by Gabe Kahn
Celtics fans have a complicated relationship with Tim Duncan. Fine, not all of you. If you’re under 15 or you jumped on the bandwagon during the championship ride in 2008 you probably don’t know what I’m talking about and you definitely don’t feel the same. But those of us who’ve been around for the ups and downs of the past 25 years, we get it.
Hours after the announcement of Duncan’s retirement—a development that, though expected was no less jarring—the talk around the league has been about longevity, success, the paragon of professionalism and the acronym "GOAT." But the long-termers among us remember a time when we rooted (out of jealousy) against Duncan, when his success and that of his Spurs pained us at a level just a couple notches below the Lakers and the Knicks.
Over the years a handful of fans have surely garnered ill will toward Duncan because of his triumphs against their clubs—the Lakers, Suns, Mavs and Heat come to mind—but on the whole the PF/C has almost always been one of the most respected and beloved players in the game. Not us. Celtics fans disliked him before he ever played a game, maybe before he was selected with the first pick in the 1997 NBA draft, and we felt that way despite the absence of any semblance of a rivalry between the Spurs and Celtics, or wrongdoing by Duncan himself. No, our we reserved our non-Laker venom for Duncan because he served as a living reminder that, even after 11 years of painful losses and the death of two of the team’s brightest stars, the basketball Gods would continue to thumb their nose at our once-dominant franchise.
It started on May 18, 1997, the day of the draft lottery. Under the "guidance" of General Manager/Coach M.L. Carr, the Celtics had won a franchise-low 15 games during the just-completed regular season, one of the most brazen tanking jobs the league has ever seen, at least until Sam Hinkie showed up in Philly. However, the record futility was somewhat palatable for much of the fan base and downright welcome for others as every loss represented more ping pong balls in the lottery, and a greater shot at the #1 pick, a spot where they would surely pick, you guessed it, Wake Forest standout Tim Duncan.
To our horror, as well as to newly installed Celtics president, coach, GM and Red-usurper Rick Pitino, the Celtics ended up with picks three and six (from a previous trade with the Dallas Mavericks). Though they eventually drafted Chauncey Billups with the third pick, the impatient Pitino traded the future five-time all-star away after just 51 games. Besides, even if Billups had spent his entire 17-year, borderline-Hall of Fame career in Boston, it would have been little consolation for missing out on the ultimate prize in Duncan.
So we didn’t like him. True, we were projecting a jealous distaste for San Antonio, which drew our ire for encouraging team-cornerstone David Robinson to take his time returning from injury the previous season, which allowed the still-talented Spurs to pile up enough losses that they lucked into landing Duncan. But—and this needs to be emphasized—for no logical reason, we considered him complicit. Somehow we were even conflicted in Duncan’s second season when the Spurs won their first championship against the Knicks, a team led by Latrell Sprewell a year-and-a-half removed from the guard’s attempted murder of former coach P.J. Carlesimo (for the under-15 crowd referenced at the beginning, Google it; if you think "The Decision" was crazy…). That the Celtics lost their first 17 head-to-head matchups with Duncan’s Spurs didn’t help matters, either.
But 19 years is a long time, and although Duncan has earned five titles, there is comfort in that the Celtics have one of their own. One of the highlights of that magical season, by the way, being a character-building victory over the Spurs in which they clawed their way out of a 22-point second-quarter hole. More than that—much more than that—our animosity toward the Big Fundamental waned over the years because it was impossible to overlook his success and the way he went about it.
The best power forward of all time—sorry guys, he overtook Kevin McHale some time ago—was the model of consistency; a quiet leader; humble yet supremely confident; selfless on the court but selfish when the situation required it; fiercely loyal to his small market (take note, KD); willing to accept criticism without throwing his teammates under the bus (your turn, LeBron); and always, always committed to winning.
In an era of individual players with egos that eclipse the collective shoe sizes of the entire NBA, Duncan’s refusal to self-promote was as refreshing as it was shocking, and because of his stoic on-court demeanor he was often compared to a robot and considered less marketable than other stars. Maybe that’s why his floor-slamming frustration after missing a game-tying layup in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals was so humanizing. This man, who had maintained his composure while dominating the league for 16 years (at the time), finally demonstrated to one and all that he was just that, a man. Cut him and he bleeds. It seems obvious, sure, but after all that time, how the Hell could we know for sure?
To that point, my favorite Duncan moment came in the minutes after the Spurs won what we now know for certain was Duncan’s final championship against the Heat (I should mention that Duncan’s vanquishing of several of the Celtic rivals, including Miami and the Lakers, in addition to the Knicks, was a big factor in our warming up to the big guy). A season removed from losing in the finals after a miracle Ray Allen three-pointer and the aforementioned missed layup, and on the heels of a messy divorce from his wife of 12 years, Duncan held his two kids, none of the three bothering to hold back the tears during the long embrace.
At that moment it was obvious how much winning meant to him. That he cared so much but was able to hold his emotions in check all those years, only allowing them to spill out following his fifth—not his first, his fifth!—championship, well that was it for me and hopefully any leftover Celtic fans. There was no doubt that Tim Duncan had become my favorite non-Celtic of all time.
It’s almost inconceivable to me that I ever felt differently.