calling attention to the special bond between Popovich and his longtime superstar. That introduction proved fitting for Popovich’s second public speech about what Duncan means to him:
Pop’s comments touched on much of what he covered in July’s informal presser, including the touching statement that Duncan’s deceased parents should be extremely proud that their son stayed the same person throughout his 19 seasons in San Antonio. There were also moments of levity, such as the revelation that Duncan made Popovich bring him carrot cake — that popular vice — on a regular basis. That damning piece of evidence will surely end the baseless assumption that Duncan was the NBA’s lone unselfish star.
Yet those speeches were mere prelude to the main event — a speech from a player well known for avoiding the media and the trappings of celebrity whenever possible. That reputation made it a little surprising to hear Duncan narrate his own tribute video directed by his brother Scott, a successful TV cameraman and cinematographer:
Then Duncan spoke:
As Duncan said, he shocked many by not wearing jeans, putting on a jacket, and speaking for more than 30 seconds. But this was still the Duncan fans came to know (or not know) — direct, largely self-effacing in public, and thoughtful about the relationships he shares with his coaches and teammates. It was a nice moment to cap an event that showcased the San Antonio Spurs at their most likable.
Many basketball fans had trouble warming to the Spurs during their Duncan-led heyday, and the team’s attitudes towards its media responsibilities were often standoffish enough to warrant that reaction. However, Duncan’s jersey retirement ceremony affirmed that this group could always be very likable when they wanted to be. Few core groups have had such continuity in the modern era, and the Spurs clearly came by that togetherness honestly. Popovich, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili — plus Bruce Bowen, David Robinson, and others in attendance — clearly like each other and sincerely value the time they’ve had together. Parker and Ginobili (and Popovich, if he ever quits) may or may not opt for different kinds of ceremonies when they retire, but it’s a safe bet that a similar depth of feeling will carry the day. Whatever your opinion, the Spurs feel like an honest-to-god community.
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