Ageless Tim Duncan Just Won't Go Away, and Here's Why

Ric BucherNBA Senior WriterApril 17, 2014

AP Images

Tim Duncan owns and operates an automotive shop within walking distance of the San Antonio Spurs' practice facility, proving life can imitate both art and athletics.

For a man who has kept the Spurs' engine purring by continuously retooling himself to accommodate an odometer that turned over long ago, customizing and refurbishing classic wheels on the outskirts of San Antonio as a second profession seems about right.

All indications are, though, that the BlackJack Speed Shop will have to wait at least another year—and possibly even longer—to be graced by the world's tallest mechanic.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich actually joked in front of reporters a month ago about Duncan asking for another three-year contract. But jokes are all you can hope to get regarding how much longer Duncan expects to play—in-house, that is. 

"Tim looks like he could play three or four more years," said Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut. "It's crazy."

The San Antonio mantra to block out any distractions from the here and now has only intensified since a momentary loss of focus 25 seconds too early cost them a fifth title last summer. That's why you'll see Popovich haranguing his players this season more than ever for a slip in execution, even with a double-digit lead—and why his players are willing to take it.

Eric Gay

Duncan, at the very least, is expected to exercise his option to play the 2014-15 season for $10 million because, more than anything, he simply loves to play.

"As far as basketball and his love for the game, that hasn't changed in the 17 years I've known him," says Stephen Jackson, who played parts of four seasons with Duncan, first in 2003 and again eight years later. "As soon as the season is over, I guarantee you there aren't three guys in the league who will be in the gym before him."

That, despite a host of enticements that should've dulled that hunger by now. He will turn 38 before the end of April. He has four championships and five trips to the NBA Finals. He has made more than $200 million in his 17 seasons. He has more 50-win seasons (16) than all but four franchises (Spurs, Lakers, Celtics, Suns). The one year he fell short, the regular season consisted of a lockout-shortened 50 games; then again, combine the Spurs' 37-13 regular season and 15-2 run to their first title and he's 17-for-17.

He also went through a nasty divorce that leaves him driving Sydney, 9, and Draven, 7, to school at 7:30 a.m. and catching naps in the Spurs' training facility before practice. He makes a point of having them on the bench as he warms up for games and getting them set up in the family room before tipoff. They wait for him in the tunnel to the locker room for a quick hug or high five at halftime. He has, at least once, sat down in the hallway outside the Spurs locker room to adjudicate a tiff between them before joining his teammates in the locker room.

Darren Abate

But Duncan remains such a gym rat that the Spurs pushed back the start of their open gym from Aug. 15 to Sept. 1 specifically to preserve him, as he shows up from the first day to the last. So just know that all the games that Popovich rests Duncan during the season isn't without a fight from Tim.

Not that Duncan's workouts are limited to pickup games. He has done a noticeable job over the last few years of trimming at least 20 pounds off his 6'11" frame, mostly through a strict diet and cardio that limits the wear and tear on his legs. While he is well past the 41,000 minutes Michael Jordan logged before retiring and contemporaries such as Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are breaking down before our eyes, Duncan continues to churn out double-doubles, passing Bill Russell this season on the all-time list.

He also has done it through two decades in which the game has dramatically changed—from big men battling on the blocks to guards attacking the paint, from brute strength to pure finesse, from working the shot clock to hoisting threes on the break.

"It's his length and his hands," says one Western Conference GM. "It doesn't matter if his knees slow him down. It's his hands, more than anything. As long as he doesn't get arthritis in those, he still can play at a high level."

Where some players might allow the changes in the game to discourage them, Duncan has adapted and flourished. His free-throw shooting, a sometimes shaky affair under duress, has become an asset. During last year's playoff run, he bumped it up 10 percentage points to 80.6, his highest in well over a decade. He shot a solid 73.1 percent this season, and a career-high 81.7 in 2012-13. 

Tim Duncan career stats

"He's still getting post-ups, but he's not going by guys," Jackson said. "Now he's finding a way to get to the free-throw line."

Whether it's on or off the court, it's as if Duncan sneaked in a quick jab on Father Time. The question, of course, is why? The flip answer is to win another championship, but that doesn't take into account the grind of playing against the Anthony Davises and Kevin Loves and Serge Ibakas with a left knee encased in a metal brace. Or the challenge of being a devoted single dad to two kids under 10. Or the Sisyphean anguish after coming so close to hoisting the fifth trophy he still covets.

"He's a different one because it's this internal fire," says Spurs assistant coach Sean Marks, whose 11 playing seasons included two with Duncan. "He'd never say it, but I think he wants to be remembered as one of the best ever—best power forward, top five all time. You'll never hear that come from his mouth, but somewhere it's deep down in there."

There's an argument to be made that Duncan's work for the first is already done. Dennis Rodman may have more rings (five to four) and Karl Malone may have more points (36,928 to 24,904) and Elvin Hayes may have more rebounds (16,279 to 13,940), but none can claim the overall dominance Duncan has displayed for nearly two decades. As for top five all time, well, seeing as his name never has been included in such conversation up to now, it's questionable just how much one more ring or several more years on his resume would elevate him.

Duncan, in particular, and the Spurs, in general, are not likely to let that dictate how they move forward. In one respect, they have not adapted to the times at all, which is to make sure their accomplishments receive the attention they deserve.

In the same way that Popovich can be his affable best chatting with reporters off camera and bristle with disdain in nearly every in-game interview for the league's national broadcast partners, there is a resistance toward any national attention. Whether it's team policy or personal choice, Duncan's career has come and mostly gone and he is still an enigma to the vast majority of basketball fans.

Point guard Tony Parker's willingness to go on camera, at times, seems to be regarded as a character defect or trait that must be endured. Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili have been known to ham it up in a series of commercials for a local grocery chain, H-E-B, and Duncan remains the locker room's biggest practical joker, but the personality and leadership and camaraderie that Duncan displays is something both trumpeted privately and guarded publicly.

Debate all you want about whether or not an athlete should have to pull back the curtain to have his professional achievements fully appreciated, the fact is it comes with the territory, especially for one working in an out-of-the-way market such as San Antonio. 

So Duncan, the player, has gone to great lengths to change with the times. Duncan, the person, has been as equally committed to staying exactly the same.

"He's still a young Tim in a lot of ways," Jackson says. "He wears the same kind of clothes he wore the first time I met him."

For the fashion conscious, that would be baggy jeans, loose-cut short-sleeve madras shirts and sandals or boots that don't need to be polished. The height of low-maintenance.

Then again, perhaps Duncan is doing everyone a favor. For at some point, he will step aside to enjoy his kids unabated and run his speed shop and play paintball to his heart's content. But his absence is not likely to be as painful as, say, Nash's or Bryant's, because he never let the vast majority of basketball fans really get to know him.

If he had, his monotonous excellence might have been seen as an even greater accomplishment, since it came from an otherwise quirky, fun-loving Virgin Islander. That's a loss for everyone.

Somehow, though, it doesn't seem likely Duncan will feel it. With or without basketball, he seems content to stay off the beaten path, taking something old and making it look a little younger and work a little longer than it actually is or should.

If Marks is right, Duncan would appreciate if you noticed. But as Duncan has demonstrated over the years, he'll get over it if you don’t.


Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.