For one long moment, Gregg Popovich couldn’t speak as he fixed his gaze near midcourt. Aside from random, floating voices screaming variations of “We love you Tim,” the bodies that filled the overflowing sea of white shirts in the AT&T Center were silent, waiting for the coach’s last words, feeling his exact feelings.
Tim Duncan was the focus of Pop’s stare, sitting in the midcourt circle he’d dominated for nearly 20 years; and just like the 20,000-plus in attendance, he waited for his voice to come. This wasn’t the type of stare Timmy had seen before — the ones Pop has directed at him, Manu and Tony, or hell, even Beno Udrih, Cory Joseph, Rasho Nesterovic and any other Spur to bounce a ball on that court. There was more to this one, and so he waited, like the rest of us.
I still remember where I was for Tim Duncan’s first basket in San Antonio — sitting in my mom’s Suburban. It was one of those 90’s beasts, tan with a black racing-stripe-type thing that wrapped around the whole thing like a giant ribbon. There was a bag phone in the middle of the bench seat in the front. We were at some party. I don’t remember whose it was or why I was there, but those details didn’t matter.
I’d heard of this Duncan guy before. But as a 12-year-old living in Texas, I didn’t pay much attention to Wake Forest basketball. I couldn’t have told you what he looked like, how tall he was or what position he played. I just knew this guy was supposed to be good. Like, really freaking good. I knew what time the Spurs’ first preseason game tipped, so I watched the clock on the wall until the time came. (I mean, this is pre-cell phone. I barely remember those days. This is how long Duncan played basketball.)
My mom gave me the keys to the Suburban — which, thank you for trusting a 12-year-old with the keys to your car, Mom. I jumped in, turned the keys just so the radio was on and not the ignition, like my dad had taught me, switched to 1200 on the AM dial, and listened to Jay Howard announce the starting lineup, waiting for the new guy’s introduction.
Gregg Popovich stomped his foot on the AT&T Center floor, a familiar site in that building. But all the times prior, he’d done it to kick someone else in the butt — to push the pace, to make a point, or to light a fire, so to speak. This time it was for him, to urge forth the words that were difficult to speak through welling tears.
And that stomp didn’t just push Pop. Unintentionally, it pushed the entire arena. Nobody had been breathing; nobody had a dry eye. For a moment, seeing a man whose every word attracts the attention of everyone in the NBA community, the fan community and beyond struggle to find his voice was personal.
And the emotion came from a very personal place for Popovich, too. He had been explaining the ways in which Duncan allowed him to be what he’s become.
“Sometimes, I’d be merciless…” Pop said before he lost his words. He then lifted his head and looked at Duncan. Then came the stomp, like an alarm from a trance.
“…I’m really thankful, because you allowed me to coach the team,” he finally said. “If your superstar can take a little hit now and then, everybody else can shut the hell up and fall in line. And that man did that for me. He allowed me to coach.”
He then finished.
“I can honestly say to Mr. and Mrs. Duncan, who have passed, that that man right there (Duncan) is exactly the same person now as he was when he walked in the door.”
It doesn’t happen often, where fans can truly relate emotionally to NBA players and coaches; but in that moment, everyone could. Everyone in that arena had been there before, where words are difficult to find through welling tears.
The way I view basketball has changed significantly since that night in my mom’s Suburban as a kid. I mean, unless you’re a kid now, the way everyone views basketball has changed since they were a kid, I guess. But since the lockout in 2011, I’ve been able to see the Spurs in a different light.
I got my journalism degree from Texas Tech, and once I did I bounced to wherever there was work, just like almost any person silly enough to pursue a degree in journalism. PRINT journalism, to be specific, which at this point in time is even sillier. But a job shift, a move back to Texas and the introduction to writing on the Internet gave me an unexpected opportunity to be around the Spurs.
My fandom has changed quite a bit since then. I’m not nearly as emotional as I used to be when the Spurs are knocked out of the postseason, or even when they win a title. I was in the Heat locker room as the rest of San Antonio celebrated in the summer of 2014. But while I don’t care as much about the results anymore, it’s been fun to get to know the people. I’ve never been easily star-struck, but there was a surreal feeling the first time I had to navigate the maze-like bowels of the AT&T Center.
I watched the Spurs as a kid, and now I’m around them in a space few get to witness. I got to talk to the guy whose very existence is the reason I jumped in my mom’s Suburban that night, is the reason I love this sport the way I do. And yet, I’d never seen Duncan in the space he found himself Sunday night.
Tim Duncan was as dressed to the nines as you’ll probably ever see him — a fitted dress shirt tucked in — TUCKED IN — to a pair of slacks. Not jeans baggy enough to double as a parachute, actual nice slacks. We’ve all seen him in shirts that look more like picnic blankets, but this “trendier” version of the big man has been in development for a few years now.
It’s still not what we’re used to seeing, and in this setting, it was kind of perfect. A couple of hours prior to the ceremony, Duncan emerged from the tunnel with his family at halftime of the game. You could hear the roars from the media workroom. They were escorted to the courtside box normally occupied by R.C. Buford and his front-office mates. And then, he just … sat.
Some 20 rows behind the Spurs bench, I’d imagine it was the farthest from the court he’s ever been watching a game in that building. Elbows on his knees, leaning forward, hands folded, clapping every once in awhile — it was the weirdest. In a sea of white shirts, there was Duncan in his red shirt, watching the game. I don’t know how many people were actually watching the game, but I know I wasn’t.
The whole thing felt so strange. Duncan looked as if he felt awkward. And how could he not? After everything he’s accomplished on that court, how is he supposed to sit there comfortably and watch a game when he knows the majority of the eyes in the building are transfixed on him?
When he looked most comfortable was while he was seated on the floor during the ceremony, surrounded by his loved ones and the people who helped him build what’s been built in San Antonio. Even in front of all those eyes. But then again, he’s been in front of those eyes since 1997.
As he and Pop left the floor embracing one another, and as Duncan was joined by his kids and girlfriend for that final send off down the tunnel, the wave of fans holding cameras and phones rushed around him, looking for one more real-life snapshot of a guy whose face had been on their televisions and in front of their eyes for decades — a guy they may literally never see publicly again.
Well, maybe not until the Nos. 20 and 9 are lifted up into the rafters alongside the No. 21, where it’s only right. As he said in his text to Ginobili over the summer when responding to a question about retirement, “I’m not dying.”
Prior to the ceremony, the Spurs played a long string of highlights from the past 20 years and the five titles (and even the one that wasn’t in 2013), and in the middle of it began to reflect on my life. If you grew up in and around San Antonio, that team likely impacted you in immeasurable ways.
I remember being in the Alamodome for the Memorial Day Miracle, and my aunt leaning over to me and saying, “Sean Elliott is going to make a 3.” I remember being crammed in a friend’s living room with countless other friends as Steve Kerr shot daggers into the Mavs’ hearts. I remember river parades. I remember my first serious girlfriend, my first car, skipping a college orientation mixer to watch David Robinson walk off into the sunset, a cross-country road trip with my dad, and too many other things to list.
Personally, Sunday night’s ceremony was as much a reminder of my life as it was a celebration of Duncan. I got to marry the love of my life about two months ago, and I never would have met her if it weren’t for the Spurs. From that night as a 12-year-old listening on the radio, to today as a 31-year-old, newly married man, Duncan has been a backdrop.
Tim, that hug you got from Pop, Manu and Tony, that was from all of us. Thank you for everything. It was a hell of a lot of fun.