Whatever Duncan decides, fans should celebrate his greatness

Editor's note: This story originally ran in May 2016.

The Duncan-ites of this world are pretty down right now.

We've been mopey this whole month, frankly, watching the previously age-defying ‎Tim Duncan -- our modern-day Bill Russell -- reduced to filling such a minuscule role for the San Antonio Spurs in these playoffs.

The NBA's corner of the Twitterverse predictably bathed in such sadness late Thursday night, once it started to sink in, before they even got to halftime in Oklahoma City, that we might be watching the final game ‎of Duncan's Hall of Fame career.

Just try not to wallow for too long.

You really shouldn't stay sad when we (A) don't yet truly know if it's the end, and (B) we've been treated to nearly two decades of Duncan's excellence.

He just turned 40, after all. Now -- or soon -- we're going to be powerless to stop him from hanging up that horrendously huge and clunky knee brace which, as longtime Spurs owner Peter Holt told us in 2014, forced Duncan "to change the way he runs."

Don't worry, though. This is not how we're going to remember him.

The Spurs' six-game collapse to their longtime understudies from Oklahoma City is fresh in the mind at the moment, so you probably can recite depressing stats such as how Duncan's 19 points in Thursday's season-ender trumped the 17 points he managed in the first five games of the series. Or how he played only two measly seconds of the fourth quarter in Game 3, inserted just long enough to launch an ambitious cross-court inbounds pass to Kawhi Leonard, as if he were merely a long-throw specialist out of English soccer's Premier League like we used to see from Rory Delap.

Yet downbeat factoids like those will fade from memory soon enough. You inevitably will remember Duncan as we all should.

As the closest thing to Russell that we've ever seen.

I remember in February when our #NBARank folks asked me to add some context to Duncan's placement as the eighth-best player in league history. I said it then, too: Argue all you want about whether to call him the greatest power forward who ever lived -- or concede, as Gregg Popovich finally did a few springs back, that he would be starting Duncan at center in a playoff series against Utah "like we have for the past 15 years" -- as long as you note that he was the ultimate franchise player.

The most dependable dude to build an NBA title contender around since Michael Jordan.

Yet he's really more reminiscent of Russell, given how he has stayed in one place for 19 seasons and bonded in sustained success with his coach to such a degree that Pop is right up there now with Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and, yes, Red Auerbach in pro basketball's bench pantheon.

I'm prepared to be realistic here. I understand we'll all need some time to grieve if Duncan indeed decides it's time to walk away. It has been a tough year for the nostalgic souls among us, with Kobe Bryant having said goodbye and Manu Ginobili surely contemplating retirement as seriously as Duncan must now.

So I suspect lots of us felt like Duncan's former Spurs teammate Stephen Jackson late Thursday, staring at the screen and wishing we had a Timmy Cam showing nothing but No. 21's every twitch.

"He didn't ask Pop to take him out at the end but he'll be cool with riding off into the sunset with no applause."
Stephen Jackson

"I wish you could have seen me," Jackson, now one of my ESPN teammates, said over the phone. "I was [pressed] right up against the TV, like, 'Dang, my boy, this could be it.' I'm just standing there trying to look at Timmy's face.

"I hate to see him go ... if he goes. Dave [David Robinson] went out with a championship and I think Tim deserved the same. But how much better can you be? How much more can you give to the game? He's the best power forward to ever play this game.

"I'm not sure if it's over, but if it is ... he didn't ask Pop to take him out at the end but he'll be cool with riding off into the sunset with no applause. I'm pretty sure he has no regrets."

Duncan could have walked away Admiral Robinson-style after the Spurs' fifth championship in 2014, but I understood why he resisted the fairy-tale farewell. He loves to play. He loves to be on the team even more than that. He loves to be in that locker room, right there with his on-court brothers, which is why Jackson was by no means the only former teammate or rival we've spoken with this week who said they wouldn't be surprised if Timmy decided to play on and return for season No. 20.

Yet if he doesn't?

How can anyone complain?

"DEATH/TAXES/SPURS" is indeed a clever slogan for fan signage, but not even Duncan can go on forever.

How could someone as lucky as me ask for more? I moved to Texas a month before the Spurs won the May 1997 lottery that enabled them to draft Duncan and have had the privilege to cover him from reasonably close range ever since, which led to this historical opus on the Pop-and-Timmy era heading into the 2014 Finals. I started out as an NBA writer in February 1994, so there were a handful of trips to the Alamo City before he even blipped onto my radar, but I don't remember much of them. It's hard to imagine going to San Antonio to see a Spurs team that doesn't revolve around TD -- to see Duncovich uncoupled -- but, again, how greedy can we be?

When he does decide time is up, I'll miss that unerring bank shot, of course, as well as how he was the same even-keeled, ultra-loyal Timmy every time I saw him. I'll likewise miss our traditional co-congratulatory handshake at some stage in the first round of the playoffs every year when I'd remind him that I too was a member of the April 25th Birthday Club ... along with Duncan, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and legendary NBA photographer Andy Bernstein.

But seriously.

Don't let yourself get swallowed up by the sadness.

The prospect of Holt, Ginobili and Duncan all exiting Spursdom at the same time is an undeniable shock to the system, but The Big Fundamental's legacy is secure, whether or not you think five championships in 19 seasons were enough to qualify as dynastic. Starry heirs Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, meanwhile, are in place to keep San Antonio among the elite irrespective of market size.

So ...

As Timmy steps away now to go "figure out life" before making any definitive pronouncements about the future, this is our plan:


Celebrate with appreciative, unreserved gusto how wonderfully long Timothy Theodore Duncan has made it look like he has had this whole basketball thing absolutely wired.