So long, Tim

duncanThe question has been asked repeatedly over the last few years, and the answer has been put off again and again. But now it’s official. After one of the longest and most successful careers in NBA history, five-time champion and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan is hangin’ up the sneaks. About the only thing he didn’t accomplish in his storied career was a proper nickname. “The Big Fundamental”? Nah. “Old Man Riverwalk”? I don’t think so. No, it’s probably best to stick with what his friends actually called him: Timmy. Somehow, that just fits. It’s says something about a guy seven feet tall that you can call him Timmy.

With the announcement of his retirement, Duncan becomes only the third member of what I think of as the elite John Stockton club. Only three players in the history of the NBA have played an entire 19 year career with the same team: Stockton (Jazz), Kobe Bryant (Lakers), and Duncan (Spurs). But as one might expect, Duncan’s announcement came quietly, without fanfare or limelight. No farewell tour. No cable-TV Decision. Like his game, just the fundamentals.

I don’t generally get choked up over basketball news. But I will miss Duncan. I wish the entire NBA was made up of players with his character. As one of the most humble superstars of this or any other professional sport, Duncan embodied passion without anger, individual excellence without ego, substance without glitz. He got the job done, night after night, without squawking at the refs (although I’ll always remember that occasional wide-eyed “Who, me?” expression). He respected and loved his coach. He befriended and mentored newbies. As part of the most successful (and internationally diverse!) basketball trio ever (with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili), Duncan was the physical and emotional anchor of a group of guys that exemplified what it meant to play as a team.

I don’t mean this to sound like an obituary. He’s not dead, and I have no idea what he’ll do next (maybe give his name to a donut franchise?). Duncan stayed around just long enough to make sure that the team was able to integrate new talent, and I don’t expect Coach Popovich to change his team philosophy any time soon.

It’s just that at this time of year, it’s painful to watch the business side of the game take over. Free agents come and go, chasing championships and bloated contracts; organizations let go of even the most loyal and hardworking players. Nineteen years with one team? That’s an anomaly. And he could have made more money somewhere else.

Whatever team I rooted for in the regular season, I was always happy to see the Spurs win, to see teamwork and loyalty pay off. That’s what the game should be about. I hope he’ll find a way to keep being a big brother to younger players.

But for now, so long, Timmy. Thanks for what you brought to the game. Find a way to keep bringing it.