The Retirement of Tim Duncan

I don’t usually blog about the NBA, but this one was too good to pass up. Tim Duncan recently announced that he was retiring from the NBA. He was always one of my favorite players, mostly because he resisted being a celebrity, kept a low profile, and played team basketball. He always seemed to prioritize team statistics over personal statistics.

Here are two noteworthy observations.

  • The Spurs had a 1,072-438 regular season record during Duncan’s 19-year career. This is a .710 winning percentage, and that is by far the best total record by any team in the NBA, the NFL, the NHL, and MLB over the past 19 years.
  • The year before Duncan arrived, the Spurs had their worst record in franchise history: 20-62 (.244). The year Duncan left, the Spurs had their best record in franchise history: 67-15 (.817).

And because the sports world is all about comparing people, there are many who have sought to compare Tim Duncan’s career with Kobe Bryant’s career. They both are two of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball. They both spent their whole careers with one team. And they both retired this year. Here are some stats if you’re interested.

Kobe Bryant Tim Duncan
Total Seasons  20  19
Team Playoff Appearances  16  19
Championships 5 5
# MVPs 1 (2008) 2 (2002, 2003)
# Finals MVPs 2 (2009, 2010) 3 (1999, 2003, 2005)
# All-Star selections 18 15
# All-NBA selections 15 15
# All-Defensive selections 12 15
Career Points* 33643 (3rd) 26496 (17th)
Career Rebounds* 7047 (110th) 15091 (7th)
Career Assists* 6306 (29th) 4225 (94th)
Career Blocks* 640 (184th) 3020 (6th)
Career Steals* 1944 (15th) 1025 (148th)

*The number in the parenthesis is the player’s all-time NBA/ABA rankings, as of the end of the 2015-2016 season.

I find attempts to rank greatness to be super subjective, and that’s not my purpose here. What I find personally fascinating is the way Kobe and Duncan retired, because they were about as different as you could get.

When Kobe announced his retirement early on, all of the basketball world took heed, so that he had standing ovations at essentially every away game for half the season. But Duncan announced his retirement after the season was over, so he didn’t get to experience opposing teams selling out their stadiums so that people could see him one last time. He just quietly slipped out. As former teammate Stephen Jackson once said, “He’ll be cool with riding off into the sunset with no applause.” And when Kobe went out, he went out with a bang, scoring 60 points on 22-50 shooting. But when Duncan went out against the Thunder, it seemed to be a normal game for him. 19 points on 7-14 shooting.

I realize that you can’t fully judge a person’s character by their public persona, but I love the way Tim Duncan went out. He had made his organization better, and he intentionally chose to hand off the mantle to younger players like Kawhi Leonard. He was satisfied with being ordinary. He was okay not getting those thunderous standing ovations. He didn’t need to awe people one last time.

As somebody in ministry, this speaks volumes to me. If I ever leave a ministry or a church in the future, how would I do it? Would I be content with a humble departure? Would my aim be to leave my organization better, or to make my reputation better? Would I want to go out with a bang, or would I be okay with simply “riding off into the sunset with no applause”?

That’s something to think about.

“And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not…” (Jeremiah 45:5)


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