SAN ANTONIO — Something was tugging at Tim Duncan.
The San Antonio Spurs big man with the bigger smile stood on stage inside the AT&T Center late Sunday night, his fifth championship finally in his grasps and his two beautiful children in his arms.The tug came once, then twice, then a third time, with Duncan ignoring the prodding from below as if it were the 2013 NBA Finals nightmare that had finally disappeared into the deep.
But Bill Russell, naturally, wouldn’t be denied. The legendary big man pulled on Duncan’s sweaty jersey until he finally turned around, and two of the game’s greats embraced in a shared moment of mutual respect. And then, the former Boston Celtics great whose record of 11 titles will likely never be beat made the most poignant and powerful observation of the night about what this all meant for Duncan’s place in history among the game’s greatest bigs.
“Right up there at the top,” Russell told USA TODAY Sports.
He is, indeed.
Everywhere you turned in this joyous place, there was somebody marveling about his part in this incredible Spurs play. How does a 38-year-old who looked so close to his end just a few years ago pull off such a stunt, not only finishing the championship run that they’d started back when Bill Clinton was in office, but also playing the same epicenter role that he did back then?
It’s not just the number of titles, of course, but how he got them — never in back-to-back fashion, always requiring a restart when years would go by in between without a ring, a long stretch of success that puts him in a class all his own for all of time. It had been seven years since their last, and one torturous year since they saw it slip away in Miami and left everyone wondering if there was any way they could get back.
David Robinson was there at the start, when he so graciously mentored this stoic sensation who had gone from the Virgin Islands to Wake Forest to the middle of Texas. He was there at the end, too, hugging Duncan at center court as the black and white confetti fell before making it clear that his old friend will go down as one of the best there ever was.
“I mean he was already at the top (among all-time big men),” Robinson, who retired at the age of 37, told USA TODAY Sports. “You couldn’t argue with his credentials before today, and it’s going to be even harder now. He’s clearly one of the best players to ever play.
“I don’t know that you can put anybody in his category for sustained excellence. It’s unbelievable. It was a progression. We’ve grown it from being 20-61 (actually 20-62 in 1996-97) to now our fifth championship, and I feel like I was a part of that so that’s a lot of fun.”
Robinson said he and Duncan never spoke about the 2013 Finals and how bad they hurt. There was, Robinson said, simply no need to.
“I knew it stung them,” Robinson said. “It hurt me. I wasn’t even playing, and it hurt me. For them to come back and to play the way they played in this Finals speaks volume about what kind of guys these guys are. No team gives up a championship without a fight, so it just shows you what kind of guys we’ve got here.”
Duncan wasn’t dominant in the Finals, averaging 15.4 points and 10.0 rebounds in all, but he didn’t have to be. He had to be there like he always is, captaining the defense that allowed just 91.6 points per game in the Finals while serving as such a vital part of the free-flowing offense that outscored the Heat by an average margin of 18 points in their wins. How one-sided was this? The Spurs set a new NBA record for point differential in the Finals. And throughout, Duncan certainly didn’t look like someone who needed to call it quits anytime soon.
The wait now begins to see if Duncan is at all tempted to drop the silver-and-black mike after putting on an incredible show. Duncan, who has a player option for next season worth $10.3 million, was evasive afterwards when asked about his future. This was about the moment, one that he wasn’t sure would ever come back when they all came so close a year before.
“Very special,” Duncan said. “To do it at home, to do it with my kids and my family and my friends here made it so much more special. Just a great experience, and a great experience for them.
“For whatever reason, it is sweeter than any other, whether it be because of the time frame, because I’m coming towards the end of my career, because I can have these two (daughter Sydney and son Draven) here and really remember it and enjoy the experience, all of those things make it that much more special.”
So, Duncan was asked, wouldn’t it be tough to walk away from a team that keeps beating Father Time?
“Yeah,” he said before growing suspect about the question. “I don’t know. I’m guessing you’re leading me into a question that I’m not going to answer, so I’ll just go ahead and avoid that one.”
Regardless of what happens next, they all agreed that this was the sweetest one yet. Not only because they exacted revenge against the Heat, but because the last one is always the best.
“Each one is always sweeter,” Spurs owner Peter Holt said as he stood amid the postgame celebration on the court. “If you’re in this business and you don’t think each one is sweeter, you’re crazy. Nah, it’s wonderful.”
Even more so for Tony Parker. He had come into the league as a score-first point guard from France, a 19-year-old talent who eventually evolved with coach Gregg Popovich’s stern guidance and who became so close with Duncan along the way. Parker had promised Duncan that they would get back to this magical place before their time together was over, and here they were. Incredibly. Tirelessly. Age-lessly. Again.
“It’s awesome man, just awesome,” Parker told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m happy for (Duncan). We did it together, and we’ve been together for so long. It’s the sweetest one, by far. It’s unbelievable what he has been able to accomplish…Five rings speaks for itself”