Those who know Tim Duncan best have started a betting pool: For how long will the greatest player in Spurs history speak to the sellout crowd at the AT&T Center on Sunday night, when his No. 21 jersey will be raised to the rafters, forever retired from use?
“There’s an over-under right now,” said Sean Elliott, the great Spurs small forward whose No. 32 jersey was retired on Mar. 6, 2005. “We’re trying to figure out what it’s going to be: 10 seconds or 30 seconds. If it goes over a minute, we’ll all be shocked.”
Notoriously reticent and averse to adulation, Duncan won’t be able to escape the spotlight after the conclusion of Sunday’s Spurs vs. Pelicans game. He will literally be the center of attention at the ceremony that will be witnessed by a sellout crowd and televised live by Fox Sports Southwest.
Elliott doesn’t expect him to say much and he doesn’t anticipate tears.
“I’d be shocked if he (gets emotional),” said Elliott, who played alongside Duncan in the great power forward’s first four seasons, including the 1998-99 season that produced the first of Duncan’s five NBA championships. “It would have to be something that one of the speakers said that struck a chord in some way.”
Manu Ginobili, the Spurs guard who wears his emotions on his sleeves, isn’t so sure Duncan won’t be overwhelmed.
“Yes, (he will be) emotional, for sure,” said Ginobili, who helped Duncan win championship rings in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014. “It depends on what you expect to see from an emotional Tim. It’s kind of unpredictable when you go through moments like that. Sometimes something clicks and you break. Sometimes you just are feeling a lot of things inside and you want to cherish that moment and keep it, but maybe you don’t show it as much.
“But, for sure, it’s going to be emotional for him because it’s emotional for everybody. It’s been 20 years of his life around something. He accomplished unbelievable things. So, I think it’s going to be a great opportunity to close it the way he deserves.”
Brent Barry, a significant contributor on the 2005 and 2007 championship teams and now an analyst for NBA TV and Turner Sports, is certain Duncan’s comments will be both brief and self-effacing.
“I’ve been around the NBA a long time and I’ve seen a lot of players who like to toot their own horn or have those closest to them trumpet for them,” Barry said. “That’s never been a thing about Tim. There is an appreciation from so many on so many levels about what he represents to basketball and when I think of Tim, I think of one word: reverence. It was Pythagoras who said: ‘Above all else, reverence thyself.’ I kind of think that is how Tim gets spoken about; so many things said about him and what he meant without his having to say it. That is sort of spiritual and it is entirely appropriate.”
Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks played two seasons with Duncan, including the 2004-05 title NBA title season, and the two became pals after banging against one another in practice sessions and spending a lot of time together on road trips. He will be at the ceremony, along with his four sons.
“Timmy and I have been texting back and forth, and I certainly will be back down here (on Sunday),” Marks said. “I’m not missing that. I got to bang with him for a couple of years, still a few bruises there. But everything, from my kids watching him, it’s important that they see it. It’s a changing of the guard, a special time.
“How will Tim respond? Probably the same as always, with the humility he’s always shown throughout his entire career, not wanting a farewell, not wanting anything. It’s never been about him, all the old clichés. But when you talk about that Spurs culture, about being part of something bigger than yourself, when your superstar wants to be part of something bigger than himself, that’s pretty special.”
Duncan occasionally has turned up at the Spurs practice complex this season and worked with various players as an unofficial assistant coach, described by Gregg Popovich as “the coach of whatever he wants.” He was there on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, helping Pau Gasol, the 7-foot center who has taken his spot in the starting lineup.
Barry wonders if the looming jersey retirement impelled Duncan’s presence on the practice court.
“It’s interesting he’s showing up to practice this week,” Barry said. “It’s a fascinating phenomenon for him to be on the court, sweating a little and maybe feeling less removed from his playing career. That may be diving too deep into his psyche, bit I think it sort of represents what he’s about.”
Elliott believes Duncan’s frequent returns to the court are part of a long withdrawal from a lifelong addiction to playing the game.
“I asked him if he was missing it,” Elliott said, “and he said, ‘Hell, yeah.’
“It’s something you did your whole life. It’s like when you’re addicted to something and go cold turkey, you get the shakes. And Tim was addicted to basketball all those years and he’s probably going through the cold shakes, and it might get worse for him come playoff time.”
And if the itch gets unbearable come March? Could the No. 21 jersey be lowered from the AT&T Center rafters in time to help the Spurs in the playoffs?
“I think he’s smart enough to realize that’s not a wise idea,” Elliott said. “You can’t step away from this game for as long as he’s already been away and feel like you’re going to get back in shape again to play. It doesn’t work that way.”
Spurs fans can always dream.