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Four Behind

Written on:October 23, 2016
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ThankYouTDTake the Power Back – I’d never spent that much time thinking about it. I never really needed to. His performance was too consistent, his presence too permanent. Few things in life were as reliable. Tim Duncan was the San Antonio Spurs and the San Antonio Spurs were Tim Duncan. It sounds so simple yet it’s the simplest things that are the easiest to take for granted. Sure, the unthinkable briefly crossed my mind every now and again. An occasional wandering of thoughts is unavoidable. But those thoughts were always accompanied by distance. The type of distance that evokes flying cars or life on Mars. On the rarest of rare occasion that I pondered the end of Tim Duncan’s career, it always felt sequestered. In fact, even after the flood of emotions that I experienced watching Timmy put one finger in the air as he left the court in Oklahoma City on May 12th, 2016, up until the morning of July 11th (the last hours of his status as an active NBA player) a part of me remained steadfast that his status would never change. Heading into the summer after dealing with the pain of our shocking second round playoff exit, I certainly expected Tim to return for a 20th season and at least one more run at a Jordan-tying sixth NBA championship. Perhaps for those couple of months that followed the 2015-16 season but preceded Timmy’s announcement I resorted to denial as a tactic for ignoring the writing on the wall. There’s no question that I had already spent years ignoring the inevitably of a pesky little truth called biological certainty. But given Duncan’s stature in San Antonio and consistency on the court, what else was I supposed to do? I had nothing else to draw upon for the entirety of my adult life. Ever since the first moment I left my parent’s home as a snot-nosed 18 year old college freshman, Tim Duncan has been a member of the San Antonio Spurs. In fact, Timmy and I both moved to San Antonio in the summer of 1997 (him to start his rookie season with the Spurs, me to attend Trinity University). In the 19 years that have come and gone since, I’ve moved away from San Antonio on three separate occasions (returning to live there again after the first two times I moved away). In 2004, I moved from San Antonio to Detroit. In 2006, I moved from San Antonio to Dallas. In 2014, I moved from San Antonio to Denver (Yes, I know I have a proclivity for moving from San Antonio to cities that start with the letter D). Timmy, on the other hand, has been in the Alamo City the entire time. Winning basketball games.

So yes, I’ll admit it. I had not spent an adequate amount of time thinking about the end of Tim Duncan’s basketball career to be prepared for his July announcement. I hadn’t spent an adequate amount of time wondering what it would be like to watch his final game. Or where I would be when I watched it. Or how I would feel. I guess, given Timmy’s personality and tendency to avoid the limelight, I assumed the possibility that I wouldn’t even know for sure that I was watching his final game until after the fact. Like during Game 5 of the 2014 Finals, for example. The thought briefly crossed my mind that I could be watching Timmy’s last game should he decide to follow in the footsteps of David Robinson by choosing to go out on top. Yet, even though the possibility crossed my mind, somehow I knew that the 2014 title wasn’t the end. How could something so permanent as Tim Duncan’s consistent greatness end? How could such overwhelming feelings of accomplishment and joy that accompanied Duncan raising a fifth NBA Championship Trophy be suddenly swapped out by the overwhelming feelings of loss and grief of a retirement announcement? In contrast, we knew prior to the 2002-03 season that it was going to be David Robinson’s last year. So, having dealt with that reality in advance, the Spurs winning the title in his last game of his last year added to the sense of joy and accomplishment. Since it had been long assumed that Tim Duncan would not make any such announcement in advance of his retirement, it just seemed cruel to think that the devastating news of his retirement might come immediately on the heels of the joy of winning a title. That just wouldn’t have fit his personality. Therefore, knowing that there would never be any advanced warning of Timmy’s retirement, I was content to put the inevitable out of mind and blindly sip from the sweet nectar of eternal basketball life, year after year after year. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been thinking much more seriously about life after Tim Duncan. Perhaps I should have been preparing. Had I had the wisdom to not allow myself to be seduced by the mirage of permanency emanating off the horizon as I cheerfully trotted along my 19 year long Tim Duncan basketball journey, perhaps I would have been prepared for the violent swiftness with which such a journey ends and the next phase of life begins. One thing is for certain. I could have never imagined (during those wonderful years that I spent blissfully ignorant to the concept that the career of the greatest San Antonio Spurs player of all-time would eventually come to an end) where I would be on the day Timmy played his last game. I could have never imagined where the journey would end. I could have never imagined that as Tim Duncan’s basketball career came to an abrupt end in early May on a Thursday night in Oklahoma City, I would be holed up watching him leave the court on a tiny television in a dreary hotel room in Boise, Idaho.

 

* * *

 

It’s rough to lose any playoff series. Losing a playoff series where two of the games were decided by questionable refereeing that benefited your opponent? That is particularly rough. Give them credit, though. Oklahoma City played well enough to win the series. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were phenomenal. But the Spurs played well enough to win the series, as well. When two teams are that evenly matched, it is extremely disappointing to have officiating mistakes be the difference maker in who advances and who goes home. We should look very seriously at putting in place more safeguards to prevent official error from deciding NBA playoff games because mistakes of that magnitude not only affect the outcome of one game or series, they can potentially create a ripple effect that shifts the course of future NBA events for years to come. Had the two games where refereeing played a factor in the outcome broke our way instead, San Antonio probably wins the series 4-1 in five games and the landscape-altering NBA off-season that followed the 2016 NBA Playoffs may have played out quite differently. Maybe Kevin Durant makes a different free agency decision if his Thunder had lost in the Western Semis instead of blowing a 3-1 lead against the defending champs in the Conference Finals? Maybe the James-Irving-Love Cavaliers get broken up if they don’t have an end to their season that is so storybook…you’d be hard-pressed to find a fiction writer who could have done a better job writing it? Maybe Timmy makes a different decision on his retirement if he had gotten closer to tasting or had even tasted his sixth NBA championship? Maybe he doesn’t lift that one finger in the air while walking off the court at the Chesapeake Energy arena after Game 6?

Unfortunately, what ifs are what ifs for a reason. In this case, the reason is that no amount of protesting the karmic injustice can change the fact that official error did indeed rear its ugly head and factored massively into deciding Tim Duncan’s final playoff series. There is no redemption to be had so what we are left with is the now iconic image of Timmy lifting that one finger in the air while walking off the court after Game 6. It’s only fitting that Tim Duncan is the player of the game for his final game. This is not just a ceremonial selection. TD was legitimately the best Spur on the court, logging 19 points (7-14 from the field, 5-6 from the line) and 5 rebounds in his final 34 minute NBA run. Accompanying him during many of his most effective minutes of the game was fellow 40 year old, Andre Miller. Miller only played 9 minutes, but he played those 9 minutes with Timmy and dulled out 4 assists. The pair were so in sync during a brief stretch in the fourth quarter, they sparked a Spurs run that culminated in a Danny Green free throw that cut the Thunder lead to 11 with 3:45 left in the game. Given that we were blown out of the water in the second quarter and faced a deficit as large as 27 points midway through the third, obviously the overwhelming statistical probability suggested that it was too little, too late. Still, it was nice to watch the old guys lead a comeback that was meaningful and for a brief second even made me believe. That glimmer of hope was short lived, however, because after Russel Westbrook drained a three pointer with 2:25 left in the game to extend the lead back up to 14 at 104-90, it became brutally apparent that the Tim Duncan – Andre Miller led comeback was going to come up short. Nevertheless, classy as ever, Coach Pop (perhaps knowing something we didn’t, perhaps just sensing the possibility of the moment) kept Tim Duncan in the game until the bitter end, playing him every second of the fourth quarter.

It’s funny how, like a chameleon, a moment can be colored differently depending on the context in which it is viewed. On Thursday, May 12, 2016, the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the San Antonio Spurs 113-99 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals to win the series 4-2. While this series will be remembered as the last playoff series that the greatest Spurs player of all-time lost in his career, it should also be remembered as the last playoff series that Kevin Durant won for Oklahoma City before abdicating his opportunity to become the greatest Supersonic / Thunder player of all time. Sure, Kevin Durant decision to join the Golden State Warriors on Independence Day was his alone to make and I’m happy for him and his family if the decision yields fulfillment in his personal life. But coming from the perspective of a basketball historian, in my opinion, Kevin Durant’s decision was the equivalent of strapping a suicide bomb to his legacy as a basketball player and pressing the trigger button. Sure, great players have switched teams in free agency before. But joining a team that won an NBA record 73 games in the previous regular season and then went on to defeat the only team you have ever played for in the Western Conference Finals in a series that your team was up 3-1 and should have closed out? Unprecedented. With this decision, Kevin Durant gave away his opportunity to reach the level of greatness that could have one day put him in the conversation with the likes of a Tim Duncan. There is no shortcut for leading the NBA team that drafted you to the NBA mountaintop. It bestows upon a player a level of greatness that cannot be obtained by a player who wins a title after joining a ready-made NBA championship quality team in free agency. If Durant leads the Warriors to an NBA title or two, so what? They were already capable of winning NBA titles without him. Similarly, the Golden State Warriors (as a franchise) have relinquished their opportunity to enjoy the fruits of building a dynastic program from the ground up like Tim Duncan’s Spurs before them. Any more titles that the Warriors can add to the one they’ve already won won’t get to go in the same category. The first one was the work of a homegrown champion but, by adding Kevin Durant, there can now never be a homegrown dynasty. Any more championships they earn will be accumulated in the the category of work done by a super team. In my opinion, any future Kevin Durant era Warriors titles will never carry with them the same authenticity of the first pre-Durant Warriors title.

Back to Durant’s legacy as an individual player, the bottom line is that delivering one championship trophy to the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been more valuable than whatever number he ends up winning in Golden State. I mention all of this not to turn my Tim Duncan retirement piece into an anti-Kevin du-RANT (get it?). Rather, I mention Duran’t decision as a point of comparison to underscore the scarcity of greatness on the magnitude of what Tim Duncan has been able to accomplish. Case in point, LeBron James. We just finished watching The King complete a challenge that (after taking a similar path of less resistance as Durant by choosing to chase championships in Miami for four years) was his only pathway back into the conversation of greatness on the level of a Tim Duncan. James’ deliverance of a championship to the franchise, the hometown, the state he had abandoned five years earlier was a legacy-changing accomplishment. It was an unorthodox path, but he eventually delivered for the franchise that drafted him. Who knows, perhaps Kevin Durant will one day return to the Oklahoma City Thunder and follow in LeBron’s footsteps to find a path back to true greatness but that seems very unlikely, at this point. While LeBron’s latest heroics, indeed, elevated him back into the conversation of true greatness, it must also be mentioned that it took Cleveland landing three number one overall draft picks during his four year abandonment to give the team enough assets for LeBron to have the talent around him to deliver on that opportunity for greatness. Tim Duncan, in comparison, just kept grinding and pounding and building and winning for his program for nineteen years straight. Unlike KD, LeBron is still in the hunt but Tim Duncan’s legacy is still significantly ahead.

 

* * *

 

It was the 2003 NBA Playoffs. 98.5 The Beat held a promotion that year during San Antonio’s postseason run soliciting Spurs themed songs from local artists to play on air. As huge Spurs fans, who happened to also be dope emcees, we thought that a submission could be a good opportunity to get some name recognition for our band in advance of the 2004 release of our debut studio album. After the Spurs eliminated the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, the entire city was lit. If you weren’t there to experience it, you can probably imagine the swagger emanating out of little ole San Antone when we were the city who ended Hollywood’s Shaq-Kobe dynasty. It was infectious, one of the best energies the city’s ever produced. So, like any respectable artists would, we harnessed our share of it by getting in the lab.

We recorded Hate Us Now [Spurs Remix] on a Saturday afternoon in late May. The following Monday, we dropped off a CD copy of the track at the radio station and promptly returned to going about our business. A couple of days later, it happened. I was flipping through the radio dial when I realized that 98.5 The Beat was playing our song. I called up Brian to let him know, he turned it on as well and we both proceeded to freak out with excitement. There’s a brilliant scene in the movie That Thing You Do which magnificently captures the unadulterated joy an artist feels in the moment she/he first discovers that her/his music is playing on the radio. In the scene, the bandmates jump for joy in the appliance store owned by the drummer’s family as their song first plays. This scene perfectly captures our experience. I suspect it perfectly captures the experience of many artists.

As you can probably guess, after first hearing our Spurs cut on the radio, we kept our ears glued to the station. A couple of hours later, they played it again. This continued for a couple of weeks. We were ecstatic. It was the first time a Rhime Divine track had ever received what we considered real radio play. Sure, we had gotten some stuff on air a few times before on college radio. But this was The Beat. You see, in little ole San Antone, 98.5 was the big league for local hip hop artists. Being on their airwaves was validating. It proved to be an important stepping stone in our development as artists. By the time that summer was in full swing, with a song in rotation on local radio and our beloved Spurs marching towards the NBA Finals, Brian and I were on Cloud Nine. On June 4, we attended Game One of the 2003 NBA Finals at the SBC Center in San Antonio. We were in the building to witness Tim Duncan’s first act in one of the most dominant individual performances in NBA Finals history. TD’s performance was so dominant in that series, he would go on to cap it off with a damn near quadruple-double (21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, and 8 blocks) in Game 6 to close out the New Jersey Nets. Duncan, coming off back-to-back MVP seasons, delivered San Antonio our second championship that June. With Tim Duncan dominating the NBA and with a Rhime Divine track on the airwaves contributing to the soundtrack for a city, man…that was a good summer.

At a short press conference held at the Spurs practice facility to honor Tim Duncan on Tuesday, July 12th (the day after Timmy’s retirement announcement), Gregg Popovich spoke about all of the people who had opportunity created for them because of the greatness of Tim Duncan. Coach Pop talked about all of the players, coaches, front office staffers, journalists, and so on who owe much of the opportunity they found for themselves in little ole San Antone to the greatness of TD. I’m not sure if he’s aware of it, but Coach Pop can add a generation of local San Antonio hip hop artists to the list of people who had opportunity created for them because of Tim Duncan’s greatness. After the 2003 Spurs song submission campaign was so successful, 98.5 The Beat decided to make it an annual tradition and kept it going for many years after. Because of Tim Duncan’s greatness, the San Antonio Spurs were perennial title contenders for 19 years straight. The Beat’s Spurs song submission campaign would not have been sustainable, year after year, if the Spurs weren’t always in the playoffs making noise and in the hunt for championships. Because of Tim Duncan’s greatness, a generation of San Antonio’s local hip hop artists got to experience what it feels like to have a song get that coveted real radio play. Dozens of artists over the years felt the euphoria of landing the radio dial on their own song for the first time because of Tim Duncan. Those opportunities only came about because of his greatness.

Tim Duncan is my favorite athlete of all-time and that will never change. Brian was always a Manu Ginobili guy but (as a Spurs fan) he obviously also loved Tim Duncan. Had he still been with us, I suspect Brian would have gotten as much enjoyment out of watching the end of TD’s career as I have. Perhaps he did from a different vantage point. Duncan’s announcement this past July was rough. It’s been really hard to say goodbye. Timmy, from one artist to another, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for the countless memories. Thank you for the championships. And thank you for giving Rhime Divine our first radio play and our That Thing You Do moment.

 

* * *

 

I didn’t get to see the first half of Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Semifinals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs. I was obligated to settle for streaming the audio through NBA League Pass as I drove around Boise, Idaho conducting home visits as part of the union campaign I was in town to work on. Now having obtained the convenience of hindsight, I could have never imagined that instead of watching Tim Duncan’s final game in undistracted solitude, I would find myself at the mercy of a situation where it was necessary for the viewing of my beloved Spurs in a playoff game to take a back seat to my obligations in the real world. As referenced earlier, I also could have never imagined that I would be in Boise, Idaho (of all places) while Timmy played his final game in the NBA. Even though I didn’t know at the time that this would end up being his final game, the entire episode of being in Boise working rather than at home watching the game just felt weird and wrong. Perhaps it was my subconscious sensing trouble on the horizon but something just felt off about the game and the environment I was experiencing it in almost immediately following hearing the opening tip on the radio. As Oklahoma City exploded to a 24 point lead by halftime, I felt completely vulnerable listening along while I drove from house to house conducting my home visits. There is an extra level of helplessness I always feel when listening to the Spurs on the radio instead of watching the game on television. But in a game of the magnitude of an elimination playoff game? That feeling of helplessness was excruciating. By the time that I completed my work and was able to rush back to my hotel room, the third quarter was already underway and (one valiant Spurs comeback attempt not withstanding) the writing was already on the wall.

As the final buzzer sounded in OKC’s victory eliminating the Spurs, just like Coach Pop, ESPN (who was broadcasting the game) must have sensed the possibility of the moment. The network brilliantly kept their cameras locked on Tim Duncan from the second that the clock turned to zeroes until the second that Timmy finally receded into the tunnel and out of sight of the cameras. Considering that Tim Duncan had given no indication prior to the game (one way or the other) regarding his possible retirement, the fact that Coach Pop felt compelled to play him the entire fourth quarter and that ESPN felt compelled to leave their cameras transfixed on him just in case it was his last game during a moment also significant for the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, is a testament to Tim Duncan’s enormous stature in the game of basketball. As I watched the end of the game on that tiny television in my hotel room in Boise, Idaho, it dawned on me that this moment felt different than all of the end of season moments that had come before. ESPN’s cameras stayed locked on Timmy just in case it was the last time one of the greatest basketball players of all-time walked off of an NBA court. Inexplicably, tears started welling up in my eyes as transfixed, I watched my favorite player of all time dutifully congratulate his opponents and then walk stoically towards the tunnel. Of course, I still didn’t know it at the time but that tunnel may as well have been the history books. When Timmy somberly lifted the single finger in the air as he approached the tunnel to acknowledge the classy OKC fans who were paying tribute to him, I must concede that in the moment, the gesture had a haunting sense of finality to it. I was so overcome with emotion as, for the first time, I truly felt the weight of the certainty that Tim Duncan’s career, like all the careers of great players before his, would eventually end and may in fact have already ended. As I sat helplessly staring at the tiny television in my Boise hotel room, I knew that there was nothing to do but wait for several weeks to find out if this visceral outpouring of emotion that was washing over me was going to be validated by a retirement announcement. As the broadcast came to its conclusion, with Tim Duncan tucked away in the recesses of a Chesapeake Energy Arena locker room, not knowing what else to do, I turned off the faucet of emotions, buried my head back in the sand of believing that Tim Duncan’s career would never come to an end, and got in my car and drove to the union office to get back to work.

 

* * *

 

This Black & Silver blog series began back in 2011 with a post making the argument that Tim Duncan is the greatest player in the post-Jordan era. This summer upon announcing his retirement, Timmy left the game of basketball with that legacy in tact. With five NBA titles to Shaquille O’Neal’s four, Duncan has the upper hand in that head to head. While tied with Kobe Bryant at five rings a piece, Timmy still edges out Kobe with three Finals MVPs to Kobe’s two and two League MVPs to Kobe’s one. After delivering a title to his native state of Ohio and the Cleveland Cavaliers (his third overall), LeBron James is certainly nipping at Tim’s heels. Given LeBron’s four League MVPs and astonishing seven trips to the NBA Finals (including six straight), an argument could be made to rank James ahead of Duncan should he ever secure a Duncan-tying fifth NBA Championship. While he already has three titles under his belt, LeBron still has a lot work to do to win two more. But if LeBron should eventually pass by Duncan, then Timmy will have to settle for being the greatest player of a generation. And in the annals of NBA history, that is not a shabby place to wind up.

As disappointing as the news was that Tim won’t be joining his comrades in battle for a twentieth NBA campaign, his retirement does usher in an exciting new chapter of Spurs basketball. Should we be able to secure a sixth NBA championship trophy down in Titletown, TX, we would seize with it our opportunity to surpass the Chicago Bulls as the third most decorated franchise in NBA history. While the two franchises would be tied at sixth titles a piece, the difference that would give the Spurs the edge over Chicago is that we would have been able to win a title beyond the era of one transformational player. Having Michael Jordan involved in all six Chicago titles, the Bulls haven’t been able to do that. Only the Celtics and Lakers have had multiple dynastic eras. This is the challenge ahead of Kawhi Leonard and company. Kawhi now has the opportunity to lead his team to a championship as the Spurs’ post-Duncan era franchise player. Should he be able to accomplish this feat, Kawhi will start the long journey of building a legacy for himself that will never surpass but could ultimately rival the incredible legacy of the franchise player that came before him. I think Kawhi Leonard is driven to accept this challenge and to persevere. Only time will tell but one thing is for certain. Tim Duncan will be behind the scenes supporting him and cheering him on during every step of the journey.

In the end, July 11th, 2016 was certainly a rough day. Once the news started hitting social media, I remember just sitting at my computer in a fog for the better part of an hour trying to wrap my head around the idea that an era of my life had just come to an end. Tim Duncan’s retirement was a tough thing for me to wrap my head around. It felt horrible to know that the most consistent part of my adult life, having my favorite basketball player suiting up for my favorite basketball team was suddenly over. The overwhelming shower of emotions that I had briefly experienced as Tim Duncan put that finger in the air while leaving the court after Game 6 violently returned and this time, something as simple as returning back to work was not going to allow me to shake them. In the weeks that have followed the announcement, I’ve tried to focus on the positive memories from Timmy’s career but I can’t help it, I’d be lying if I tried to tell you that I haven’t been in a funk all summer. Those emotions are still there and they are still raw. I really, really wanted one more year to say goodbye. I really, really wanted Tim Duncan to find a way to win that mystical Jordan-tying sixth championship. And even though I know that it isn’t his style, I really, really wanted Tim Duncan to have the proverbial NBA legend’s farewell tour. This sucks. Tim Duncan will always be my favorite athlete of all time. He was the best.

 

* * *

 

I had a dream the other night. It was a great dream. It was the first game of the 2016-17 San Antonio Spurs season. I was staying late at work phone banking union households for the election, which prevented me from being home in my favorite spot on the couch ready to go at tip-off of Spurs vs. Warriors. When I eventually arrived home and turned on the game, it was about three minutes into the first quarter. Almost immediately after turning on the game, I noticed something that at first seemed mundane but quickly became astonishing. Right when I turned on the game, I saw Tim Duncan was dropping back to defend Steph Curry as the reigning MVP dove toward the rim coming off a pick set by Draymond Green. Timmy extended his arms (without jumping) and blocked Curry’s layup attempt almost as soon as he started raising into the shot. After blocking the shot, Duncan grabbed the ball and fired it over to Tony Parker before embarking on a mad dash down the court. As the teams exchanged ends, Tony flipped the ball over to Kawhi Leonard on the wing as Timmy sealed Draymond behind him down in the low block. Timmy then proceeded to signal for the ball, catch the post entry from Kawhi Leonard, rise up into Green’s outstretched arms, absorb the contact, finish off of the backboard as the whistle blew to indicate a foul, and then stoically walked to the foul line to shoot a free throw. After witnessing this quintessential Tim Duncan moment, I grabbed my phone frantically and went to the ESPN.com homepage to, sure enough, find the headline article stating, “At the last minute, San Antonio Spurs Future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan decides to un-retire.” I was overcome with joy for a moment until I was suddenly jarred from my sleep. When I realized that I had been sleeping, it was one of those “damn, it was only a dream” moments. Those moment are the worst. After realizing that it was a dream, I tried to fall right back to sleep in the hopes that I could re-enter my dream. It was so sweet I just didn’t want it to be over. It was of no use as the dream had vanished and the reality of Timmy’s retirement sunk back in. I have a sneaking suspicion that my dream was not a premonition soon to come to fruition this coming Tuesday evening. I have a sneaking suspicion that from now on, San Antonio will never ever see a four behind the screen and roll protecting the paint with a flat-footed block and then running the court in order to get in the proper position to devastate an opponent in the post the way that Tim Duncan did for 19 extraordinary seasons. It seems that seeing Tim Duncan play another basketball game in the NBA will now and forever happen only in dreams. But for the rest of the time that I’m awake, I know that I am blessed to have enough memories to last a lifetime. Thank you, Tim Duncan.

#GoSpursGo #ThanksYouTD


Featured Image Source: San Antonio Express-News

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