There were no tears, at least not from the honoree. But emotions poured like fine wine from a vintage bottle worthy of a grand celebration on Sunday night at AT&T Center as San Antonio hailed the greatest player in Spurs history in a ceremony that followed the Spurs’ game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Tim Duncan, the great power forward and center who led the Spurs to five championships in his 19 season in silver and black had to pause to keep his composure on one occasion during a heartfelt speech that lasted far longer than anyone expected.
Just as he always managed to maintain focus in the most pressure-packed moments of the most important playoff games, Duncan took a deep breath, maintained his cool, and delivered a loving message to Gregg Popovich, the only pro coach for whom he played in 19 amazing NBA seasons that will eventually earn him a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Thank you, Coach Pop, for being more than a coach,” Duncan said before a pause that lasted eight seconds. “For being more like a father to me. Thank you.”
Popovich and Duncan’s college coach, former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, addressed the crowd, as did the two teammates with whom he played longest, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Popovich also had to pause to check his emotions as he told the crowd how Duncan set an example for every teammate with whom he ever played by allowing Popovich to coach him hard, including the occasional high-decibel tirade.
“If your superstar can take a little hit now and then, everybody else can shut the hell up and fall in line,” Popovich said, before a pause that nearly forced him to reach for the tissue he had stashed in his suitcoat pocket, just in case. “I’m really thankful, because you allowed me to coach the team.”
Popovich’s address was filled with equal parts humor and pathos. Making Duncan the No. 1 overall pick of the 1997 draft, he said, could have been made by any Spurs fan’s cat or dog, or even his or her house.
He described the post-draft visit he made to Duncan on his native St. Croix, and what it told him about Duncan’s sense of humor.
“He could have told me that everybody drives on the other side of the road,” he said. “I almost died two or three times getting to his house.”
He also recalled a visit from Duncan, a free agent wooed hard by the Orlando Magic in 2001. The MVP of the 1999 NBA Finals, Duncan had caused some serious consternation.
“’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.”
Parker told the crowd he was more nervous about the speech Duncan asked him to make Sunday than Sunday’s game against the Pelicans.
“A lot of people the last couple days asked me, ‘Why is Timmy so special?’” Parker said. “And they told me 48 hours ago I had to give a speech tonight. Since then, I kept thinking about that: ‘Why is Timmy so special? … Why is Timmy so special?’
“Pop gave his speech before the game and I didn’t even listen,” he continued. “The whole time I was, ‘Why is Timmy so special?’”
Parker’s conclusion: Defining Duncan’s greatness is nearly impossible.
“Start with the obvious,” Parker said. “He’s a superstar, and there’s a big difference between role players, stars, All-Star, superstar, and superstar-plus-plus. Timmy is superstar-plus-plus. He’s by himself, in his own league.”
It was Duncan’s dedication to his teammates, Parker said, that truly separated him from even the most physically gifted NBA stars. As proof, he cited the many practice sessions when Duncan stayed on the court after the practice session ended to work with rookie big man Boban Marjanovic.
“For 20 minutes in a row, straight, he played only defense to make Boban better,” Parker said. “That’s special to me.”
Ginobili recalled one of the lowest moments of his career and the role Duncan played in helping him get past it.
A late turnover in Game 3 of a 2006 first-round playoff series against the Sacramento Kings in Sacramento had resulted in a buzzer-beating shot that gave the Kings a 94-93 victory.
Ginobili locked himself in his hotel room, devastated by his costly mistake.
“I wanted to vanish,” he told the crowd. “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.”
Sudden, Ginobili recalled, the hotel room phone rang, but he picked up the phone and quickly hung it up. This happened several times, so he unplugged the phone.
“I said, ‘Come find me now,’” Ginobili said.
But there was another phone in his hotel bathroom, and when it rang, he picked it up and yelled, “What?”
Of course, it was Duncan, who insisted Ginobili join him for dinner, at which they talked for hours about “computers, cars, TV shows, whatever. 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.”
With customary dry humor, Duncan closed his remarks by taking a poke at those who predicted he would have little to say when it came his turn at the event.
“I won a lot of bets tonight,” Duncan said as he concluded a speech that lasted precisely four minutes. “I didn’t wear jeans. I wore a sport coat. And I spoke for more than 30 seconds.
“Thank you, San Antonio. Thank you.”
Then, it was time for his No. 21 jersey to be unveiled in the rafter.