Gregg Popovich and Spurs Stars Recall Tim Duncan's Exemplary Career

Mike Monroe@@Monroe_SAFeatured ColumnistDecember 19, 2016

SAN ANTONIO,TX - DECEMBER 18:  Former San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan (C) reacts to the crowd as head coach Gregg Popovich (R) and former Spur David Robinson (L) look on while honoring the retirement of Duncan's jersey number  at AT&T Center after the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on December 18, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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SAN ANTONIO — Gregg Popovich arrived at Tim Duncan's jersey retirement ceremony well prepared. In his suit coat pocket were several tissues, folded neatly, just in case.

The San Antonio Spurs coach nearly needed them when he expressed 20 years' worth of gratitude for what he understands was the singular trait that made Duncan one of the greatest leaders in the history of basketball.

Popovich coaches hard, from the top of the roster to the bottom. And it helps to have a certain kind of team leader when you demand perfection, often at full volume.

In David Robinson, he had a fellow military academy graduate who understood command structure. In Duncan, he discovered a humble superstar, without ego or hint of attitude, willing to be an example for every teammate.

Trying to explain this to a sellout crowd at the Sunday ceremony at the AT&T Center that followed the Spurs' 113-100 win over the New Orleans Pelicans nearly brought Popovich's emotions to the surface.

"If your superstar can take a little hit now and then, everybody else can shut the hell up and fall in line," Popovich said, and then it was clear he felt his throat starting to tighten. He paused, a long delay, then stamped his foot.

Turning to look directly at Duncan, Popovich finally was able to continue.

"So, thank you for letting me coach you, Timmy," Popovich said. "I'm really thankful because you allowed me to coach the team."

Duncan's No. 21 was the eighth number retired by the Spurs, preceded by those of James Silas (13), George Gervin (44), Johnny Moore (00), David Robinson (50), Sean Elliott (32), Avery Johnson (6) and Bruce Bowen (12). After Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker retire, their numbers will go to the arena rafters right beside Duncan's.

The Spurs might want to consider somehow connecting the three jerseys of the most successful trio in NBA history.

Parker and Ginobili were the only players chosen to speak at Sunday's ceremony. Just as Popovich had stressed Duncan's selfless leadership, his Big Three mates lauded his willingness to do anything to help any teammate.

Ginobili recalled one of the worst moments of his career, a turnover in the final seconds of a playoff game against the Sacramento Kings during the first round of the 2006 playoffs. It led to a buzzer-beating basket by Sacramento's Kevin Martin that gave the Kings a 94-93 victory.

It gave Ginobili an instant case of depression. He locked himself in his hotel room, devastated by his costly mistake.

"I wanted to vanish," he told the crowd when it was his turn to speak. "I wanted to dig a hole in the floor and just hide there forever. I didn't want to talk to anybody, so I turned off my [cell] phone."

But, the bedside phone in his hotel room began to ring. No matter how many times he picked up the receiver and immediately hung up, it continued to ring.

Ginobili unplugged the phone from the wall.

"I said, 'Come find me now,'" he told the crowd at the ceremony.

But there was another phone in his hotel bathroom. When it rang, he picked it up and yelled, "What?!"

He discovered it was Duncan on the line, insisting that Ginobili join him for dinner. He agreed to eat with his friend, and they talked for hours, never mentioning basketball.

"We talked about computers, cars, TV shows, whatever," Ginobili said. "My mental state shifted, and I had a way better night than it could have been otherwise. Those are the types of gestures all his teammates saw."

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Parker told the audience about Duncan's final season, 2015-16, when the latter wore braces on both knees and played through pain in every game and practice. Yet, when 7'3" rookie Boban Marjanovic showed up, eager to learn the ways of an NBA big man, Duncan would stay after practice and work with him on the court.

"For 20 minutes in a row, straight, he played only defense to make Boban better," Parker said. "That's special to me."

There were lighter moments during the evening too, many of them from Popovich, who deflected credit for drafting Duncan by telling the Spurs fans assembled in the arena the decision could have been made by "your cat or dog, even your house."

Popovich also amused the crowd by relating the fact that, when he made a trip to St. Croix to visit Duncan there after the 1997 draft, Duncan never mentioned that Crucians drive on the left side of the road.

"I almost died two or three times getting to his house," Popovich recalled.

Then there was Duncan's cruel practical joke in the summer of 2000, when he was being wooed hard by the Orlando Magic. Duncan went to visit Popovich at his home in San Antonio.

"Pop, before we sit, I've got to just tell you: I'm going to Orlando," Popovich said, recalling the tense moment. "He waits like five or six seconds. And then he tells me what he's going to do.

"I think I jumped up in his arms and hugged him."

Maybe telling jokes was the only way Popovich was going to make it through his speech without reaching for the tissue.