SAN ANTONIO – Eighteen years ago, Tim Duncan arrived inside a scrimmage gymnasium for the U.S. national team, lanky in arms and legs and primitive in basketball life, clean cut from his fade to his goatee. His roster of college athletes had been called upon to tune up the gold medalists, and Duncan had executed a domination of veteran future Hall of Fame big men out of everyone’s wildest imaginations.
Hakeem Olajuwon. David Robinson. Shaquille O’Neal. One by one, Duncan administered a college course in low-post moves and soothing jump shots and gave a seminar in sprinting the court and duck-in positioning. He left defenses in his wake, left a San Antonio Spurs star in awe. In this exhibition game late in the 1996 Olympic preparation, Duncan had scored over 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds on this front line built of all-time greats, and Robinson had soon made the call to a most influential front office member for a simple question.
“Who is this kid, man?” Robinson asked Gregg Popovich. “This young kid is phenomenal.”
A year later, the Spurs struck the No. 1 overall pick, and the decision was a no-brainer. From the coach in waiting, Popovich, to the current star, Robinson, everyone sold themselves on Duncan – with ease and impatience. Now, Duncan’s a five-time NBA champion, cemented in San Antonio’s demolition of the Miami Heat in five games of the NBA Finals and a 104-87 rout on Sunday night. He’s made five championship banners possible inside the AT&T Center rafters, through instinctive awareness of self and stature and through sacrifice on contract payouts.
Duncan is a model star for the Spurs, and he’s the face of an era that forever revels in franchise success. All around him late Sunday stood former teammates for whom Duncan’s delivered NBA titles: Robinson and Bruce Bowen, Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott. Duncan roamed the locker room and corridors of the building with his son and daughter, but past and present pledged grace and loyalty toward him. Scattered the walls here are letters, “F … A … M … I … L … Y,” and the same relentless core coming back for more advances the sentiment.
As Kawhi Leonard accepted the MVP trophy for the Finals, Duncan strayed near the back of the stage. He held his daughter and son in his hands, held the words of Bill Russell in his ears. They smiled and laughed, hugged and shook hands. In so many ways, Duncan had represented the values of Russell and these Spurs, those Boston Celtics. Two of the greatest champions and big men of NBA lore, two teams that punctuated basketball’s principles and values on the court.
“This is sweeter than any other,” Duncan said, “whether it be because I’m toward the end of my career or because I can have these two [children] here and really remember and enjoy the experience.”
Duncan uplifted the sport for the Spurs seventeen years ago, came to this rising franchise as a draft miracle once the Celtics lost grasp of a talent surely their own, and now he’s survived every ailment and stiffened his legacy.
“We get Tim in ‘97, and I’m like, ‘Yes!’ People had no clue how good this guy really was,” Robinson told RealGM. “Then we went to Colorado, and I brought Tim to my house in Colorado, started working out with him every day, and just watching him, that guy could score at will on me. I thought, hey, I’m a pretty decent defensive player, and he could do this on me? He could do it on anyone. He uses both hands, shoots off the backboard.
“The first couple of years here, I was the team leader and I still did scoring and whatever I needed to do. But as [Duncan] matured, it was clear: You let a guy do what he does best. He leads.”
In every way, the superiority of the Spurs ran rampant in this Finals and the grace of team merit permeated from San Antonio to Miami. LeBron James called this a beat down after Game 4, and he let out the truth on Sunday night: “They were the much better team. That’s what team basketball and how team basketball should be played. It’s for the team, never about the individual.”
Never about accolades on these Spurs, and there were the Big Three provoking some semblance of outpour from the Most Valuable Player. They ragged on Leonard to smile, to explode in front of the cameras. All over the court, role players did their part – Patty Mills furthering the establishment of his NBA niche, Boris Diaw a 6-foot-8 wizard with the ball, and verdicts stamped on careers throughout the roster.
For everyone wishing for a sequel of last season’s epic seven-game Finals, the Heat simply couldn’t match the brilliance and improvement of San Antonio. No way, no how. Miami lacked freshness in depth, lacked star support for James and waited until the elimination game to remove a regressing Mario Chalmers from the starting lineup. By the time Sunday came, Erik Spoelstra’s trust in his bench had run too thin.
Fifteen years since his first title, a 4-1 victory over the New York Knicks in 1999, Duncan strolled out of the press conference room late Sunday with a slight limp, a shin pad and hands on his kids’ heads. He passed on questions about his future, left open the possibility of retirement, but Duncan has always made clear his playing days will continue as long as he remains productive.
Even now, Duncan’s the most cerebral and fundamental post player in the NBA. He averaged 15.4 points and 10 rebounds and nearly a block per game – a 38-year-old shooting 57 percent in his sixth NBA Finals series.
Robinson had gone from the court to photo opportunities with Duncan, from clutching Duncan in his arms to halting every now and then and discussing the trials to five rings. For an old teammate, a forever friend and a Spurs legend, Robinson’s mind is made: Duncan belongs to play beyond next season.
“I hope this isn’t it because Tim still has so much in the tank,” Robinson told RealGM. “When they needed him, he goes right to the block. He just punishes guys. He’s got a lot left in the tank, and he provides ridiculous leadership for this team. He’s still great.”
Still the cornerstone, the example, for everyone within these Spurs walls, a franchise player David Robinson swore he envisioned back in the 1996 scrimmage for Team USA. Robinson picked up the phone to call his general manager eighteen years ago, questioning: Who is this Wake Forest center taking The Dream, Shaq – and me – to school on the court?
All these years later, Robinson smiles. He always knew. He accepted Duncan’s arrival. Five championships later, yes, you don’t hold back Tim Duncan. You set him free on the league, and reaped rewards come for Spurs players across the generations.