Hall of Fame: Class of 2020
Humble, hard-working Tim Duncan followed unorthodox path to Hall of Fame
Tim Duncan's upbringing in St. Croix helped set the stage for one of the most successful careers in NBA history.
SAN ANTONIO — The contents inside Lonnie Walker IV’s gut churned, retched up and splattered into a puddle on the floor.
No shame in an out-of-shape rookie tossing his cookies after a workout with the retired Tim Duncan.
Immediately, Duncan rushed over to sop up the mess.
“Once they got it cleaned up, Timmy’s like, ‘Lonnie, get your ass back out on the court. We’ve got work to do,” Spurs CEO R.C. Buford recently recalled from an empty patio at a local Mexican restaurant. “Timmy was in the gym that day, just working with Lonnie because he was out of shape after missing all that time [after] he tore his meniscus and missed the first eight weeks of the season. Tim wasn’t even coaching yet. But when Tim Duncan’s over there cleaning up your mess, that’s a hell of a statement.”
Just one more tacked on, adding to two decades’ worth in a 19-season NBA career that provided immeasurable contributions toward birthing the culture of the San Antonio Spurs, culminating in Duncan’s induction Saturday into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“It’s a pretty incredible story,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everybody knows the story, but it’s true. That’s something we’re all very happy about. We still toast him when we have dinner: ‘Thank you, Timmy.’ So, [it’s] obviously special.”
The truth is, it’s impossible to distill Duncan’s career into words or some lengthy think piece. We already know about the mind-boggling stats, the five titles, the two MVPs and 15 All-Star appearances, not to mention the fact Duncan retired in 2016 ranked second in playoff victories, first in playoff double-doubles and third in postseason rebounds.
We understand that the 15-year span between Duncan’s first title (1999) and last (2014) ranks as the second longest in league history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (17 years) among players participating in both NBA Finals series, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
We get it that Duncan and John Salley are the only players in NBA history to win titles in three different decades, and that Duncan is the first Hall of Fame inductee to play his entire career of at least 15 seasons for the same coach.
And who can forget that Duncan teamed with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to reel off 126 playoff victories, the most in NBA history by any trio — which also owns the most regular-season victories in NBA history (575) — and register as the first set of three teammates or more to capture four championships side-by-side since Magic Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis, according to Elias Sports Bureau?
“It’s all a combination of a competitiveness on my own part, a love for playing the game, hating losing and an organization committed to putting the best things in place to give a city, a team, a player like myself an opportunity to win year in and year out,” Duncan said.
The answer to how Duncan accomplished it all falls into more complicated territory, though.
Keep in mind that despite Duncan’s near-flawless fundamentals, he never flashed awe-inspiring athleticism. Former Wake Forest teammate and close friend Marc Blucas jokes that “he and I will both tell you that he can’t jump over a phone book.”
But a look inside Tim Duncan, the man, provides some clues explaining how a rail-thin kid from the U.S. Virgin Islands — one with aspirations to become an Olympic swimmer before Hurricane Hugo destroyed all the local pools in 1989 — took the league by storm and elevated not only the unproven Popovich but an entire NBA franchise with simple, yet crucial character attributes instilled by his parents, Delysia Ione and William Duncan, on the 82-square-mile island of St. Croix in the Caribbean.
Make no mistake. Before Duncan arrived in San Antonio as the top pick of the 1997 draft, the San Antonio Spurs were already functioning as somewhat of a militaristic, regimented franchise under Popovich and what Buford called “a really principled group of standard bearers” such as David Robinson, Mario Elie, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott and Terry Porter.
“With Timmy, it softened them,” Buford explained. “It wasn’t so regimented and rigid [anymore]. I think with the way Pop and Tim connected it also became a very caring environment.”
SENSE OF HUMOR: Before joining the cast of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and later starring opposite Katie Holmes in “First Daughter” in an acting career spanning more than 30 movie credits, Marc Blucas was a senior guard at Wake Forest “playing above my gene pool” when a 17-year-old Duncan walked into the gym on the first day of school.
The least-touted of Wake Forest’s three recruits from the 1993 class, Duncan expected to redshirt as a freshman.
Blucas and fellow senior captain Randolph Childress quickly devised a change of plans after playing only one session of pick-up ball with Duncan.
“You could just tell,” Blucas said. “He was already playing like he belonged. He was so even-keeled and so competitive at the same time. I’ll never forget looking at Randolph Childress and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go tell (coach Dave) Odom not to redshirt this kid.’ We went down there and just told him.”
Duncan would start 32 of 33 games as a freshman at Wake Forest. That one season fighting alongside the power forward made a powerful impression on Blucas.
“I wanted to see where he came from, the lessons, morals and all the things that he applied to the game,” he said. “After that time being around him, I immediately said to him, ‘I really want to go and see what made the man. I want to go down to St. Croix for a week or so and see how this all started.’ ”
So, after graduation, Blucas booked the trip to the island.
Blucas belly laughs now at the Lonnie Walker IV vomit story, because it reminds him of a similar tale from the visit to St. Croix that highlights Duncan’s quick and witty sense of humor, attributes that pay dividends in combating the grind of a long NBA season.
“It’s so Tim to do exactly that,” Blucas said. “He’ll do one of the more humbling things on the planet, and then he’ll either crack a funny joke you didn’t expect or tell you to man up, get back on the court and start playing. It’s like, ‘O.K., you threw up. I cleaned it up. Let’s keep going.’”
While snorkeling with Duncan on a sun-drenched summer day in St. Croix, Blucas unwittingly stepped on a sea urchin and into his own Lonnie Walker-like story.
“It’s stinging like hell,” Blucas said.
So, when they return to the beach, Duncan calmly explains, “Hey, you’ve got to piss on it.”
“I’m like, ‘Ha ha, funny Island Boy. You’re not gonna fool the landlocked white kid into thinking I’ve got to pee on my own foot to make it not hurt,’ ” Blucas said. “Tim’s like, ‘I’m not kidding you. It hurts like hell. I’ve done it. The acid and PH of the urine will actually cut the pain. Pee on it.’ I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t have to pee.’ And he looks at me with this big grin on his face, and he says, ‘Well, I do.'”
Blucas bursts into laughter telling the story.
“I’m like, ‘Go f— yourself. You are not pissing on me. Now, I know this is bull—-,’ ” he said. “Of course, it wasn’t. I did end up peeing on my foot and it felt much better. But it’s such a similar thing to Lonnie’s story. It’s about not taking yourself too seriously. It’s having a sense of humor. It’s this great balance of, ‘We’re gonna work our asses off, and that’s what’s expected of everybody. So, let’s have a good time doing it. Let’s really be friends.’
“That’s so much of who Tim, Pop, that whole group of guys are, and I think a big part of it was by design. You draft around your superstar and their leadership qualities. The Spurs draft guys that would get motivated to see the quote, unquote superstar get yelled at by Pop, or see him down on the floor cleaning up someone else’s vomit and think, ‘I better carry my weight because he’s doing way more than he should.’”
LEADERSHIP THROUGH SELFLESSNESS: In Duncan’s 19 seasons as a player and one as an assistant on the Spurs staff, Buford said nobody in the organization can remember a single instance he was late.
That’s just one of several displays of professionalism over the years from Duncan that set a standard for the rest of the franchise to follow.
The Spurs saw other examples before even drafting him.
Remember, Duncan stayed at Wake Forest all four years, despite Buford’s belief he would’ve been the first overall pick as a sophomore, maybe even as a freshman. Duncan finished school at Wake Forest because he promised his mother he’d graduate. Plus, Duncan wanted to be there for his teammates and live out the whole college experience.
“His whole thing was, I think, about the experience, the journey, the guys in the locker room,” Blucas said. “If it wasn’t like that, Tim wasn’t interested. He played the game to win, but he played the game for his friendships and for that time together with those guys. He was a guy that wanted to enjoy the moment he was in at that point, as opposed to just looking ahead and always dreaming up.”
Popovich learned as much firsthand during the pre-Draft process.
“Pop being crazy, he thought Scot Pollard was who we should Draft,” Buford said. But once it became clear the plan was to select Duncan No. 1 overall, Popovich booked a flight to the Virgin Islands to spend time with Duncan.
“He learned about Tim’s family, how important Tim’s mother was, who he lost when he was 14,” Buford said. “I think Pop shared stories about who he was, his background, and Pop doesn’t open up to that a lot now. I think they really got to know each other, and when Pop came back, he didn’t disclose anything other than, ‘This is a really good person, and this is somebody we’re gonna love taking this journey with.’”
Popovich immediately saw all the attributes in Duncan that made him special.
“It was pretty obvious he was highly intelligent, had a great sense of humor, was serious about the game,” Popovich said. “Winning was what he was concerned with, nothing else. He was fun to be around. Those were probably the qualities I noticed first when I spent that time with him.”
What Popovich couldn’t have expected is the depth of it all.
Before Duncan ever played a game in the NBA, his former agent, Lon Babby — who later worked with the Phoenix Suns as a front office executive — said he quickly learned a valuable lesson from the power forward.
Prior to the start of Duncan’s rookie season, he and Babby rode in the back of a car on the way to a Schick commercial shoot that would feature the No. 1 draft pick playing one-on-one in a backyard with Spurs’ veteran star David Robinson. The premise of the commercial centered on the veteran teaching the rookie a lesson. But on the way to the shoot, an issue arose with the script about one of Robinson’s lines.
“We’re talking about it, and I said, ‘Listen, Tim, my job is to represent you. So, I can’t really be worried about David’s point of view on this,’ ” said Babby, who also represented Hall of Fame inductee Tamika Catchings. “He turned to me and said, ‘Well, you might not have to worry about it, but I do because I’m gonna be his teammate. I’m coming in, and he’s been the star of this team. I need to be sensitive to his feelings.’
“I remember turning to him and saying, ‘Well, listen. I’m 40. You’re 22. And you’re teaching me lessons about teamwork and leadership.’ He was just always willing to sublimate his own ego for the betterment of his teammates.”
Duncan conducted himself similarly with the franchise over the years when it came to transactions. Buford and Popovich always made it a point to involve the club’s star player in any discussions about potential moves that needed to be made. Buford even admitted that “the kiss of death was to become good friends with Tim because I think we traded everyone that Timmy was good friends with. It started with Cory Alexander, then (Phoenix Suns coach) Monty (Williams), then Malik (Rose), Antonio Daniels.”
Duncan never tried to convince the brass to keep his friends. In fact, it reached the point where Popovich and Duncan agreed that when it came to discussions about potentially moving close friends, the team wouldn’t even approach the power forward for his opinion.
“In those decisions, he just always accepted what was best for the team at the time,” Buford said. “He always did what was best for the team. It wasn’t about him. The stoicism that Tim lives life through is just different than most. He thinks about life and his world differently than many. It was often interesting to see him kind of analyze and evaluate teammates, new players and players that he played against through a totally different lens than most typical NBA players.”
Then, there’s the day-to-day Duncan at the team’s training facility, his leadership through deeds, not words.
To this day, Duncan remains a regular inside the Spurs’ practice gym on the Northwest side of San Antonio. Even in retirement, he texts members of the Spurs staff saying he misses them, that he can’t wait to get back into the gym with them.
Every day on practice courts all over the NBA, players utilize a shooting machine called The Gun, a contraption that collects and passes the ball back to a shooter, thus alleviating the need for a rebounder to shag balls. Usually, an assistant or equipment manager sets up the machine for players.
Not in San Antonio.
“Timmy would set The Gun up for himself, and he would take it down for himself,” Buford said. “No other player ever did that. They get the manager to set it up, and they get the manager to take it down. That’s a tone that he set. It was never with his voice, but with his personality that Timmy set the tone.”
It still resonates loudly at the team’s facility.
As the Spurs started preparations for Duncan’s induction ceremony, a contingent of staffers strolled past general manager Brian Wright’s office. Surprisingly, they discovered both of Duncan’s MVP trophies and one of his three Finals MVP awards sitting in a box, caked in dust.
“Who knows where the hell they’ve been?” Buford said, laughing. “It’s not like they’re out in the middle of the house someplace being polished. But if a guy that accomplished has his trophies in the back collecting dust in a closet someplace, that’s probably where all of ours should be.”
CARING: Popovich lost his top two assistants in the summer of 2019 when Ime Udoka (currently a Brooklyn Nets assistant) joined the staff of the Philadelphia 76ers, while lead assistant Ettore Messina returned to Italy with Olimpia Milano.
At the time, Duncan was finally settling into retirement, attending his children’s functions regularly, “being a real dad,” he’s told friends.
Yet Duncan quickly gave up that life to join Popovich’s staff as an assistant.
See, Duncan’s father, William, died in 2002. Before his passing, William asked Popovich to ensure his son stayed grounded, so he’d leave the game the same person he was before superstardom. Duncan has long considered Popovich a father figure, and it’s not uncommon for the two to meet up on the anniversary of William’s death for a beer and deep conversation.
So, with Popovich’s top assistants leaving the staff, Duncan didn’t want to leave his coach alone, according to multiple staffers. Buford’s eyes welled with tears when asked about Duncan joining the staff, and he declined to delve deeply into the matter.
“It crushed Tim to do it when he was already home being able to travel to volleyball games, his kids’ events, and do car pickup all the time and not be on the road,” Blucas explained. “I think it was loyalty to Pop, a loyalty to the organization. It certainly wasn’t guilt. But it was like, ‘I’m not gonna let him or them go by the wayside without me getting in the fight.’ I think there was some level of responsibility that goes back to Tim Duncan the human being: loyalty, honor, and being appreciative and grateful for the people who have done for him.”
It’s with this level of caring that Duncan led as a player on the sport’s most competitive stage.
“If you asked me what’s the vision I have in my head of Tim Duncan, it’s him kind of patting a teammate on the head kind of lovingly walking off the court after a timeout,” Babby said. “You’ve probably seen him do that a million times. To me, that captures everything about him.”
It’s authentic, too.
Blucas saw it firsthand as Duncan’s college teammate. He experienced it through long conversations and sitting next to Duncan on the bus ride back to campus when “we both got our asses kicked” in the power forward’s ACC debut as a freshman against Sharone Wright and the Clemson Tigers.
“First off, you can’t have that level of success without being a killer,” Blucas said. “But he didn’t pound his chest and scream in people’s faces. Different superstars have different styles of leadership. Tim’s always going to be the guy to put his arm around you first instead of getting in your face. That’s just who he is. He’s gonna come to you with love before he comes at you with challenge, aggression, competitiveness, anger and intensity.”
Perhaps that’s a part of Duncan’s upbringing in the Virgin Islands, which we all may witness in the future through a Tim Duncan documentary. Duncan’s older brother, Scott, is working alongside the Hall of Famer’s childhood friend, Rashidi Clenance, to chronicle his beginnings.
Scott Duncan says the documentary will highlight the island’s influence on Tim Duncan’s ascension. Surprisingly, the interview-averse Tim Duncan has already sat down for 30-40 hours of interviews.
In many ways, those close to Duncan consider the circumstances surrounding his enshrinement almost perfect.
Michael Jordan will present the late Kobe Bryant, and that part of the ceremony should dominate the spotlight.
Blucas jokes Duncan might “walk up there and give the Bubba Smith speech from “Police Academy.” He’ll say, ‘thanks’ and walk away. But that is perfectly Tim.”
Buford, Blucas and Babby will be in attendance. The Spurs play Monty Williams’ Phoenix Suns on the day of the ceremony in the first game of a back-to-back set in San Antonio. Buford said, “I think there’s no way Pop should miss that.” Duncan’s former teammate Williams shouldn’t, either.
Expect to see a Duncan family contingent, a Wake Forest contingent, and a definite Spurs presence.
Duncan, Blucas said, views his enshrinement ceremony “as a family reunion of sorts. All of these moments: the jersey retirements, MVP ceremonies — going back to the Wooden Award (in college) — he looks at all those things as an opportunity to get all these people together from a lot of different parts of his life. He wants to go to dinner with everybody just to sit and catch up. That’s kind of what matters most to Tim, and it’s so pure.
“Obviously, he’s honored by it, reveres the institution of the Hall of Fame and is proud and grateful for the honor. But staying true to what he is and what he’s done, for him, it’s not about the limelight, the speeches or the trophy room. I don’t know how that kind of success, money, fame and impact doesn’t change you. But damn it, he’s the same kid I met when he was 17 years old, 200 pounds soaking wet.
“If he wasn’t 6-11, you would have no idea that he was who he became.”
But here Duncan stands one last time at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino. In the background, of course.
“He never breathed too much of his own air,” Babby said. “With Kobe’s tragic passing and Michael presenting him, the focus of the ceremony won’t be on Tim, and he couldn’t care less. Even if Kobe was still here, he’d still get most of the attention, and that’s just perfect for Tim because it really captures the essence of his career and who he is.”
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