(Note: I originally posted this on Medium.com on July 29, 2016)
When Tim Duncan announced his retirement, my mind immediately went to Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semi-finals — the game when Derek Fisher hit that shot with .4 seconds left, and Laker Nation’s insufferability level reached an astounding record high.
What people tend to forget about this game was just how great Tim Duncan was. He finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, but most memorably, made a near-impossible fade-away with less than a second remaining to put the Spurs ahead by one, besting Kobe’s now-forgotten about clutch jumper from the possession before.
I remember when Duncan’s shot went up, feeling relief, knowing that the game was over — of course it was going to go in. That’s what Tim Duncan does. He’s like a dad who goes to his job, makes an honest living, and is somehow always home for dinner with his kids. He’s the basketball embodiment of the last two minutes of a sitcom, when everything’s OK and cue the heartwarming theme music.
The Spurs may have lost that game (and series…the Lakers went up 3–2 after that shot, and closed out the series in LA), but in my mind, there is no better testament to Duncan’s greatness. It suggested that in order to beat his Spurs, you needed to escape with a win — that, even with a roster featuring an in-prime Kobe and Shaq¹, in order to beat Duncan you needed to cultivate one of the more improbable shots in NBA history.
I’ve been thinking more and more about Duncan’s career model…one that appeared to detest distractions and irrelevant minutiae, or anything that detracted from executing the long-term vision of San Antonio’s distinct championship culture. It’s a model that doesn’t seem to fit in today’s world — a world where it’s socially acceptable to parlay a minor inconvenience with your cable company into a several hour twitter parade. In 2016, when background noise is the default setting, the idea of shutting up, removing yourself from external influence, and getting your work done, has almost been made to feel passé.
To bring us back to basketball, I’d argue that it’s harder and harder to completely block out what Golden State’s doing and focus on what your team needs to do, because you’re probably constantly getting push notifications from ESPN about how great Golden State is.
I’ve been thinking about Tim Duncan through the lens of standup comedy (something I have been doing for a few years) which on the surface is probably the most anti-Tim Duncan pursuit imaginable. Standup comics are traditionally known for being what Steve Jobs pretended Apple was in 1984. Supposedly they’re misfits, they’re unpredictable, and they vomit at the very thought of buttoning the top button of their dress shirt.
But if you look past the romantic no-rules thing and try to do something like standup for more than five minutes, you realize that the Tim Duncan model may be, shockingly, alive and well. What I mean is that if you want to have a chance at a sustainable career, you need to be remarkably self-disciplined in the same way Duncan was. You have to show up virtually every night and put up a 25/12 stat line. You have to fend off constant external distractions. And somehow, you have to not allow the social media Short Term Validation Olympics to interfere with developing a point of view that’s genuinely excellent, and uniquely you.
In other words, even though Golden State’s zany act outs are truly something to behold, Golden State is a once-in-a-generation talent that you probably can’t match from a pure skill standpoint. There’s obviously things you can learn from the Warriors, but trying to mimic their formula may end up hurting you in the long run.
As Duncan proved, there’s something to be said about showing up everyday and perfecting that bank shot — even if it feels like everyone else is playing small ball.
¹ In addition to Kobe and Shaq their starting lineup also included all-time greats Karl Malone and Gary Payton, as well as 2004’s Harrison Barnes of the Lakers, Devean George.