Tim Duncan is hugging a ball, his eyes peering above his elbow as his world shrinks to a 94-foot by 50-foot floor. Or he’s congratulating a teammate, palming Tony Parker’s head after yet another assist.
These are the vivid images of a legendary career. Moments locked in the minds of adults who have never known an NBA without him. Generations of San Antonians who celebrated every bank shot and box out.
Nineteen seasons. Five rings. One team.
Duncan has led the Spurs to the best winning percentage in sports over the past two decades. On Monday, he announced his retirement.
When a 6-foot-11 island kid from Christiansted, St. Croix joined the Spurs as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, a franchise, a city and a sport were forever changed. The moments were so consistent, so automatic, that they ran together over the course of 1,392 games, 1,001 of them wins.
He possessed the fundamentals and vision that went into 26,496 career points (14th most in NBA history), 15,091 career rebounds (6th all-time) and 3,020 career blocks (5th). Duncan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only players who have achieved such statistics.
Behind Duncan, the Spurs have reached the playoffs in every one of his 19 seasons and won 50 or more games in the past 17 seasons, the longest streak in NBA history.
He has had 140 Spurs teammates and one head coach in his career. After every game, Duncan was the last one through the tunnel, waiting for his team to come off the floor.
“This is Timmy’s team and it’s always been Timmy’s team,” Tony Parker said in 2007, before the Spurs’ fourth NBA title.
Parker has assisted on 1,533 of Duncan’s 10,285 career baskets, more than any other player. Parker, Duncan and Manu Ginobili formed a trio that has delighted those in Silver & Black and defeated the rest. Duncan’s stoic leadership, Parker’s French flair and Ginobili’s energetic thrills combined for 575 regular season wins and 126 playoff wins together, both NBA records for a trio.
“I think I’ve explained to people that it’s like an evolution,” Duncan said in 2014. “We all changed along the way, and we went through different periods, but no matter who was at their best or who was leading us, we found a way to still win and do it together.”
Duncan is a two-time NBA MVP, 15-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA selection and 15-time All-Defensive team selection. He holds Spurs records for points, blocks and rebounds.
Yet with all those accolades, most of the adjectives associated to Duncan speak to his relationships and his character instead.
Duncan’s quiet demeanor and humble nature may have had something to do with that. For someone who would carry his team whenever called upon, Duncan spent much of his career heaping praise upon teammates. The 2014-15 Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year award winner, Duncan may have patted teammates’ heads more than any player in history.
He beamed when veterans David Robinson, Kevin Willis and Michael Finley held the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time. He was filled with pride to share an All-Star locker room with Parker and Ginobili, and to see Parker and Kawhi Leonard accept their NBA Finals MVP awards.
“Bonds are created not through just the good times, but the times we’ve lost or the times we’ve struggled or the times that everything hasn’t gone our way,” Duncan said in 2005. “It’s more about the journey than just an end.”
Nineteen seasons. Five rings. One team.
Coach Gregg Popovich and Duncan began building trust shortly after Duncan was drafted, as Pop went to St. Croix to meet with his newest player for a few days. They swam and spoke about life rather than basketball.
"I really cherish that time," Popovich said to Sports Illustrated in 2012. "It was like an instant respect and understanding of each other. Almost like we were soul mates."
They have referred to their relationship as kind of a marriage, and Duncan’s openness to coaching set a standard for the rest of the team. Superstar treatment in San Antonio meant listening to Pop.
Popovich and Duncan have been together for all 1,001 of Duncan’s regular season wins. No other player-coach duo has won more than 775 games together.
“It’s great to have confidence in who’s leading your organization and your team and knowing that they have your best interests at hand,” Duncan said in 2014.“That’s what made me stay and that’s what kept me here all these years.”
Duncan is a man of routine, the most iconic of which is his pre-game basketball hug.
Only he might know the rhythm and reason to the way he hangs off the rim at player introductions or tosses his warmup jacket in a particular way. But he is remarkably consistent in routine and consistent in results.
His fundamentals are so admired that on YouTube, where dunks and highlights reign, a mixtape of Duncan’s bank shots has almost 500,000 views. But the mark of Duncan’s longevity has been through the way he changed his game throughout his career.
He continued adding pieces to his repertoire, whether it was footwork or outlet passes. He changed his offseason regimen to prolong his career. The result was a fifth NBA title in 2013-14, his 17th season, and a triumph after an NBA Finals loss the year before.
Duncan evolved with the game, and his impact never wavered. He averaged at least 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes in all 19 seasons, and at least 17.1 points per 36 minutes in the first 18 seasons.
In 2014-15, at the age of 38, Duncan averaged 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds to become the oldest player named to the All-NBA Team in 29 years.
"It was like an instant respect and understanding of each other. Almost like we were soul mates." – Gregg Popovich
As Duncan turned 40 in 2015-16, the Spurs allowed 93.8 points per 100 possessions while he was on the court, the lowest of any player in the league. Duncan helped the Spurs to a franchise-record 67-15 season.
It was the conclusion of a career in Silver & Black that began on Oct. 31, 1997. He had 15 points and 10 rebounds in Denver that night, his first of 840 career double-doubles. Duncan also had 164 playoff double-doubles, an NBA record.
The journey began with a Rookie of the Year award in 1997-98 and a championship in his second season. The Spurs limped along early in 1999, when a 6-8 start during the lockout-shortened season held them in the middle of the pack. And then Duncan took the reins. He led the Spurs to wins in 31 of their next 36 regular season games to finish the season, then a 15-2 record in the playoffs.
“I think it’s going to be a lot more fun to look back and see what I did,” Duncan said after holding the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time, “but right now I can’t do it justice. When I look back, it’s going to be something I won’t even believe.”
That was 17 years ago.
Duncan emerged as a dominant force in the league, winning back-to-back MVP awards in 2002 and 2003.
Surviving epic matchups against Kobe, Shaq and the Lakers, Duncan took the Spurs back to the Finals in 2003, as they faced the New Jersey Nets. In one of the greatest performances on a championship-clinching night, Duncan had 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 blocks in Game 6. He also gave Robinson the fairy tale exit in his final season.
The Spurs won their third title in 2005, knocking off the defending champion Detroit Pistons in seven games. Duncan erupted for 17 of his 25 points in the second half of Game 7.
Duncan is joined by Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James as the only players to win the Finals MVP three times.
“This trophy is definitely an honor, but team has so many MVPs,” were the first words Duncan said when he accepted the 2005 Finals MVP award. “These guys just laid it on the line every night, so every one of them is the MVP.”
His sentiment rang true for the next two titles, when Duncan celebrated Parker and Leonard’s Finals MVP awards in 2007 and 2014.
The NBA’s all-time leader in playoff minutes (9,370), Duncan’s scoring average increased in the playoffs over the regular season in 10 of the past 12 seasons. Battles with Kobe, Shaq and the Lakers, Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks, Steve Nash’s Suns and LeBron James’ Cavs and Heat cemented Duncan’s legacy through a series of post moves, mid-range jumpers and one overtime 3-pointer with 3.0 seconds left against Phoenix.
“The consistency you’ve shown over the years goes unmatched, and as a competitor it’s always a treat to be competing on the same floor as you!” LeBron James posted on his Instagram feed in January. “Being a professional is so overlooked in our sport, but I always knew who I could look to if I ever wasn’t professional about this lovely game and that’s you. From one King to another and to the greatest power forward to ever play this game, all love and respect Timmy D!”
Duncan has played in 251 career playoff games, more than three full regular seasons worth of fierce rivalries and incredible memories.
His knees grew weary, but Duncan endured to win a title in three separate decades. The Spurs went from grinding out a 78-77 clinching win against the Knicks in 1999 to playing “The Beautiful Game” against Miami in 2014.
Duncan went from a 23-year-old phenom celebrating with the veterans in 1999 to a 38-year-old champion holding his two children on Father’s Day in 2014.
Duncan is responsible for thousands of children and pets named Tim and Duncan, millions of car honks through downtown San Antonio and shared joy between the mothers and daughters and fathers and sons that Duncan united in Silver & Black passion for 19 years.
They all have memories of Duncan hugging the ball or hugging his teammates, and how could they forget. They’ve been lucky enough to see it so many times.
“The city of San Antonio has been an absolute perfect fit for me,” Duncan said in 2007. “I truly believe that we have the best fans in the NBA. They’re die-hard, and you love to have people like that.”
Luck shone on the Spurs in the 1997 NBA Draft Lottery, when they entered with a 21.6 percent chance of the No. 1 overall pick and left with a 100 percent chance to select a generational talent.
Tim Duncan arrived in San Antonio on a muggy June night in 1997, where 6,000 fans gathered at the Alamo to greet the man who would take them to unimagined heights.
Pushed to the podium, he reluctantly delivered a few quick words:
“It’s great being out here. I don’t know what to say. I just hope you’re ready to win a lot of games.”