VIDEO: Tim Duncan opts to return
Tim Duncan has said for several years now that he would stop playing basketball when it was no longer fun.
Did you see Duncan in the Game 5 clincher against the Heat? Making buckets, making plays and making sure that he nodded appreciatively at his teammates.
Did you see Duncan after Game 5 and the fifth championship was complete? Standing as the confetti rained down from the rafters, helping Kawhi Leonard adjust his one-size-fits-all cap like a proud big brother, hugging and dancing and laughing with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, exchanging that knowing look with coach Gregg Popovich.
It’s still fun.
That’s why there was never really a doubt that the 38-year-old would exercise the contract option and return in the fall for his 18th NBA season. Thoughtful, introspective and deliberate, Duncan knows that these are the kind of experiences that he’ll never be able to duplicate once he takes off that Spurs jersey for the final time and steps outside the locker room.
The sports landscape is filled with stories of the athletes who stayed too long and did damage to their reputations at a time when their skills had faded. That was the thought behind those who suggested that Duncan could and should go out on top.
But it’s easy for us on the outside to say that enough is enough and it’s time for a player of Duncan’s stature to simply walk away from a game that has given him so much pleasure, such sheer joy and satisfaction for the largest part of his life.
If there is a plain and simple goal, it is for Duncan to come back with his teammates and try to do the one thing that has eluded the Spurs in their 15-year span of excellence — go back-to-back. Take one more shot and claim one more Larry O’Brien Trophy next June and the Spurs will slam the door shot on even the last bit of criticism from the nitpickers about their worthiness to be called a dynasty.
However, there is also the matter of just not wanting to leave one last drop of that shared camaraderie in the bottom of the bottle before walking away.
In his wonderful biography on Michael Jordan The Life by Roland Lazenby, the author tells the story of coach Phil Jackson asking each of the Bulls to write down a thought, a memory, a poem, anything about their experience and bring it to the team’s final practice at what they all knew was the end of the road in 1998. After each player stood up and spoke his memory, Jackson gathered all of the slips of paper, put them in a can and lit them on fire with a match.
“They’re ours,” he told the Bulls.
That’s what ties a true team, the shared work and sweat and practices and games and unique bonds that can make a champion. And no matter what successes Duncan — or any of them — can accomplish after their playing careers are through, it will never be this.
If Duncan was concerned with his age and the sharp edges coming off his game, he would have walked away in 2011 when the Spurs were eliminated in the first round by Memphis and Duncan looked tired, spent.
Instead, he rededicated himself to getting back into shape, a different kind of shape. He changed his body, shedding weight and making himself more lithe. Then he returned to a Spurs team where Popovich asked him to change his game, moving out from an existence in the low post and giving up his role as the centerpiece of the offense to Parker.
It was still a challenge, still motivating, still a reason to get up in the morning. Still doable, as the fifth championship attests.
Look at the photos of Duncan all through the Spurs’ march through the playoffs and tell me he was ever going anywhere but back to the locker room in October.
It’s still fun. The only reason that matters.