In NBA years Tim Duncan is ancient. At age 37 and in his 17th season he is a basketball geriatric. But my, oh, my, what a 17 seasons those have been. Duncan is the most under-appreciated superstar of his era. His team, the San Antonio Spurs, has never missed the playoffs in his career and has won four NBA championships. He is a 14-time NBA All-Star, a former Rookie of the Year, and a two-time Most Valuable Player. Every year he puts up stats like clockwork, averaging more than 20 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks per game for his career.
Such numbers measure his greatness but they fail to tell the whole story. In an era of basketball players called “His Airness,” “The Mailman.” “The Glove,” “The Truth,” “The Admiral,” “The Big Ticket,” and “King James,” Duncan was known as “The Big Fundamental.” It’s not much of a name, but it was perfect for the player who didn’t have bulging biceps or jump out of the gym, and whose signature move was an 18-foot bank shot from the wing. Somehow, though, The Big Fundamental managed to dunk on a whole lot of opponents and toss some of the prettiest behind-the-back passes you could hope to see. He even looked like he was taking a walk in the park while humiliating opponents on basketball’s biggest stages. Duncan has spent 16-plus seasons building a legacy of all substance and no glitz.
Not often can one point to a professional athlete and say, “Be like that guy.” But Duncan has modeled professionalism like few other athletes of the past two decades. He isn’t just a good ballplayer but is a man who anyone can respect. He puts his team first and has been a model teammate for superstars, has-beens, malcontents, and journeymen. His work ethic is unassailable. He has fortified his weaknesses over the years and maximized his strengths. Duncan pursues excellence and victory with tenacity, but not with froth-at-the-mouth madness. Time and again he has risen to the occasion when the Spurs needed him to. And when he’s lost, like in last season’s NBA Finals, he does so with dignity.
Off the court Duncan is practically invisible. He doesn’t make himself the center of attention or assume he is larger than society because of his success. While other players flee humble cities for the lights of New York or the glamour of Miami, Duncan re-signs with San Antonio for significantly less money than he could have gotten elsewhere. He is a self-proclaimed nerd. Right, the nerd who humiliates all the bullies.
When Tim Duncan decides it’s time to retire the NBA and its fans will be the worse for it. For nearly 20 years we’ve had the opportunity to watch a real role model, a paragon of excellence without the baggage of ego. He has shown what can happen when great ability devotes itself to hard work and mastering the fundamentals. It’s a lesson anyone could benefit from.