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Tim Duncan exited the NBA the same he entered it – as a starter for the San Antonio Spurs with a selfless, team-first commitment to winning and an aversion for the spotlight.
He evolved as a player and person over a remarkable career that lasted nearly two decades, but those core values never wavered as Duncan developed into one of the best power forwards in basketball history.
Duncan – a force offensively and defensively -- averaged 19 points, 10.8 rebounds, three assists and 2.2 blocks in 19 seasons that included five NBA titles, 15 All-Star appearances, 15 All-NBA selections, 15 All-Defensive teams, three Finals MVPs, two regular-season MVPs and rookie of the year.
“It’s all a combination of a competitiveness on my own part, a love for playing the game, hating losing – that’s a big one, I don’t think gets enough credit – and an organization committed to putting the best things in place to give a city, a team, a player like myself to win year in, year out,” Duncan told Spurs.com in the only interview he gave before his mandatory Hall of Fame press conference.
Duncan is a first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer and will be inducted Saturday with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tamika Catchings, Rudy Tomjanovich, Kim Mulkey, Barbara Stevens, Eddie Sutton and Patrick Baumann in what might be the best Hall class ever.
Longtime Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was brief and direct in his admiration: “On a professional level, no Duncan, no championships. On a personal level, I love the guy.”
Setting an example for teammates
The Spurs were one of the NBA’s few elite franchises during Duncan’s run. Beyond his talent, Duncan worked hard and provided leadership, establishing an ethos that permeated throughout the organization. Behind that stoic face, was an intense competitor who wanted to win and wanted his teammates to contribute no matter their role.
“It’s at practice where you really get a chance to see what someone is about,” ESPN analyst and former teammate Bruce Bowen said. “No one can say they saw Tim take nights off as far as the work is concerned. I would see him in his own little world putting in the work, putting in the work. As you come in and see the top dog putting in the work, it sends a message immediately.
“Either you’re going to sink or swim in this environment because if you’re not a worker and you see he’s a worker, you’re at odds already. When you see certain scenarios, now it’s more about, ‘OK, I see that I’m going to be held to a certain standard even before you have a conversation.’ ”
While the Spurs played Popovich’s way, Duncan made Popovich’s job easier.
“He led by example,” Popovich said. “Even to this day, up until COVID, he’s in the gym every day. That’s just how he rolls. With his teammates, he set the quiet example of competing every day whether it was practice, shootaround, and of course, the games. He always took the lead. Even Manu (Ginobili) and Tony (Parker) looked toward him.”
When the Spurs signed new players, “he was the guy who welcomed them all,” Popovich said. “He was the one who made them all feel comfortable and let them know what he expected of them. His standards are really high. He suffered no fools. But he gave everybody an opportunity to commit to a role and fulfill it.
“Any coach that has their best player as the leader who’s respected by everybody and who can handle criticism makes the job much easier, so I was very fortunate in that regard.”
A player didn’t have to be as good as Duncan. He just had to work hard. In 2015, Duncan won the Twyman-Stokes Award given to the player who is “the best teammate based on selfless play, on- and off-court leadership as a mentor and role model to other NBA players, and commitment and dedication to team.”
From swimming hopeful to 'Big Fundamental'
Duncan arrived in the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick from Wake Forest in the 1997 draft. Duncan, a native of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands who wanted as a kid to be an Olympic swimmer like his sister Tricia, started for the Spurs from day one, and season by season, he continued to refine his elite skillset grounded and his command of fundamentals.
“It became for him, ‘I have all these tools, and people don’t know what I’m going to utilize,’ ” Bowen said. “You talk about that wing catch, turn and face up. He can drive by a guy. He can shoot the mid-range shot. He can shoot the bank shot. He can take one dribble and jump hook left or right hand. It’s to his credit and talent that he utilized whatever was necessary to make the best decision.”
Duncan’s bank shot stands as one of those nearly unstoppable shots, similar to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s hook shot. With a high release, Duncan used the backboard from different angles and spots on the court.
“One of the things that made it special is because it’s so rare,” Popovich said. “Not many people really use that to any degree. His size on top of shooting the bank shot was a pretty special thing. It was one of the first fundamental things everybody noticed about him. His footwork was great and he knew how to land it on the backboard. That was a rarity. It still is as a matter of fact.”
Duncan is No. 18 in the all-time points (26,496), No. 6 in all-time rebounds (15,091), No. 3 in defensive rebounds (11,232), No. 11 in offensive rebounds (3,859), No. 5 in blocks (3,020), No. 14 in made shots, No. 10 in games played, No. 12 in minutes played.
Duncan won his first Finals MVP in 1999, averaging 21.7 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.5 blocks. He earned the award again in 2003 (23.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.9 blocks per game) and again in 2005 (20.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.6 blocks per game).
In his back-to-back MVP seasons in 2002 and 2003, he averaged at least 23.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.5 blocks.
But Duncan can’t pick one moment that stands out more than another.
“I’m not going to name one thing I appreciate the most,” Duncan said. “I enjoyed the journey. And I enjoy it even more now, looking back. Just missing being a part of that but also in the same respect, having gone through it, just understanding how present you have to be every day, every game.
“I was better at that later in my career as you kind of see the end coming where you’re just like, ‘OK, I’m here tonight. I’m going to appreciate this game tonight, appreciate this moment tonight, this practice today. I’m going to be present instead of being like, Ah, I just got to get through this.’ It happens fast. It goes by fast. I look back and I appreciate the entire journey.”
Duncan never chased the spotlight. And while the light will shine on Duncan during the Hall induction, he will share the honors with others in the one of the greatest Hall of Fame classes. Duncan probably prefers it that way.
“He really tries to stay away from those kinds of moments,” Popovich said. "He doesn’t like talking about himself. He’s never been a chest-thumper or looking for the camera or anything like that. He’s quite selfless and pretty much just a homebody, that’s just who he is.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tim Duncan was one of best forwards in NBA, but he won't tell you about it