April 26, 2011 5 Comments
The greatest power forward in the history of the game is wilting before our very eyes.
This is always one of sports’ saddest scenes; that of a beloved figure succumbing to the limits of body and age paired with time. To be submitted to the Not Yet Retired but Unfortunately No Longer Enjoyable and Actually Downright Sad to Watch Wither Away shrine this year is Tim Duncan.
Basketball fans can usually see this coming months in advance. We watch our hero’s lose a step here and there. They are no longer able to go hard each trip down the floor and they take possessions off once in awhile out of necessity. 24 and 12 turns into 18 and 8, and eventually 11 and 5.
Duncan is a prime case, and a sad example. His knees are gone from him. He no longer can rely on their support to carry his 6’11’’ frame up and down a basketball court 100 games a year. Thousands and thousands of hours spent pounding the hardwood will have that affect on anyone, especially the monsters that play this game. Bill Walton’s infamous knees are the stuff of legend, undoubtedly shortening what should have been a transcendent career, and turning it into a hard to pinpoint mirage of flashes of greatness and whatcouldhavebeens. Plagued by tendonitis, he played only 468 games over the course of 10 NBA seasons. Walton is the poster boy for the big man’s knee problems. Fortunately, Duncan had survived his 13 years and counting in The League virtually free of injury. Time, however, is the most unforgiving of affliction, and The Big Fundamental is now paying the price for his trade.
At 1,227 games to date – both regular season and playoffs – at slightly under 200 possessions per game (the NBA average), that’s 244,173 trips down the court in his professional career alone. Throw in the four years spent at Wake Forest, practices, conditioning, and work out sessions, and it’s a wonder he can make it to the arena from the parking lot. Duncan is 35 years old, his knees are 55.
In his prime he was a guaranteed double-double. But he is slower now, less agile. No longer the go-to-guy on a team he carried for a decade plus. The city of San Antonio and his coach, Gregg Popovich, are forever indebted to his services. He pushed, sweated, and bled for them. He showed up every night. He won them four championship rings. But now they watch his decline with knowing and heartbreaking acceptance. He is incapable of doing for them what he has for so long, and everyone knows it. Still, ever the show of class and grace, he never utters a word of complaint. Spurs fans sit and watch as their number 1-seeded favorites flounder against the number 8-seeded Grizzlies, who mailed in their last game intentionally so that they could face an ageing and broken San Antonio team in Round 1. The strategy worked, and Memphis has a commanding 3 games to 1 lead. This would have never happened in the glory years. Not back in 99, 03, 05, or 07, when Tim Duncan was the best big in the game and the Spurs were waltzing through Texas on parade day waving their championship banners. But those days are long gone. These current Spurs are worn down and leaking fuel, just like their leader. They stammered into the playoffs after a regular season that earned them the top spot in the Western Conference, although their winning percentage after game 40 was only a hair over .500. Duncan, like his team, is basketball old. His career scoring average of 21.7 is down to 13.4 this year. His rebounds are down as well.
We are watching a shell of a man take the court each night, and it’s downright depressing. He is the best player at his position, ever. No other power forward in history can boast his numbers and championships, not to mention his character and leadership. He has played his entire career without the shame of scandal or the sharp sneer of tabloid headlines. No rape charges, no HGH accusations, no dating flaunty supermodels, no bankruptcy, not so much as a sound bite-worthy press conference. He has also played every professional game for one team, only a handful of guys can say that. Yes, Tim Duncan is a basketball icon and in the top ten players of all time, but you’d never hear that from him. His humble demeanor evokes no showmanship or flair. He simply shows up on time, gives his best, and goes on his way. A gentle giant amidst a sea of ego-driven and self-serving peers.
Every athlete breaks down eventually, although Father Time does show favorites. Greg Maddux pitches 18 years but Mark Prior garners only three. Emmitt Smith runs forever but Gale Sayers was only able to bless football for 5 years. We can see it coming. We can tell when players start to decline. It’s a sad sight to see them battle for a balance between their competitiveness and their actual ability. It’s the reason Jordan came back twice. He was unable to walk away from what he loved and longed for more than anything else. Kobe is next, and he will have the same problem. Staying, playing longer than he should, holding onto his past greatness, unwilling to relinquish the thing that made him one of the greats. Hopefully, Duncan endures no such fate. If the basketball gods have any mercy at all, let him walk away when the only memories people have of him are of his dominance, his skill, and his smile. Let the Spurs come back and beat the Grizz, let them make a run, let them let people remember Duncan the way he should be remembered; a great player with a great attitude who showed us that success and dishonor need not go hand in hand. Let him be the one to remind us that one can achieve without enemies, and without breaking the rules. No one doesn’t like Timmy, and everyone respects him.
It is a shame to see a man who has given so much go down this way. He is a no-questions Hall of Famer. If Michael Jordan deserves his own wing, Duncan should at least get his own room or wall or something. Fans will miss his steady presence, his never changing calm under pressure, his outstanding post-defense, and his beautiful bank-shot. They will miss seeing him in the Spurs silver and black, miss watching him use his skill and mobility to dismantle opponents. They will miss too, the dignity he brought the game of basketball. He was one you can show tapes of to your kids. “This is the right way to do things, son.”
Tim Duncan is no longer a great basketball player, and that is too bad. I take it back, I want him to play as long as he can walk, the Association and the Game itself are better for it.