There are Tim Duncan stories, but they’re more like anti-stories, uncanny lame normal guy activities fashioned into myth because the normal guy is a Hall of Famer who has to custom order his cargo shorts. The Onion built a whole character out of Duncan’s dorky anti-celebrity, describing him as a helpful and conscientious Economist subscriber willing to do his teammates’ taxes or drive them to a polling place on election day. This is only slightly more boring than the truth. He collected swords—”I just like sharp things,” he once said to a real life reporter and not, as you might guess, in the imagination of a comedy writer who went to Macalester—and took Danny Green and Stephen Jackson out for paintball matches in the offseason. He plays D&D and has a Merlin tattoo. If somebody wrote this stuff about a character in a novel, you’d accuse them of being lazy and non-specific. But you can draw Tim Duncan using just primary colors.
The full breadth of Duncan’s blankness wasn’t yet understood in 1999. No one really knows second-year players, who are typically still wary of media and half-formed as adults. You get a general sense of their personality, their quietude or enthusiasm on the court, but most guys don’t start comfortably expressing themselves until their mid-to-late 20s. So Tim Duncan was serene and unknowable, and it wasn’t unusual. What did stand out—especially due to the fact the other best players in Duncan’s draft class were Tracy McGrady and Chauncey Billups, who took quite a while to ascend toward stardom—was that Duncan was immediately great. An automatic 20-and-10 from the moment he stepped into the league, who played Karl Malone to a stalemate in the second playoff series of his career, Duncan was real and inevitable, a fully occupied urban core skyscraper that had gone up, well, upon considering it you realize pretty recently, but it seemed like it had been there forever. He was at once 21, 22—and ageless.
It speaks to the power of Phil Jackson’s condescension that his comment about the Spurs needing “an asterisk next to their [‘99] title” has sustained through the years. Yes, the league progressed through a goofy post-lockout schedule that season, one that was probably more arduous for old teams than young ones, but San Antonio smashed their competition in the playoffs: 3-1 over the Wolves, sweeps over the Lakers and Blazers, and 4-1 over the Knicks. They were definitively better than everyone else. And they were an old team too. Their entire starting lineup and nearly every player in Gregg Popovich’s rotation minus Duncan was over 30. In his critique—which Jackson likely hadn’t thought through and apparently still hasn’t because he repeats it every time somebody prompts him—the Zen Master unwittingly characterizes the ‘99 Spurs as up-and-coming due solely to Duncan’s presence. David Robinson was only a rough approximation of his former MVP-winning self and Sean Elliott retired two seasons later. Duncan was on the rise, and so was the franchise, but Tony Parker was a teenager and Manu Ginobili had recently moved to Italy. The Frenchman and the Argentine revelations weren’t Spurs yet—the Spurs were not yet the Spurs—and in the meantime, a 33-year-old Avery Johnson was anchoring the backcourt.
Tim Duncan cut through all of the aging grime, hung 29 and 11 over four games on the Lakers squad Jackson would assume control of the following summer. After a pair of narrow wins in San Antonio, he went to the Forum and put in the kind of historic performance we typically associate with mid-career all-timers who have already had their teeth kicked in a couple times: 37 and 14, 9-for-19 from the field and 19-for-23 from the line. He was too big for Robert Horry and too quick for Shaq. When the Lakers doubled him on the catch, he simply one-touched the pass back to an open guard. When they doubled him on the dribble, he was already going up with it. He drew a ton of fouls on late-arriving help defenders. If there was no signature highlight from this demolition of the NBA’s most talented team, it’s because Duncan, through smarts and athleticism, was so far ahead of everyone else on the floor that he didn’t need to pull off any particularly difficult maneuvers. There were no last-second mid-air adjustments or gorgeous Hakeem-esque fakes. They weren’t necessary. Timmy caught the entry pass and he scored. He bothered the shot and gathered the rebound. He got out of bed, went for a run, showered, cracked nuclear fission, and ate lunch. Against the Lakers, he did this. He had recently turned 23.
And then he more or less kept doing it. He won a pair of MVPs in 2002 and 2003, his best regular season statistical performances, but for nearly a decade, he was at the pinnacle of his field. Maybe you’d take Shaq in a couple of those years. Definitely not Kobe, not Dirk, not Wade, not LeBron—not until LeBron began to burn white-hot around 2008, coincidentally when Duncan was entering his 30s and beginning to deteriorate. His playoff numbers are unimpeachable; you can count the below-par series on one hand. Teammates and coaches loved him. The Spurs won five titles with him. In all but the final one, he was the most impactful player in the squad, if not the entire league.
Throughout this era of dominance Duncan remained not opaque so much as maddeningly straightforward. He was obviously brilliant, but didn’t feel the need to demonstrate his brilliance to the media. He was competitive, but so calm that his inner rage barely ever showed. Milk of magnesia in the veins. Only in his older years, when Tony Parker was running the show and Manu was all oil slicks and firecrackers, when he was jumping off one leg, did some pitiable humanity escape him. That was it—right, duh: Tim Duncan was not actually a computer program; we had been discussing him in metaphor. He was a guy, an extraordinarily talented and temperate guy, choosing to put in the work and make all the right decisions. And as his body was giving up on him, and he was rather absurdly not that much worse at 35 than he had been at 25, he was for the first time visibly straining against limits. But of course he had always been doing that. It was so impressive—the new calculus operating on old data, turning it technicolor—what he had always been doing.
When he was 23, we had some vague idea. Who the hell is this fella? We went on asking this and either didn’t get an answer or weren’t particularly interested in the one we received. None of this seemed to bother Tim Duncan, but you could fire a rifle past the his ear and maybe his eyes would bug out a little bit. Some of the most beautiful things—milk blooming in coffee, dansaekhwa, the flat blue endlessness of a lake—don’t really need to be explained. If we came to understand Tim Duncan as more of a phenomenon than a person, that’s not a failure on anybody’s part. Perhaps that is the best way to appreciate him.
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