For me, the game of basketball began 20 years ago in 1996. My family and I had just taken the pioneer trek back to the Mormon Zion of Utah from Kansas City. Back then I was the spitting image of Smalls from The Sandlot. My mom dressed me in Talbot’s finest: preppy, collared polos and stiff, starchy khakis. My hair was gelled and parted to perfection. I was on the path to getting the crap beat out of me at school. Thankfully, a 7-foot hero from Wake Forest came to the rescue.
Whether it was my dad’s basketball-obsessed sickness that infected me or some other external influence, I became addicted to ACC hoops. And I’m not talking about the current mucked up ACC/Big East hybrid with Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville, etc.; I’m referring to the conference in its purest form, featuring only nine teams and some perennial beasts in Duke, UNC, and Maryland. Instantaneously, my favorite player became Timothy Theodore Duncan. Duncan was a senior at the time at Wake Forest and was all the rage in the collegiate hoops world. After flirting with entering the draft following his junior year, Duncan averaged a “modest” 20.8 points and 14.7 boards on 60.8% shooting as a senior. Just ridiculous. I must have heard Dick Vitale call him a “PTPer” (Prime Time Player) over a thousand times that year. At the prepubescent age of eight, my goal became to mirror Duncan’s game. Bestowed with below-average genetics and being “vertically challenged,” to say the least, I probably should have picked a more appropriate hoops hero. Maybe the shorter Stockton or swaggerific Stephon Marbury would have suited me better. But no, my heart was set on the post player who would become known as “The Big Fundamental.”
Down the road from our town home stood a lone basketball standard. Featuring a worn-down wooden backboard and a tire for a base, the hoop was far from heavenly, but that court became my sanctuary. Day and night I would hone my skills pretending to be Wake Forest’s finest.
Later that year my parents signed me up to play in the local rec league. As the coach passed out jerseys, he asked me what number I wanted. Was there even a doubt? Proudly I requested the #21 jersey. Little did I know at that time that my Demon Deacon idol would eventually go on to win five titles, two league MVPs, three Finals MVPs and become the greatest player of his generation. My two cents (for what it’s worth)? Tim Duncan was better Kobe (and left his franchise in a far better situation than the Black Mamba). Although he was never quite the unstoppable force of early 2000s Shaq, Duncan’s sustained level of greatness and consistency puts him ahead of The Big Aristotle in my book. KG was dominant defensively, especially anchoring Thib’s stellar schemes in Boston, but I would argue Duncan’s overall impact on the defensive end was even greater than the Big Ticket’s. Dirk could stretch the floor and had a remarkable playoff run in 2011, but even Germany’s greatest export since David Hasselhoff doesn’t hold a candle to Timmy D. The case could be made that Lebron, Wade, Paul, etc., represent a different generation, but even with them in the equation, Lebron is the only player whose skills, impact, and career might outshine Duncan’s–and even that is debatable. Simply put, Tim Duncan is the modern day Bill Russell. The quintessential teammate; a champion, a legend. He didn’t do it with the flashiness of Kobe or the sweet stroke of Dirk. He didn’t do it with KG’s four letter bombs or Lebron’s charisma. He did it Duncan’s way: quietly, humbly, under the radar.
It proves an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the NBA now as Duncan leaves it with the league 19 years ago as he entered it. He arrived just before the closure of Jordan’s reign, at a time when the traditional big man still ruled the game and post-play was prized. He leaves during an era where skilled bigs are all but extinct. The 3-point line, stretch 4s, and small-ball now reign supreme. In both eras, Duncan left an indelible mark. First, as an unstoppable force in the post and then as a high-IQ, ball-moving big man who ran the pick-and-roll to perfection. The younger Timmy torched teams (especially my Jazz) from the post with 15-foot bank shots and baby hooks. And then later, the wiser “Old Man River Walk” incinerated the competition by setting strong picks for Tony Parker and making the extra pass for wide open 3s. Both versions of Duncan were equally as dangerous.
The subtle nature of Duncan’s dominance never made him the “face of the league” or necessarily a fan-favorite. I’ve yet to encounter anyone who claims Timmy D to be their favorite player. Despite his lack of magnetism and the Spurs’ methodical nature, I always found myself at least somewhat cheering for their success. Even as my frenzied Lebron James’ fandom led me to cheer shamelessly for the Heat in the two finals they faced against the Spurs, I never felt any disdain toward the franchise. Duncan and the Spurs were too classy, too consistent, and too great. I couldn’t help but appreciate and admire the manner in which Duncan and the Spurs conducted business. Their performance in the 2014 finals in which they completely demolished the Heat in five games was, in my eyes, the greatest exhibition of passing and teamwork I have ever witnessed (apologies to the ’86 Celtics). And as Kobe sucked the Lakers dry financially leading them to 16 wins while soaking up the spoils of his “Farewell Tour,” Tim Duncan took a massive discount and a giant step back for the likes of Lamarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. The result–67 wins and one of the greatest defensive teams of all-time. No “Farewell Tour” was needed or wanted. He allowed his team’s success to do the talking.
20 years ago, Tim Duncan introduced me to the game of basketball–a game which has become a beautiful sickness and obsession in my life. I have never known the NBA without Timmy. To this day, I frequently still grab my basketball and venture over to a nearby school or park to shoot some hoops in solitude. Occasionally, I’ll hit a 15-foot bank shot from the wing and think back to the early days when all I had was a ball, a hoop, and a 7-foot hero.