- - Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tim Duncan called it quits Monday after 19 NBA seasons with the San Antonio Spurs and left behind a legacy matched only by a few that have played this game.

“The Big Fundamental” was not just a game-changer. His presence changed the landscape of the league for 20 years. The history of the NBA over the past two decades might have been quite different without Duncan – and without Duncan in the town where the Alamo had been the biggest attraction before he arrived in 1997.

Duncan’s NBA legacy is greater than those game-changers who played in his time – Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, for instance.

He wasn’t necessarily a better player. Though I don’t know how, if you were starting an NBA team over this era of play, you wouldn’t begin the building with Duncan, particularly knowing the consistency and stability he would bring to the court every night.

Duncan can hold his own with any of the greats. He has a resume that consists of two NBA regular season MVP awards and 15 All-Star appearances. He ranks 14th all-time in scoring (26,496 points), sixth in rebounds (15,091 boards) and fifth in blocks (3,020).



But the numbers that define Duncan are associated with team accomplishments. Five NBA titles, with three NBA finals MVP awards to go along with those championships, meaning that when his team needed Duncan to play his best, he was the best, with the most on the line.

And then there is this: His team went 1,072-438 over the NBA regular season in the 19 years he played. That’s not just the best 19-year record in the history of the league, but over the four major American sports during that same era. He is only the third player in NBA history to win 1,000 career regular-season games. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish are the only players with more career victories.

The league-changer, though? He did all this in San Antonio.

We have come to take for granted the notion that small market teams can compete for NBA championships. LeBron did it in Cleveland. Kevin Durant was viewed as a legitimate championship contender with Oklahoma City before he did what Tim Duncan never did – leave his team behind.

But when Duncan came into the league in 1997, the notion of small market, non-traditional teams winning NBA championships was a novelty, not a pattern.

From 1980 until 1999, here are the cities that had a chance to celebrate NBA championships: Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and Houston, all, save for Houston, long-time NBA legacy franchises.

Then, like the world suddenly changed, you see San Antonio, Texas, on the list in 1999. And 2003. And 2005. And 2007. And 2014.

The Spurs, one of four surviving teams from the American Basketball Association merger in 1976, is the only one that has gone on to win an NBA championship. Now they are a legacy franchise.

This happened because Duncan arrived in San Antonio in 1997 from Wake Forest University. Of this there can be no debate.

It almost didn’t happen. It would have continued business as usual in the NBA if the 1997 draft lottery had gone as expected.

The Celtics had the second-worst record that season and, with two picks in the 1997 draft, the best odds to win the top pick. Boston had a 36 percent chance of getting the opportunity to select Duncan. In fact, then-Celtics coach Rick Pitino was counting on it.

“When you get a Tim Duncan, you are getting something really, really special, not only as a basketball player, but with an incredible attitude,” Pitino, in his second NBA coaching stint and after winning a national championship at Kentucky, told reporters in his first season as Boston coach before the draft. “He uses the glass as well as any young player I’ve seen. You don’t see many young kids use it like he does. He’s just got the total package.”

But that total package wound up in San Antonio. The Spurs, who had the third-worst record that season, won the lottery and picked Duncan. He paid dividends right away, winning Rookie of the Year honors and playing alongside David Robinson to bring the franchise its first NBA championship in 1999.

That ended Pitino’s NBA coaching career. After four losing seasons and a record of 126-171, he stepped down and went back to college, taking the job at Louisville, where he won another NCAA title in 2013. And it took Boston 10 years to recover, winning the NBA crown in 2008 after importing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce.

That lottery changed the league.

Finally, unlike his comparable greats – Kobe and LeBron – Duncan’s entire basketball career was a series of accidents. Kobe grew up in an NBA household, the son of NBA forward Joe Bryant. LeBron was the “Chosen One” when he was a teenager, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was a high school junior.

Duncan? He was a champion swimmer in the Virgin Islands when in 1989 Hurricane Hugo destroyed the island’s only Olympic-sized swimming pool, and Duncan, who tried to then train in the ocean, found out he had a healthy fear of sharks. So he started playing basketball at the age of 14.

If not for a natural disaster and Jaws, the league might have looked much different over the last 20 years and missed out on the greatness of Tim Duncan, the man who changed the NBA.

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