Unspoken bond between Duncan, Popovich revealed during jersey retirement ceremony


They are the two syllables that always belied the myth.

For 19 seasons we were told that Gregg Popovich treated each and every one of his Spurs equally.

Often like dogs.

The legend was constructed around the fact that the snarling, sarcastic coach never spared the rod even on his best player, the big man in the middle who held the entire tent up.

Tim Duncan got his ear chewed on during timeouts. Tim Duncan got the whipping boy treatment occasionally at practice, just to keep up the illusion that nobody was different or better or closer than the rest. Tim Duncan got the pointy end of those snide remarks when Grouchy Pop would show up on the sidelines or in the locker room just because, well, that’s who he is.

But he was always Timmy.

Not Tim. Not Duncan. Not the Big Fundamental.

The diminutive nickname even for a power forward/center that stood 6-11 and weighed in at 250 pounds. Through five NBA championships, two MVP seasons, 15 All-Star selections and 10 times voted to the All-NBA First Team.


It was the clearest evidence of the unspoken bond that connected them for nearly two decades.

There were David Robinson, Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott from the very first championship team back in 1999, and Bruce Bowen who came along to join the victory parades in 2003 and 2005 and 2007, all of whom have preceded him in having their jerseys retired and raised to the rafters.

Through the years there were guys named Jacque, Beno, Tiago, Francisco, Nazr, Boban and Speedy that all passed through San Antonio. There was even Stephen *$#%^!!# Jackson.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili arrived to become part of the winningest threesome in NBA history and together they turned the Spurs into unarguably the best American professional sports franchise of a generation.

On Sunday night after a 113-100 win over the Pelicans, many of them returned again to the AT&T Center court for the official ceremony to retire Duncan’s jersey. His No. 21 is the eighth to be hung from the rafters and was fastened there with memories and stories of how he effected them.

“There were multiple types of gestures, countless,” Ginobili said. “The way he tried to lift you up in tough moments. He was not the type of guy to bump your chest in a game and do it in from of 20,000 people. He would do it in the locker room or in the hotel. When he had your back, you were safe, you were good.”

Parker arrived as a 19-year-old from France and in his first two NBA seasons, Duncan won the MVP award.

“What made him special is he would get 40 points and 26 rebounds and do it in a way that I didn’t even see it,” Parker said. “And he had a way to tell me to get him the ball without talking. It was a look. Just a look. I would say, ‘Uh-oh! Better get him the ball now if I want to still be the point guard in the morning.'”

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry got to know Duncan personally during his two seasons as a Spurs assistant coach.

“Probably, if you talked to anyone that knows him, the most low-maintenance superstar that’s ever played the game,” Gentry said. “I think that’s the big thing the differentiates him from some of the other superstars. He wanted to be coached like the 12th or 13th guy on the team. You were able to get on him, able to do a lot of things.”

It was that trait that allowed Duncan to bond with Popovich, allowed Popovich to develop and then firmly established what has become the Spurs’ culture of humility, sharing and sacrifice for the guy occupying the next locker.

They were thrown together by the circumstance of a leg injury that forced the All-Star Robinson to miss virtually the entire 1996-97 season, resulting in a 20-62 record and the ensuing win of the draft lottery that gave the Spurs the No. 1 pick in the draft.

They were linked at the hip by a pair of personalities that were uncomfortable with — even disdainful at — media hype and any of the trappings of stardom. Duncan could be seen before every game he ever played, wrapping the ball up in his arms, hugging it close to his chest, and seeming to peer out over the top at a world full of unnecessary distractions. Over the years, Popovich came to bark from behind his grizzly white beard at sideline TV reporters and the rest of the planet that didn’t help further his only real aim of winning the next game or even the next possession.

They first met on the beach in Duncan’s native St. Croix and formed a connection that would last through the many sunny days of 19 consecutive playoff seasons and a run of 17 straight 50-win seasons.

To the outside world, they were often humorless, hardly what anyone would say was colorful. For years they were called “the boring Spurs.” Yet within the confines, they were growing together, the way a vine wraps around a tree trunk and both keep climbing.

Popovich found out early on that Duncan’s favorite dessert was carrot cake. So for nearly 20 years, every time the head coach dined out on Spurs’ road trips, he would bring a slice of carrot cake back to the team hotel, place it outside Duncan’s door, then knock and walk away.

Manu and Tony, Robinson and Elliott, and Bowen and Stephen *$#%^!!# Jackson never got carrot cake.

It was fitting then that of all those that spoke during the nearly one-hour ceremony before the crowd of 18,615, it was the two supposed stoics that broke down with emotion.

“Thank you, Coach Pop, for being more than a coach,” Duncan said as his eyes welled up watery and he bowed his head to gather himself. “For being more like a father to me, thank you.”

Popovich stomped a foot at mid-court as he choke his tears.

“When your superstar could take a little bit now and then, everybody else could shut the hell up and fall in line. So thank you for letting me coach you, Timmy.”

There they are, those two syllables, the ties that bind.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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