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Tim Duncan’s Legacy Goes Well Beyond Stats

San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan is retiring after 19 seasons in the NBA.

There will be no pomp and circumstance, no farewell tour throughout NBA arenas (much to the chagrin of Mark Cuban), no holding a franchise hostage by demanding money for services already rendered, no going to another contender’s bench in the pursuit of another championship ring.

In compliance with his personality, Duncan is quietly walking away from the game that he played with such a detached brilliance that critics had the audacity to call it “boring”.

It’s hard to believe that Duncan didn’t have aspirations of being basketball royalty growing up in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.  Originally, Duncan wanted to be a swimmer like his sister Tricia, who represented the United States at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. 

Duncan was a bright student and excellent swimmer. Originally, his goal was to compete in the 50, 100, and 400 meter freestyle at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.  Fate, however, would steer Duncan on a completely different path.

On the morning of Sept. 18, 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck St. Croix as a Category 4 storm with winds of 140 miles per hour.   The storm damaged or destroyed 90% of the island’s buildings, including the only Olympic-sized swimming pool.  This forced Duncan to practice in the ocean, where he quickly lost interest in swimming because of the presence of sharks.

Seven months later, on the day before Duncan’s 14th birthday, his mother Ione died of breast cancer.  During her final days, she made Duncan and his sister promise to finish college with their degrees.

Duncan was first introduced to basketball by his brother-in-law. Duncan would honor his brother-in-law by wearing the number 21, which was his brother-in-law’s college number.  In spite of initial awkwardness because of his size, Duncan became a star at the St. Dunstan’s Episcopal High School, averaging 25 points a game during his senior year.   He was offered scholarships by Hartford, Delaware, and Providence but chose Wake Forest, where he majored in psychology.  

Duncan was held scoreless in his first college game but quickly adapted.  Duncan’s brand of basketball was simple yet extremely effective:  a display of low-post moves, mid-range bank shots, and tough defense.   While at Wake Forest, Duncan was routinely faced off against future NBA players such as Maryland’s Joe Smith and North Carolina’s Rasheed Wallace. 

In spite of being widely viewed as a top NBA prospect, Duncan always insisted that he wouldn’t turn pro until after he completed his degree.  The NBA instituted a rookie salary cap in 1996, which probably cost Duncan a great deal of money.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Duncan stayed in college all four years.  Wake Forest had a record of 97-31 during Duncan’s time in Winston-Salem, including consecutive ACC Conference Tournament Championships in 1995 and 1996 and four NCAA Tournament bids (which included two trips to the Sweet Sixteen and one Elite Eight berth).  He was a two-time First Team All-American, two-time ACC Player of the Year, and the consensus 1997 National College Player of the Year.

Duncan was the first player in NCAA history with 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 blocks, and 200 assists and the first player in ACC history to lead the conference in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, and blocked shots.   Duncan also finished his career as the ACC’s all-time leading shot blocker.

Duncan was selected by the San Antonio Spurs with the first overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft.  Teaming with future Hall of Famer David Robinson, Duncan quickly established himself as one of the NBA’s most complete players.

In the second ever road game of his career against the defending champion Chicago Bulls, Duncan went against future Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman and grabbed 22 rebounds.  After squaring off against the Houston Rockets later in the season another Hall of Famer, Charles Barkley, said of Duncan, “I have seen the future and he wears number 21.”

Duncan was selected to the first of his 15 All-Star Game appearances and 10 All-NBA First Teams after his rookie season to go along with his Rookie of the Year award.  He would add 15 All-NBA Defensive Team selections, five NBA championships, 3 Finals MVPs, and 2 NBA MVPs in one city with one coach.

Duncan and John Stockton are the only players in NBA history to spend 19 seasons with the same franchise, second to the recently retired Kobe Bryant’s 20 with the Los Angeles Lakers.  Duncan and John Salley are the only players in NBA history to win a championship in three different decades.

But Duncan’s legacy goes beyond championship statistics, even though the Big Fundamental will walk into the Hall of Fame with the Black Mamba in 2021.

Duncan, perhaps more than any other superstar athlete we have ever seen, is devoid of ego.  He stayed at Wake Forest for four years (and cost himself millions of dollars) because of a promise he made to his mother.  Duncan always took less money than he deserved because he wanted to ensure that the Spurs (who never missed the postseason during Duncan’s career) were able to bring in players who would keep them in contention. 

Duncan, in an era where athletes are constantly criticized for their on-court and off-court behavior, earned a grand total of two ejections in 1,643 regular season and postseason games.  Other than reports of his divorce in 2013, every time Duncan’s name was mentioned it was in relation to the game of basketball.

Tim Duncan is retiring from the NBA.  He is so much more than the 26,496 points, 15,091 rebounds, and 4,225 assists he accumulated during his brilliant career.  Duncan lets us know that it is all right to say very little and allow your work to speak volumes.   His presence will be sorely missed, even if he never gave much bulletin board material or quips that circulated throughout social media. 

Thank you, Tim Duncan, for being The Big Fundamental.

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