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Ailene Voisin: Tim Duncan leaves NBA as quietly as he entered

By Ailene Voisin The Sacramento Bee

This is how long Tim Duncan has been around: Hours after he made his summer league debut in 1997, and only weeks after being drafted No.1 overall by the San Antonio Spurs, I called Gregg Popovich from a pay phone at Los Angeles International Airport.

Then, as always, Popovich cracked wise on his Timmy. He said the lanky rookie out of Wake Forest struggled to make a shot, mishandled the ball, made poor decisions, and in essence, was far from the formidable force he would become. And about that last part? Popovich never had a doubt.

Nineteen seasons later, Duncan retires as one of the greatest and most unique players in the history of the game. He dictated the pace for the better part of two decades, establishing and then adhering to parameters both professionally and personally.

Duncan, 40, was the most private, even mysterious superstar of his generation. It wasn’t until these last few seasons, particularly during the Spurs’ final championship run (2014), that he more willingly shared hints of his humor and insights into his personality. In an era when professional athletes travel with entourages and enhance their earnings and profiles with endorsements, commercials and paid appearances, the Spurs icon preferred a life behind the curtain.

The Big Fundamental was a basketball masterpiece. Good luck finding a flaw in his game; 29 teams tried and failed.

Duncan will enter the Hall of Fame with Kobe Bryant in 2021, inducted as a five-time champion, two-time Most Valuable Player, and perennial selection to all-league and all-defensive squads. The only thing missing from his resume is an Olympic gold medal, though not because he didn’t try. Unlike the majority of his original teammates who withdrew only weeks before the 2004 Athens Games mostly because of terrorism fears, Duncan and Allen Iverson endured an altogether disappointing experience.

Besides stumbling to the bronze medal, Duncan was so frustrated by the officiating that he vowed to never again represent the United States in an international event. Whether he would have changed his mind if Popovich had been named the next Olympic coach – that would be Mike Kryzewski – well, we’ll never know.

But in retrospect, Duncan’s refusal to spend his summers training with the U.S. national teams might have prolonged his career. Though he retires at age 40, and has the lean, sculpted frame of a superbly conditioned athlete, he has the knees of a 60-year-old.

A thick brace protects a left knee that he hasn’t been able to straighten for years. His right knee was even more problematic in his final season, forcing him to miss games and play limited minutes. So he leaves with a legacy that includes those five rings, a bond with a head coach that likely will never be rivaled, and with this this, too: Duncan and his Spurs not only proved small-market franchises can thrive, they devised the model for all 30 franchises.

That, friends, is quite a legacy.

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