PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – I grew up on Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan. For as long as I can remember watching basketball, AI and The Big Fundamental have been there. I was six years old when the Philadelphia 76ers drafted Iverson first overall, and, if my math serves me correctly, I was seven the following year when the San Antonio Spurs drafted Tim Duncan.
The oldest memory I have of watching an NBA Finals was Duncan’s first, in 1999. It was like David Robinson’s prayers were being answered. I really remember his second title in 2003, because it ended a three-year run by Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers. Iverson had a chance to break up that Lakers three-peat, but unlike Duncan, there wasn’t already a hall-of-famer waiting for him to arrive.
My two favorite basketball players could not have been more different.
Iverson was reckless. He was electrifying and memorable. He made just as much noise off the court as he did on it. Duncan was the opposite. He represented the old school, fundamentals-first kind of basketball that my grandfather loved. Iverson was an And-1 mix tape with an NBA contract. He had commercials, sneakers, rap albums and music videos. Duncan sneezed in a team meeting once.
There will always be ‘Allen Iverson Night’ at the Wells Fargo Center and a thousand crossovers on YouTube to remember the days of the six-foot guard from Georgetown, but it’s those now-distant memories that put Duncan’s achievements in perspective. After all these years, you can still find Timmy out there battling with the best of them, even if you haven’t been looking.
I will admit there was a time when I thought Duncan would hang it up. Two times, actually.
In 2011, the Spurs lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzles. It came after a 61-win regular season and a 1-seed in the Western Conference. Duncan looked old. He was overpowered down low by Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and was held to 13 points per game, a playoff career low. For the Spurs, it was the third straight season without a trip to the Western Finals, an eternity by Duncan standards. It felt, for a moment, like the end wasn’t near, but here.
Nope, Timmy came back.
Last season, it looked like that Spurs-Heat matchup we all just finished drooling over was a forgone conclusion. But after taking a 2-0 series lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs lost game 3 by 20 points and never recovered. Duncan’s pursuit of a fifth ring appeared to be turning into an unwinnable race. I worried that an exhausted Duncan would call it quits.
Nope, Timmy came back.
He came back and pushed is 37-year-old body to one more title run. He and head coach/best friend Gregg Popovich have more postseason victories than any other player-coach combo in NBA history. Iverson wasn’t so lucky. Once Larry Brown left Philadelphia, the wheels got loose and were ready to fall off. He bounced around the league before having no choice but to play overseas. I’d bet Duncan would give a year off the end of his life to win that fifth ring. I know Iverson would do the same just to lace up his Answers one more time on an NBA court.
To appreciate Duncan’s career, you really have to take a minute to let those 16 years sink in. Sixteen seasons, which have led to 16 playoff appearances. He was never the player who blew you away with his athleticism or power, like LeBron James or Shaq. Duncan was all finesse and footwork.
Iverson is just one example of how quickly it can all fade away, and how difficult it is to sustain a great career in the NBA. It’s exactly what guarantees Duncan a statue in San Antonio years from now: consistent greatness. He’s a living, breathing portrait of consistency, a representation of all things reliable.
His career average of 20 points, 11 rebounds and 50 percent shooting from the field, is exactly what he gives you every night. In the last three seasons, Duncan’s per-game averages have slipped to a shade below a double double, but that’s a byproduct of a decrease in his minutes. Per 36 minutes, Duncan’s seasonal output has never been worse than 17 point and 11 rebounds. That, in turn, leads to his 767 regular season double doubles, which is second most all time.
In his playoff career, Duncan’s numbers slightly rise to 22 points and 12 rebounds per game, and he has an NBA-record 149 double doubles. In game 1 of the ’99 Finals, at age 23, Duncan scored 33 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, which is not far off from his game 6 performance against Miami, now 37, when he had 30 and 17. In both of those games, 14 years apart, Duncan made 13 of his 21 field goal attempts. Hash tag, consistency.
In that strike-shortened season before Duncan’s first title and Finals MVP, some of the statistical league leaders included Iverson (PPG), Chris Webber (RPG), Jason Kidd (APG), Shaq (FG%), Reggie Miller (FT%) and Dell Curry (3FG%). To put the beginning of the Duncan era in context, that’s now a list of three guys who get paid to talk about basketball on TV, one newly hired head coach, one father whose son was just knocked out of the playoffs by the Spurs and, well, Allen Iverson. Do I have to remind you what Timmy’s been up to?
Duncan is also a 10-time First Team All-NBA selection. The other members of that seven-person club are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Bob Pettit and Elgin Baylor. Decent company. Only Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone, 11 first team selections each, have more.
He made First Team All-NBA his rookie season, as well as this past season. That’s a stunning 15 years between selections, a feat matched only by Kareem. He’s also one of two players to share first team honors with both Jordan and LeBron, the other being Shaq. I wonder why no one ever asks Duncan who the greatest of all time is. He might be in a position to speak on the subject.
What really separates Duncan is his loyalty, since sports and loyalty aren’t exactly old pals. He had plenty of opportunities to test the open market and make his own ‘Decision,’ but never did. Duncan even signed a 3-year deal that netted him $9.6 million in 2012, his lowest yearly salary in 12 years, in order to better satisfy the needs of his team and gear up for a fifth title run.
Of the five players in NBA history to stay in one city for more than 15 seasons, only Kobe and John Havlicek helped bring more hardware home to their fans than Duncan. That’s not good enough for him.
After that devastating Finals loss to the Heat, in which Duncan missed a baby hook shot late in game 7 to tie the score, the question was asked. Will you be back for next season? Duncan responded like only he could, puzzled by an idea that looked as if it had never before entered his mind. He shrugged, “I have a contract that says I am.” Simple and elegant: the silent warrior. Oh, Timmy, don’t ever leave.
Justin Boylan is a producer at 94WIP and graduate of Temple University. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @justintboylan.