Timothy Theodore Duncan was a shining example of humility throughout his career but wouldn't have been able to dominate throughout three different decades without possessing ego in abundance. Duncan suppressed his swag with self-deprecating humor, oversize plaid shirts and a duck-out-of-the-back-door shyness. But it was always there in those fundamentally sound, soul-crushing bank shots, those one-handed, swing-on-the-rim jams and especially those five Larry O'Brien trophies he collected.
One time, however, the two-time MVP had to check a reporter before that individual confused his desire not to draw attention to himself with something else.
It was October 2008. Duncan was 32, a year removed from his fourth NBA championship, starting to decline a bit athletically and smoothly passing the baton over to his eventual Hall of Fame teammates, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Duncan’s biggest big man rival, Shaquille O’Neal, was fading, but back-to-the-basket behemoths suddenly appeared set to fend off extinction. Dwight Howard was becoming the latest force to don a Superman cape, Andrew Bynum was displaying the talent to tune out Kobe’s tough love, and Greg Oden was set to make his long-anticipated, injury-delayed debut.
With those young, potentially dominant big men seemingly set to take their place in the league, Duncan was asked, half-jokingly, if he was relieved that Howard, Bynum and Oden would be entering their primes at a time when he would be closer to stepping away from the game. Unamused, Duncan glared back at the questioner – that would be me – and gave a rather annoyed, insolent response.
“You calling me old?” Duncan asked, before giving a response that implied he wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Then, before walking away in a bit of a huff, Duncan added, “We’re all going to get old some day."
Duncan eventually got old, with a salt-and-pepper beard and head of hair that matched the Spurs’ uniform. But to understand how he was able to play eight more years, win one more title 15 years after his first, and stay relevant long after most of his Generation X brethren had departed, that incredulous reaction to that question at the Spurs’ practice facility offered a clue.
The greatest unpretentious career in NBA history has come to end without the benefit of much fanfare or a goodbye tour – and it couldn't be more appropriate for the league's anti-superstar. Players have won more championships, hauled in more MVP awards, accumulated more wealth and received more praise, adulation and fame. But none can claim to have been an important part of a championship-contending team for 19 consecutive seasons.
Duncan was the ultimate franchise cornerstone. Drafted No. 1 overall in 1997, Duncan consistently provided the foundation for a team that never had to build or rebuild and only required a few renovations here or there to remain relevant. Never the player kids dreamed of imitating in their backyards or the blacktop, Duncan remained universally respected and admired even if he wasn't among the most popular in jersey sales; even if his methodical game and intentionally bland persona were once radioactive for TV ratings.
Aside from a mild flirtation with Orlando the first time he became an unrestricted free agent, Duncan never thirsted for something bigger, never concerned himself with brand building. Duncan had a few endorsements early in his career. He once staged a rap battle with Kobe Bryant in a Sprite commercial that sounds as weird as it was. He later starred in an American Express ad that played into his low-key disposition by not allowing him to speak. But no Little Timmy was created to serve as his alter ego like Penny Hardaway, no Mars Blackmon helped him sell shoes. Duncan was the perfect small-market superhero. He enjoyed the quiet of San Antonio, embraced and hid in its charms.
Duncan wasn't completely devoid of personality but rarely let the public see what he shared with those close to him. He had a wry sense of humor, was a bit of a geek and was also an excellent teammate whose selflessness and ability to be coached made the Spurs’ culture work through its many incarnations. In recent years, Duncan tapped into his passion for cars by opening an auto-detail shop.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich always joked about how lucky he was, how lucky San Antonio was, to have Duncan. But Duncan also understood how fortunate he was to land with an organization on much more stable ground than those typically in position to win the lottery. The Spurs were a perennial playoff team that had a rare down year and already possessed an incredibly humble superstar in David Robinson, who was two years removed from winning league MVP when he welcomed Duncan and taught him how to sacrifice for the sake of winning.
As the Spurs evolved from being boring to playing the beautiful game, Duncan adapted. He waited for Parker's game to catch up with the guard’s speed, for Ginobili to add more discipline to his improvisational tornados, for Kawhi Leonard to find the confidence to become a leading man, and stopped masquerading as a power forward for LaMarcus Aldridge to come in and usher the next phase for the franchise.
Duncan put his trust in Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford, and they repaid his loyalty by giving him a team that could always satiate his desire to compete for more Larry O'Brien trophies – an obsession once he reached that glorious peak for the first time in just his second season. He won four championships in his first 10 seasons, was the best player for the first three titles and most indispensable in the fourth. During a career-long, six-year lull between Finals appearances, Duncan was asked what kept him going. Duncan explained that once you win, you want to have that feeling again and again.
Duncan’s competitiveness was easily overlooked because it always seemed to get lost in his simple, understated approach to the game that he reluctantly picked up in the U.S. Virgin Islands when Hurricane Hugo knocked out his nearby pool and his increasing height forced him to give up swimming. The love he had for the game was sincere, captured before every tip-off when he delicately wrapped his arms around the basketball. But he had an internal well-contained, volcanic fire that occasionally erupted at referee Joey Crawford or any FIBA official. Trash talk didn't get to him, as Kevin Garnett came to understand early on and Draymond Green learned almost two decades later.
Each of the past few seasons have ended with a Duncan retirement watch, an unfair practice that either showed a lack of appreciation for his contributions or a fear of seeing him in a decrepit, diminished state. Popovich helped Duncan fend off advancing age by providing ample rest and only asking him to summon a legendary performance when necessary.
Efficient longevity is Duncan's lasting legacy. He never chased accolades, recognition or outside approval. His motivation was always to follow the words of one of his late mother's favorite nursery rhymes: "Good, better, best/Never let it rest/Until your good is better and your better is your best."
Popovich had always assumed that Duncan would retire in the most succinct manner; that he'd show up in a gym one day, look around, decide he was done and walk away for good. When Duncan finally decided to call it quits, Oden and Bynum were already out of the league and Howard's star had fallen considerably. Duncan, however, just completed a season in which the Spurs won a franchise-best 67 games.
Greatness always finds copycats that inevitably come up short of the target. Duncan was so unique with his play, rare with his loyalty and remarkable with his sustained success that the league never tried to create the false hype that The Next One was coming. The end has arrived and there won't be a duplicate Duncan. With that quiet confidence, Duncan outlasted his peers, his rivals and even many who came after him. One was more than enough.