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Sam Smith and Jim Boylen on Tim Duncan
Reflecting on the retiring Hall of Famer and his incredible and understated career
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By Sam Smith | 7.13.2016 | 2:10 p.m.
We all knew this was coming with Tim Duncan, whose retirement was announced Monday by the Spurs in a press release. Well, no one was sure if it would be this summer or next, but it was close with Duncan in his 19th season and his playing time declining. But everyone was sure it would come, like this, in some understated form that mirrored Duncan’s exceptional career. Perhaps a note under the commissioner’s door.
Duncan will be remembered as the best ever to play his position, power forward, likely one of the 10 best NBA players, a 15-time All-Star, five-time champion, twice a league MVP, recording the third most wins of any player.
What was appropriate and fitting with Duncan’s departure was that no one had a story.
When these retirements of the greats occur reporters and commentators are quick to supply their brush with greatness, something Tim may have said to them or they witnessed with Tim, their part of the history. Tim Duncan leaves no anecdotes.
Because essentially he wasn’t special, just exceptional.
He was terrific at his job, and because his job was on public display, the significance was heightened. And we want people in those situations to be special because if they weren’t, well, why wasn’t it us?
Well, he is 6-11. Probably seven foot, but the big guys always saw seven feet as a freak, 6-11 as more human.
Duncan was nothing but human with an efficient basketball game, a gift of basically good health and a desire to not stand out despite his physical appearance and achievements.
It’s probably why he always had his head bent down when he conducted interviews, which he became more relaxed about in recent years, even with a hint of the Tim Duncan behind the curtain with an arched eyebrow and playful smirk.
Teammates knew him as none of us did, fond of simple pranks, gag gifts, the old finger to the chest and then up into the face or a poke on the shoulder or the ear the opposite way you are looking. It never matched up much with his mannerisms as a player, pleading his case to officials with shocked dismay, bright eyed if subtle, and of so sincere about the game.
Bulls top assistant coach Jim Boylen coached with the Spurs two seasons, there with Gregg Popovich for the painful loss to Miami and then the revenge win. Boylen has been around NBA benches for decades, winning a pair of championships with the Houston Rockets in the 90s with their stars, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
When Boylen was hired by the Spurs in 2013, he saw what he expected with Duncan and experienced what he didn’t.
“I was expecting a professional, I was expecting a worker and expecting a guy with a high basketball IQ from coaching against him, and when I got there his IQ was double what I thought it would be,” said Boylen. “But the biggest thing about Tim is he is the kindest superstar, Hall of Fame guy I’ve ever met in my life; he is so kind to teammates, coaches. I was new, but the way he accepted me…..He respected me, gave me a chance to coach him, always accepted coaching.
“I worked him out the first week I was there,” related Boylen. “Always willing to learn, to help somebody, a kind, considerate, professional guy and his respect for coaching, Pop, the league transcended the team. Shoes on, always ready to go.”
But what struck Boylen, whom Duncan really didn’t know well, was the welcome from one of the greatest players ever.
“It was every day, ‘How you doing? How is your family doing?’ He remembers everyone’s names,” Boylen said. “He doesn’t need a pat on the back, doesn’t need you to massage him. To me that’s kindness, too. And that droll sense of humor. I’d say, ‘Tim, you have to be back on that pick and roll.’ He’d say, ‘Oh, you think so?’
“He’d ask me, How are you doing in the first year here?’” recalled Boylen. “’How are you getting along? Anything we can do for you? Is your family enjoying San Antonio? We’re thankful you’re here.’ That’s Tim Duncan.”
I have two Tim Duncan stories. Though remember, none of us in the media really have any Tim Duncan stories.
The first was media day the season before Duncan was going to be a free agent with the Spurs and they feared—really, really feared—he might leave for Orlando and Doc Rivers, whom he’d befriended when Rivers was a Spurs broadcaster.
So called media day is the training camp opener when all the players are required to be available, go through pictures and interviews. I went to San Antonio for The Chicago Tribune and as I waited Duncan began to leave before speaking to anyone. I walked over to catch him and said it was media day, that he didn’t have to talk all year, but the NBA said he needed to this day. The hint of a grin edged to the corner of his mouth. He looked at the concerned Spurs employee escorting him. The Spurs employee said nothing. Duncan shrugged and walked into the elevator and left.
Story No. 2 was when I was on a committee to select the All-Star ballot. We proposed listing some players who played a lot of center in their offenses the way they played as centers. The NBA has since eliminated the center position on the ballot. It was still there at that time and there were just too many underserving centers. So we listed forward Duncan as a center.
The league a few days later got a call from the Spurs. Tim wanted to be listed as a forward.
Tim Duncan never liked being the center of anything.
He liked coming to work, relating to his coworkers while not taking away or standing above them. The media has a dutiful role to bring the voice of players to their fans. It’s not as much hanging with the stars as one might think. Duncan didn’t engage in that activity, which was too bad.
Because he never wanted to be the center of the group, just a part, which is the elusive element of making up a team. It’s why Duncan was both such an unusual and effective player while performing as the exceptional man. He lived his life and career in the best interests and within the group, to assure that the whole became greater than the pieces. So then everyone could benefit. And when everyone benefits and enjoys the process, the rewards are greater for everyone.
You’ve always felt that around the Spurs.
They never quite articulated it or explained why and how Duncan was so special. But it was in the way he lived and worked and left us with no great stories. Just a classic exit befitting a truly humble star who unlocked the secret to success as much as any player ever. It’s why we should hold no surprise the Spurs prospered as they did for two decades. There just aren’t many people like that anywhere.
We like to point the spotlight at the players while Tim Duncan shined for his team. It’s no coincidence why the Spurs became one of the rare dynasties in sports with him. And why he departed as we expected, though not one to be forgotten.