Tonight, the San Antonio Spurs will face the Miami Heat in the first game of the NBA Finals. If you’d just woken up after spending exactly 12 months in a coma, this wouldn’t strike you as terribly strange, considering this is same matchup from last year. After San Antonio beat the Oklahoma City Thunder to clinch the Western Conference finals on Saturday, Spurs captain Tim Duncan told TNT, “We’ll do it this time… We’re happy it’s the Heat again. We’ve got that bad taste in our mouths still.”
If you’re not familiar with Tim Duncan, you’re probably wondering why I bothered to reproduce those remarks. They don’t even register on the Universal Scale of Athlete Smack Talk. But coming from the famously reserved and thoughtful perennial All-Star, their import is seismic.
“Tim Duncan could not contain himself, which is a sentence I never thought I would write,” said one journalist. “Very unlike Tim Duncan,” agreed another. Coming from who they did, the objectively benign comments even flustered LeBron James.
Okay, so about Tim Duncan: he’s insanely effective, fiercely smart, and a deeply respected leader. He’s 38 — quite old, for professional basketball — and he’s probably the greatest power forward of all time. Duncan has won four championship titles and has been named the Finals MVP three times, the NBA MVP twice. He’s played for the Spurs his entire career. Duncan’s clean-cut, suburban dad persona has also inspired some incredible Onion headlines: Tim Duncan Urges Teammates To Be Patient With Frequent-Flyer Miles, Groans Abound As Tim Duncan Raises Hand Once Again At City Council Meeting, Tim Duncan Hams It Up For Crowd By Arching Left Eyebrow Slightly, and many more. But there’s so much more to him than that.
The NBA is full of weirdos, and that’s a large part of why I love it as much as I do. From the elaborate superstitions of Gilbert Arenas, the alter egos of JaVale “Pierre” McGee, and the surreal stylings of Metta World Peace to cross-dressing North Korean diplomat Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley (for a long time, my desktop background was a photo of Chuck eating pizza). The Heat’s own Chris Bosh, photobomber extraordinaire, and bird-phobic Dwyane Wade have a lot going for them in the oddball department, too. I’d argue that Tim is weirder than everyone, in part because of how superficially non-weird he is: but mostly because his true brand of weirdness is subtle, unflashy, and endearingly dorky.
At Wake Forest, he was nicknamed “Mr. Spock.” He once described himself as a “taller, slightly less hyperactive version” of Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, the same year that Sports Illustrated hailed him a “quiet, boring” MVP. He plays Dungeons & Dragons. He has a Merlin tattoo. He’s a huge video game nerd, and once encouraged then-teammate Sean Elliott to buy a gaming manual to improve his performance. According to rumor, he even frequents Renaissance festivals.
If, somehow, you don’t love Tim a little already, let’s talk about his childhood. He was born in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, where he excelled at swimming as a boy. He’d planned to compete in the 1992 Olympics, but in 1989, Hurricane Hugo devastated St. Croix. The pool where Duncan trained was destroyed. The rest of his team began to practice in the ocean instead, but not Tim, who was terrified of sharks. He dearly loved his mom (this, incidentally, is also my favorite thing about Kevin Durant), who passed away when he was just shy of 14. He insisted on finishing college to keep a promise he’d made to her shortly before her death. He never swam competitively again. It was only after he grew close to his brother-in-law, then a college basketball player, that Tim seriously considered taking up another sport. (Spoiler: he turned out to be pretty good at it.)
Now, let’s talk about last year’s Finals. The Spurs lost in seven excruciating games, though they very nearly took it in six. Trailing the series 3-2, the Heat rallied five points in 28.2 seconds to win Game 6, capped off by an unforgettable three-pointer by Jesus Shuttlesworth. At the time, Duncan was in the midst of a public, painful divorce from the mother of his two children — it’s believed that she cheated — who’d refused his request to wait until the end of the season to initiate the proceedings. Fuck, man.
Late in Game 7 (which, of course, the Heat would win), Duncan missed a critical game-tying layup. Out of sheer frustration, he smacked the floor with the palms of both hands. To see this — a zero on the Universal Athlete Acting Out Scale, but not when performed by the NBA’s most restrained, stoic, low-key player — made me cry, because it was obvious what it meant to him. It hurt my heart. I still think about that moment every few weeks, and sometimes I still tear up.
If you’re a basketball fan, you certainly don’t need me to convince you to watch the Finals. And if you aren’t, it doesn’t matter. Watch for Tim, watch for the human drama of a man moved to trash talk (or at least his unlikely version thereof), watch because this guy deserves good things to happen to him. You may not have many more chances to see him in action, either — it’s been widely speculated that Duncan could retire after this series, though he has another $10 million season on his contract.
He wants a fifth ring first. I, on the other hand, just want Tim Duncan to be happy.