SAN ANTONIO — Who could have seen this coming?
I mean, Tim Duncan, a coach? Are you kidding me?
Believe it, Maxine. Timmy D is returning to the Spurs as an assistant coach. The club sent out a news release shortly before 4 p.m. Monday, setting off a buzz in newsrooms across San Antonio.
While the Spurs are no longer among the NBA’s elite teams, we can be certain of at least one thing about the squad coach Gregg Popovich will take on the floor this season: Its big men, its “bigs,” as they are called in the vernacular of the sport, are going to be drilled and drilled on the fundamentals of the game. Duncan won’t have it any other way.
Shaq didn’t nickname Duncan the “Big Fundamental” for nothing, you know. More importantly, Duncan will be an invaluable asset for his corporate knowledge of the so-called “Spurs Way” and the culture that has made the franchise a model of consistency in pro sports for more than 20 years.
While Duncan’s return to the game as an assistant coach caught everybody by surprise, we should have known that was always a possibility, no matter how unlikely it seemed.
After all, it wasn’t unusual the past three seasons to see Duncan at the Spurs’ practice facility, working out with players before and after practice. It was obvious he missed the game, but I never figured he would go into coaching.
The reality is that it was probably a combination of Duncan missing basketball and being bored at this point in his life. I think Duncan needed something to give his life more structure and, being the competitor that he is, he relished the challenge of taking on a demanding job that will require attention to detail, discipline and hours upon hours.
There’s also this: Duncan and Popovich are kindred spirits. They have laughed together and cried together in times of great personal loss. It’s not hyperbole to say they will be inextricably linked long after they step away from basketball for good.
Popovich had the best line of the day Monday.
“It is only fitting that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said in the Spurs’ news release.
Not surprisingly, the Spurs announced Duncan’s hiring in an understated way, reflecting his style on and off the court during his stellar 19 seasons with the Silver and Black. That’s also the manner in which Duncan, 43, has lived his life since he retired after the 2015-16 season. He’s never been one to crave attention.
The guy was a two-time league MVP, three-time Finals MVP and, well, the greatest player in franchise history – yet his name is nowhere to be found on the headline of the release the Spurs emailed to the media. We’re talking about the best power forward in basketball history and the only constant besides Popovich on all five of San Antonio’s championship teams, for Pete’s sake.
Moreover, Will Hardy, not Duncan, is mentioned first in the five-paragraph release. Hardy, who joined the team as a basketball operations intern in 2010, already had duties as an assistant coach and will take on an expanded role on Popovich’s staff.
Hardy and Duncan will step into the positions that had been vacant since No. 1 assistant Ettore Messina and Ime Udoka left the Spurs after the season to take other jobs. The turnover probably will elevate Becky Hammon to the top assistant’s post, which would be a first for a woman in the NBA. If that should come to pass, Becky would take over the coaching duties when Pop gets tossed from a game.
Becky will good for Tim and Tim will be good for Becky. They should work well together.
A little more on the Spurs’ understated press release. It included only one sentence on Duncan’s background: “Duncan, a 1997 Wake Forest graduate, played 19 seasons with the Spurs before retiring in summer of 2016.”
Knowing Tim, he probably wanted it that way. In his world, there is beauty in simplicity.
Selected by the Spurs with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, Duncan went on to be a 15-time All-Star who became the cornerstone of a franchise. Given today’s times, Duncan probably will be the last basketball star to stay in college for four seasons before going on to become a franchise player in the NBA.
Timothy Theodore Duncan was a rare athlete, indeed. It will be interesting and exciting to see how we makes the transition to coaching.
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