Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich taught us everything we need to know about basketball

Dec 31, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks to San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) during the first half against the New Orleans Pelicans at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks to San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) during the first half against the New Orleans Pelicans at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

Sports are not much different than life, in that the way we develop as sports fans is on track with how our brains wrap themselves around most everything else: by asking questions. To our dads, to our coaches, to our friends; why is a football this shape? Who decided the rules of soccer? Why do I have to bounce the ball without taking more than three steps? And then, gradually, a little more nuance: So you can shoot 3-pointers and still shoot free throws if they foul you? Punting and kicking are different things? And so on.

Those conversations, the angle from which we chose to come at a particular issue nagging at the maturing sports fan within us, are what create the diehard that grows with us as adults. I still remember the first question I asked my dad that could credibly be considered “mature”: Why was Tim Duncan bad last night?

I believe it was after a game in January 2006 against Carmelo Anthony’s Denver Nuggets, one in which both Duncan and Anthony struggled, but Duncan looked worse, and the Spurs lost. Duncan had been struggling with plantar fasciitis, an injury my elementary mind could barely pronounce, let alone understand. To me, all it meant was that a superhero looked less super.

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My dad explained something about how a player gets “rusty” when they get out of the rhythm of a season (Duncan had missed 29 games over the previous two seasons). I don’t know if he was right, or if I latched onto a random mid-January game and worried too much. Either way, his answer sufficed. I was glad to have an explanation for the phenomenon I had found so unbelievable.

Because that’s what this all is, right? Even once we turn 18 and decide supercilious things like worry and awe are too infantile for our time, games like basketball, and cultures like the NBA are stand-ins for the questions we always want to ask, but are never sure best how to ask them. We love a good breakdown because we see something like Larry Nance saying “no thanks” to gravity last week and feel disrespected by nature. When Adrian Wojnarowski breaks draft picks six slots ahead of the broadcast, we feel secure, because it’s less time waiting like children in front of our flat-screens, alone and anxious about a world with more moving parts than we know.

All of this was bouncing around my head when I finally made it home in time to catch the back half of Tim Duncan’s jersey retirement ceremony last night. I caught speeches from Dave Odom, Duncan’s coach at Wake Forest, Gregg Popovich, and Duncan himself (before going back and watching the whole thing over again late last night). They answered so many questions, but mainly: how does a man so great, become a player so great without compromise?

Last night, Popovich said it best (as he often does):

"“The last comment I’m gonna make – and I promise I wouldn’t use this tissue, so I’m not gonna do it – and this is the most important comment that I could make about Tim Duncan… That man right there is exactly the same person he was when he walked in the door”"

Then the camera rolled to Duncan, who was looking at his son instead of Pop, instead of the fans, because sometimes heroes get embarrassed, too.

As a fan of this game and of this league, it’s so tempting to get caught up in the triviality and lightness (read: ridiculousness) of personality. We follow a game that is made great by its hilarity. But when a group of people is there to consistently pull back the curtain a few centimeters at a time, showing us the personal connections, relationships, and triumphs that go into putting a polished product on a basketball court, we go downright nuts.

Popovich has long been championed for his understanding that basketball is at the top of a pyramid for which the foundation is both undefined and vital. It’s the reason that we speak of the San Antonio Spurs in whispered phrases like impossible, unsustainable, and unmatchable. It’s all of those things, because the force of these men is singular; there will never be another Tim Duncan, never another Gregg Popovich.

Never another coach who, more than calling post-ups for his big man or funneling the pick-and-roll toward him (“I don’t want to talk about rebounds and points” he said last night), would bring him carrot cake on the road for 19 seasons, with a knock on the door and nothing more.

Never another player whose signature outfit was an over-sized button-up and a smile as big as the legacy he’s leaving behind; who struggled to get through more than 30 seconds of speaking about himself and that legacy. Never as silent a simulacrum of passion, patience, and dominance.

These are two men who cemented their legacy with a final peak behind the curtain last night, one a few centimeters larger than what we had previously seen. There was Pop stomping his tears away as he thanked Duncan for allowing him to coach the team; Duncan thanking him in return for his fatherly guidance over twenty NBA seasons. And us, in the background, understanding. There is always more at play than we think.

In a ceremony that felt as intimate as any nationally-televised event ever has (you know Pop wasn’t doing that on any stage but the arena floor), I found closure in the uncertainty I had expressed to my father a decade prior. Tim Duncan was “bad” that January night for the same reason he was great other nights, off-kilter some nights, and a champion on five others: He’s a human being.

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That answer has been staring us in the face as long as we’ve been shouting about wanting to find it. Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, and the entire Spurs family are a group of human beings giving basketball the greatest go we’ve ever seen, through composure, brilliance, discourse, honor, and greatness. We have so much still to learn.