On Halloween night in 1997 at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, I had a courtside seat for the beginning of the Tim Duncan era. Little did I know that despite leaving childhood almost four decades earlier, I was in store for a treat that lasted most of the next 20 years.
At the time, I was on the Denver Nuggets beat for the Denver Post, years before I moved to the San Antonio Express-News in February 2004. That required me to focus on Denver's rookie point guard, Bobby Jackson, and two other 1997 first-round picks on the Nuggets roster: Tony Battie (No. 5) and Danny Fortson (No. 10, traded to Denver from Milwaukee).
Long-suffering Nuggets fans were anxious to see how they would handle their first games for a team that had won only 21 games the previous season.
The San Antonio Spurs scored the first of their 56 regular-season wins, 107-96, but Jackson became one of basketball's all-time great trivia questions: Name the rookie who outscored Tim Duncan in his first game.
Jackson had 27 that night; Duncan only had 15, the same as Battie. The only rookie Duncan outscored that night was Fortson, who had seven.
By the time the Duncan era ended this past spring, courtside press-row seats had become as scarce as hen's teeth. On May 12 this year, I was in the second row at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, eyes locked on Duncan as he walked off the court after a Game 6 113-99 playoff-eliminating loss. That spoiled the best regular season in Spurs history, a 67-15 campaign that had most of the basketball world excited about a Western Conference Finals matchup with the 73-9 Golden State Warriors.
After a long hug with Kevin Durant at midcourt and shorter displays of respect from other Thunder players, Duncan walked into the vomitory that led to the visitors' locker room. With fans on their feet, applauding and calling his name, Duncan thrust his right arm upward, forefinger in the air.
And then he was gone.
Those of us who often had seen Duncan limping to his car or to the team bus after games knew it was the end. If any of us had doubts, they disappeared late in that Game 6 when Serge Ibaka blocked a Duncan layup attempt that could have sliced a Thunder lead that had once been 28 points to single digits. Instead, knocked to the floor, Duncan watched a Thunder fast break culminate with a Durant lay-in that ended any hope of a Spurs comeback.
The look on Duncan's face at that moment spoke volumes.
"He kind of got up and looked, and he was, like, 'That was me,'" TV analyst and former teammate Sean Elliott said before Wednesday's game at AT&T Center against the Boston Celtics. "'That whole thing was my sequence, and I'm not that guy anymore.'"
It was a singular privilege to have a bird's eye view for nearly all of Duncan's career, although covering him on a daily basis was challenging. He may have been the most reluctant superstar in NBA history. He may be the anti-Magic Johnson, whom the Professional Basketball Writers Association honored by creating an award in his name that goes annually to a star player who not only understands the role the media plays but also cooperates with alacrity and grace.
Duncan didn't dislike the media. Rather, he loathed adulation. He could always be counted on for a good quote about a teammate's outstanding play. Asking him to analyze his own performance typically elicited a perfunctory response.
I discovered his aversion to self-congratulations during his rookie season, when I authored a book, NBA Rookie Experience, that chronicled the experiences of six members of the 1997 draft class, with emphasis on Duncan—the No. 1 overall pick. I made three trips to San Antonio to gather material for the book but was never granted a one-on-one sit-down with the reluctant star. I gleaned what I could from postgame press conferences.
As the NBA-at-large reporter for the Denver Post—yes, there was a time when nearly every newspaper in every NBA city had one—I flew to Salt Lake City to cover Games 1 and 2 of San Antonio's second-round series against the Utah Jazz. I had an ulterior motive: Spurs media relations chief Tom James had convinced Duncan to sit down with me in the off day between the two games. There were loose ends that needed tightening. This would be my opportunity.
Duncan outplayed Karl Malone in Game 1—outscored him, 33-25, out-rebounded him, 10-8, and blocked three of his shots. But Utah's reserves outscored the Spurs bench players, 26-3, and Duncan missed a short shot at the buzzer that could have changed the outcome.
The next morning, I met James in the lobby of the team hotel, and he delivered the bad news: Tim was too devastated by his last-second miss to do any interviews.
I finished the book, which sold out its only printing of 20,000 copies. I don't think anyone could tell I hadn't gotten the one-on-one.
Through 12 years covering the Spurs in San Antonio, I developed a level of comfort with Duncan, enhanced by our common love for the Chicago Bears. The occasional text messages from Tim during Bears games have dwindled over the past three desultory seasons, but both of us are sold on Jordan Howard as a building block for the future.
Duncan will be back on the AT&T Center court Sunday night when his No. 21 jersey will be raised to the rafters and retired by the only team he played for in 19 seasons.
For those who have covered most of his 1,392 regular-season games and nearly all of his 251 playoff games, it will be a night of reflection. I have tried to catalogue some of my favorite Duncan moments and discovered a common theme: Most have little to do with his play on the court.
These include a night in New Orleans when I informed him that Bob Pettit, my childhood hero, would be sitting courtside for a Spurs game against the then-Hornets. Did he know anything about one of the NBA's greatest power forwards?
"I've seen the numbers," Duncan replied. "Very impressive."
Even more impressive: Watching Tim walk across the court during pregame warm-ups to introduce himself to the great Hall of Famer.
Suffice to say, when Duncan followed through on a promise to keep me informed of his 2015 retire-or-play decision by sending a text message that read: "Finally had a chance to talk with Pop; I'll be on court next year," that shot near the top of my list of favorite Duncan moments. I posted it on Twitter, which is what seems to count for a scoop these days.
I wonder how much time Duncan has spent in reflection this week. Even those who know him best aren't sure what he will say or how he will respond at Sunday's ceremony.
"I'd be shocked if he [gets emotional]," Elliott said, who played alongside Duncan in the great power forward's first four seasons, including the 1998-99 campaign that featured the first of Duncan's five NBA championships.
"Yes, emotional, for sure," Manu Ginobili said, who helped Duncan win championship rings in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. "That he holds them inside doesn't mean that he doesn't go through them or that he doesn't have them. Maybe he doesn't show them. It's not important that you show them. He's been pretty adamant about that throughout his career, not to show everything he had, to just do, or not to say, or feel.
"So, we will see how it goes. But, for sure, it's going to be emotional. I assume that it's impossible not to feel things when something like that happens."
My guess: Duncan's speech will be brief, heartfelt and infused with the humility that characterized his career. There are apt to be tears, but none from Duncan. They will be shed by those who miss him the most: Spurs fans, who understand they may never see another of his kind in their lifetimes.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.