Tim Duncan stoically spent 19 fundamentally sound seasons allowing his play to speak for him.
Nineteen playoff appearances. Fifteen All-Star selections. Five championships. Five total Most Valuable Player Awards, three in the finals, two in the regular season. And this week, he’ll be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in a heralded class alongside Kevin Garnett and the late Kobe Bryant.
“You always get the question: What would you change? What would you do differently?” Duncan said in a video released by the Hall of Fame after his selection was announced last year. “Honestly, I don’t think there’s a change I would do differently.”
Duncan’s journey was one of happenstance and perseverance. He grew up a talented swimmer in St. Croix and left the sport when Hurricane Hugo devastated the island in 1989, destroying the pool where he competed. He started playing basketball in the ninth grade, setting him on a path to Wake Forest University, San Antonio and, now, Springfield, Mass.
The New York Times asked a group of his friends, teachers, teammates and coaches to speak about his journey.
Chris King (Wake Forest, men’s basketball, 1988-92): We had a group of guys that played in the N.B.A. they wanted to take down to the Virgin Islands because there was a lot of violence going on at the time.
The group of guys that we had was myself, Alonzo Mourning and Mark Tillmon from Georgetown, and we played games against guys from the islands.
The guys were getting ready to play one night and the whole place was packed. Here comes this skinny kid, walks in the gym — I didn’t know who he was — named Tim Duncan.
That was the first time I ever laid eyes on him.
The first thing I noticed about him was he had something that I had developed in high school: He could use the glass. I was very impressed.
Dave Odom (Duncan’s coach at Wake Forest): [King] came back early in September and was walking by my office and I just hollered at him: “Chris, come in here. I want to talk to you. Tell me about your trip.”
King: I said, “There was this kid down there.”
Odom: And I said: “Well, who was he? What was his name?”
He said, “I don’t know.”
I said, “Well, what island was he on?”
“I don’t know.”
So, he didn’t give me a lot other than there was a kid who had some skill. There was a coach on my staff at the time, Larry Davis, and he had coached a kid from the islands, maybe even St. Croix.
He came back the next day in our staff meeting and threw Tim Duncan’s name on the desk and said, “Coach, this is the kid.”
Odom was sold on Duncan after a trip to St. Croix. Wake Forest went 97-31 in his four years and finished 26-6 in two of those seasons, 1994-95 and 1995-96.
Randolph Childress (Duncan’s teammate at Wake Forest): It was a cold slushy, rainy day outside, and he didn’t have a jacket. So, he pulled his arms inside the short sleeve shirt and just walked around. That was my first image of him. So, I just thought: “Wow, this kid doesn’t have a coat. This skinny kid, is he going to be able to help us?”
I saw him play. And then I thought, “OK, he can definitely help us.”
Tracy Connor-Riddick (Wake Forest Sports Hall of Famer for women’s basketball and Duncan’s longtime friend): The first time I met him, he was in the cafeteria area and he just looked lost to me. So, I just went up to him and I asked him if there was anything I could help him with, and because my country accent was so strong, he couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand him. And I thought, huh, this is not going well.
Odom: We played him against Vanderbilt. He scored something like 9 points and had five or six blocks and probably almost 10 rebounds. And it was at that point, I’m talking to my staff, I’m saying, “We might want to look at this kid a little more closely and let’s see which way this thing takes us.”
Deborah Best (chairman of the Wake Forest psychology department and Duncan’s academic adviser): They were playing on a Sunday afternoon game, and my son and husband and I sat and watched the game on television and there was Tim playing. Later that evening, I had to go into our building to get something out of my office.
This was back in the day when we had computer labs and I had to walk past the computer lab and the door was opened and I thought, Oh. Who is in there? I leaned in and it was Tim. I said, “You were just on TV.”
He says, “Yeah, I’ve got a research methods lab report due tomorrow.”
As a senior, Duncan won the men’s basketball John Wooden Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding player. The Spurs also landed the top overall pick in the draft lottery.
Sean Elliott (Spurs teammate, 1997-2001, current Spurs television analyst): Back when we won the lottery, I was at home watching it and I swear, I could feel the ground physically shake.
Avery Johnson (Spurs teammate, 1997-2001): I’ll never forget watching the lottery with my wife and kids. We were positioned to be the fourth pick and boy, when our name wasn’t called, my heart just started beating fast.
Elliott: One minute later, Avery Johnson called me and he said, “We’re back.” And this is when we just won the lottery, so we knew we were going to draft Tim. It was a no-brainer.
Mike Budenholzer (Spurs assistant coach, 1996-2013. Current head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks): You have those things, Where were you when this happened? What were you doing? It might be the only thing in my life where I can tell you exactly where I was and exactly what I did and just how impactful it was.
Elliott: The first time I met Tim, he came over to the house. I had these big video games there that I used to play, it was Mortal Kombat. I used to beat up on the neighborhood kids. I was like the master.
Tim, he came in and he’s like, “Oh, what’s this?”
I said, “Oh, yeah, come on over here,” thinking I was going to give him a whooping. He proceeded to thoroughly annihilate me. And it was the first time he had played the game and I just could not understand it.
Outwardly, I was very gracious, but in my mind, I couldn’t believe it. So what struck me about him is that it has been proven time and time again, he’s the type of guy, you can be doing it your entire life and you show it to him and in five or 10 minutes, he’s actually better than you are.
Tim Duncan and David Robinson blended harmoniously, guiding the Spurs to the franchise’s first two titles in 1999 and 2003. “Tim, he’s a humble guy,” Robinson told TNT’s Ernie Johnson. “I always thought I was kind of quiet, and Tim made me feel like I was loud.”
Elliott: David wasn’t threatened by Timmy. Whereas a lot of franchise players in David’s position, they would maybe have some animosity or resentment toward the new No. 1 pick coming in, the new franchise-type player. But David wasn’t like that.
Timmy came in with a lot of humility too. He wasn’t coming in like he was a big shot. He was willing to learn from everybody, and guys can sense that in the locker room.
James Borrego (Spurs video coordinator/ assistant coach, 2003-10 and 2015-18, Current head coach of the Charlotte Hornets): What was so surprising to me was one of the first few days of that summer, he invites me to play pickup. We’re coming back, he doesn’t know my name. He just knows I’ve been hired to be in the video room.
He goes, “You’re in.”
He puts me in a game to play five-on-five with the group. That day, the way he made me feel welcomed and comfortable in his space, in his facility, that’s when I knew he was different.
Speedy Claxton (Spurs teammate 2002-3): Everybody knows Tim was a great guy, but he’s a funny guy as well, and likes to have fun. I remember when I first got there, the first day we worked out as a team, we played pickup. After that, he got all of us to go play paintball together, because Tim was a big paint baller.
But he was a great teammate. He was always encouraging. No matter if you missed two or three shots in a row, he’ll get the double-team and he’ll still kick it out to you no matter if you missed three shots in a row and tell you to shoot the ball every time you’re open.
Gregg Popovich (Spurs Coach, 1996-present): It wasn’t like an eight-footer or 10-footer. He did it from 18 to 20 feet, and his footwork was great, and he knew how to land it on the backboard. It was a rarity, it still is as a matter of fact, but that was his first signature move that I think everybody realized there was probably something pretty special about this guy.
Antonio Daniels (Spurs teammate, 1998-2002): Tim Duncan on that box was utterly unstoppable. I remember sitting on a bench watching like, this is his second year, like: This dude is incredible. He’s incredible.
He was able to do it with such a stoic mannerism. No smile, no trash talk, no nothing. Just go out and put up 30 and 15, 40 and 12. Like it was nothing, so efficient. Just footwork and fundamentals.
He couldn’t jump over a piece of paper, but he could not be defended.
The Spurs were on the precipice of winning a championship in 2013 in Game 6 of the finals before Ray Allen’s dagger 3-pointer for the Miami Heat. Duncan had 24 points and 12 rebounds in the deciding game, but misfired at the free-throw line in the clutch. It was one of several heartbreaks for San Antonio.
Borrego: We always felt like we had a shot because of 21.
He didn’t have to say anything. We just knew it and you could feel it. It was his confidence, his spirit, his fire, and his focus that we all drew from. That was obviously a devastating shot [from Allen], a tough moment for all of us.
Steve Kerr (Spurs teammate, 1998-2001, current head coach of the Golden State Warriors): I’m watching all these games on N.B.A. TV and Game 7 of the 2005 finals came on, the Detroit, San Antonio [series]. I started texting Tim.
I had retired already, but I texted something like, “Watching Game 7, I’m nervous.”
That’s how those Game 7s are. And his immediate response was, “I was so bad in that game.”
Meanwhile, he’s dominating the game and it may not have been his best game statistically or anything, but the Spurs were throwing him the ball on the block every single time. And Detroit had to respond to that. The whole game was going through him and typical Tim, he lamented in his texts that he had a lousy game. And that was Tim. When we were playing together, he’d come in after a loss and he’d be like, “That’s my fault guys.” And you’d look at the box score, he’d have 30 and 17 and 6 blocks.
George Karl (Opposed Duncan, while coaching the Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings): He was a “we” player, so Tim Duncan would be happy getting 15 points and 10 rebounds. Tim was never going out to get 35 or 40 [points]. He was just going out to beat you and so the game plan was trying to disrupt their offensive efficiency more than anything else.
It’s not one person. It was how do you make them not make shots? Because they got the best shots in basketball for over 10 years. Their shot selection was impeccable and a lot of that was because of Popovich, but a lot of that was also because of Duncan, and then [Manu] Ginobili and [Tony] Parker would be in there and they were always on the same page. They never could be disrupted from a standpoint of game plan.
Duncan and Popovich bonded on and off the court. “We’re more soul mates in life than we are in basketball,” Popovich told reporters leading up to Duncan’s jersey retirement ceremony in 2016.
Brett Brown (Spurs coaching staff, 2002-13): It was almost a ritual where at halftime, he’d come out from the locker room and Pop, he’d go out earlier than us. Timmy would be sitting on the bench and Pop would just go sit down with him.
As I remember it, oftentimes nothing was said. Sometimes, they’d share a comment, but it seemed to be just a ritual that the two would meet every halftime on the bench.
And what was discussed?
I don’t know.
Popovich: Any coach who has their best player as a leader who is respected by everybody and who can handle criticism makes the job much easier, so I was very fortunate in that regard.
Duncan announced his retirement in the summer of 2016, through a team news release. Over his 19 seasons, San Antonio went 1,072-438 in regular-season games, the best winning percentage over that time among all N.B.A., N.F.L., N.H.L. and M.L.B. franchises.
Daniels: I remember saying this on national radio and Spurs fans killed me for it. I said, “The moment Tim Duncan walks out that door, the culture is going to walk out with him.”
You hear people say all the time and I think it’s the most overused cliché statement in sports, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win the championship.” And what’s missing at the end of that sentence is “unless.” “Unless I can’t get the minutes I want, unless I don’t get the contract I want, unless I don’t get the role that I want.” Tim Duncan actually took the “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win a championship” and lived by it.