In the delivery room with Tim Duncan

This essay originally appeared at Hardwood Paroxysm, when HP was hosted by Fansided. However, the internet is amorphous and most of that HP content is no longer available and I may never write a basketball-related article more meaningful to me than this one.

Art by Daniel J. Rowell

I am late in writing about Tim Duncan’s retirement, because my daughter was born a week early, on Monday, July 11th (2016). She did not come with a free Slurpee, but is herself slurping past Bethlehem, waiting for only God knows what.

When word reached me that my favorite player’s career would revert to being a line segment rather than a continuum, I sat in a delivery room’s cocoon, beside my wife’s hospital bed. She was in labor, but barely dilated. Her water had broken in those phantom hours beyond midnight that are neither the night time nor the morning. Before that, we had walked to a local park. She talked on the phone with a friend, and I shot baskets on a goal with no net.

Between one contraction or another, my friend Mark texted me: I know you are bummed about Timmy retiring. Thinking about you Doc Harv. Strange thing was, I wasn’t too bummed. The news acted as a distraction while waiting for life to happen. My wife inhaled and exhaled. I counted to four. She did most if not all of the work.

When Duncan attempted his final flight over the outstretched arm of Serge Ibaka, 19 years of basketball gravity pinned him to the earth. Perhaps even if Ibaka had not been lurking to block his shot, Duncan still would have missed the dunk. The flight was a long one for any athlete to make, let alone one entering his fifth decade of life. Maybe the dunk wouldn’t even have mattered. After all, the Thunder still would have held a nine point lead with just over three minutes remaining.

When I watched the game live a couple months ago, I did so alone. The lights in the house were dimmed. Shadows filled the corners of the living room. I rose from my seat when Andre Miller and Tim Duncan completed the oldest pick and roll in NBA history. I still had hope. Kawhi kept making plays. The Thunder’s offense sputtered. Duncan missed a couple shots, but I still hoped for some miracle to happen. And I was still standing when Ibaka snuffed out Duncan’s flame.

However, when the cameras cut to Timmy’s crestfallen eyes, he looked as if he knew in that particular flight’s failure a world and its possibilities no longer existed.

Art also by Daniel J. Rowell

On that Thursday night in May, my wife asked at halftime if she should stay up. I looked at the scoreboard. I saw the 24-point deficit and told her, “I don’t think it’s worth it.” She was seven and a half months pregnant, and it didn’t make sense in my mind for her to stay up to witness Timmy, Kawhi, or any of the other players she refers to on a first name basis not get the job done. Part of me wanted to say my respects alone. Another part of me thought there’s no way this is the end — he’ll be back, he always comes back.

Life is full of strange coincidences. I do not believe they have any significant meaning other than what’s imagined by those who observe them, but they do exist.

My daughter was born the day Timmy retired. The same day my wife and I became engaged we attended a Spurs game in Washington. An ex-girlfriend in college gifted me with a number 21 jersey. That relationship probably ended because she thought Shaquille O’Neal was the better player. The summer my family moved from Georgia to Virginia was the same summer the Spurs drafted Timmy. I spent days and hours practicing jump hooks and bank shots. When he played for Wake Forest, I found myself torn between rooting for him and my Carolina loyalties. The first basketball team I ever played for in Athens was called the Spurs.

I know this is all magical thinking, but I cannot imagine my life without a succession of Tim Duncan moments. And yet, the day he retired was one of the happiest I’ve ever experienced.

I have, in the last week, felt emotions that are new to me, lost track of time, and read a great deal about the man Charles Barkley often referred to as Groundhog Day. I read Colin McGowan’s “The Anti-Stylist” with an alien lifeform tucked inside the crook of my arm. And, when I encountered David Roth’s “Tim Duncan, All the Way Down to Earth,” it was with that same incongruent bairn cooing from her bassinette.

As a result, my understanding of Duncan’s monumental place in the world has included a great deal of literal and figurative navel-gazing. I would apologize for that, except the dried husk of my daughter’s umbilical cord still bears the teeth marks of the doctor’s plastic clamp and such obtuse reminders of a child’s origins are difficult to ignore. Maybe that changes with time. After all, opinions do change. A letting go of certain beliefs can be healthy. Now that I’m older I can admit that Duncan is a ragged scarecrow in terms of style; all plaid and denim and stiffness planted in the lane.

Many of the farewell salutes to Timmy explored his vapid vacancies on and off the court; his deer in the headlight complaints and silent quotations. He barricaded himself within the game’s dimensions, and, as McGowan writes of him: “Style can be alienating, but its complete absence produces the same effect. Tim Duncan started out exhausting and stayed that way for a long time.” I think of what life was like before my daughter was born, and I know McGowan is right — those decades were exhausting, but in a different way than the last few nights. Now I’m just sleep deprived and, like Duncan, her clothes refuse to fit her.

To many, Duncan came to the game already old and full of wisdom, like a basketball Athena sprung from Gregg Popovich’s imagination. And this all makes sense. Tim Duncan’s professional career unfolded less like Gospel and more like Ecclesiastic white noise. His greatest rival, Shaquille O’Neal, roared through the league like a gas-guzzling Humvee, until expenses forced his handlers to always discard him. Meanwhile, Timmy’s invisible hand cranked a mechanical windmill on which the Don Quixotes of the world might perish for all eternity.

I recall my daughter’s night tantrums and attempt to balance them alongside her daytime placidity. She can work herself into thrash metal levels of aggression and then, in the blink of an eye, transform into a Brian Wilson harmony. My weariness begs, how can this be the same creature in the deep?

But then I read Roth’s critique of that awkward yearbook photo of an MVP presentation, where Duncan sits grinning in a baggy red shirt and denim shorts. And there is something incredibly juvenile about it all, from his wardrobe down to the whole arcane idea of grown men posing for the record books. About this photo Roth concludes: “It’s clear from the photo that Tim Duncan does not really care much about how he looks. There’s just more than one way to read it.”

Only two kinds of people truly care so little with such oblivious ease. The very old do not care, and the very young do not either. The former supposedly earns the right to indifference, and the latter simply lacks awareness. Because Tim Duncan and the Spurs have been so good for so long, the focus of the conversation has almost always featured the team’s impending infirmities. Such labels began under the Admiral David Robinson’s good graces, were assisted by winning the franchise’s first constipated title, and were carried into perpetuity by Pop’s ongoing crankiness.

But the Spurs didn’t stay good by staying old. They stayed good because of the team’s dexterity. And no player’s role changed more often and more dramatically over the last decades than Duncan’s. I could keep trying to say what I’m trying to say, but here’s the assist from Shea Serrano: “One day your baby is a baby and the next day it’s 13 years later and it’s just like, ‘Oh, fuck, you’re as tall as I am. What happened?’”

The answer: the Spurs matured under the constant illusion they were antiquity personified. When one could just as easily surmise that already old, they were always younger than any of us and therefore always changing.

Serrano describes having watched Duncan over the years without a conscious understanding of how TD’s body and game were always inching towards that final play when he wouldn’t be able to clear Serge Ibaka’s arm. I do the same thing now when my daughter’s arm bounces around her head all jittery and not giving a fuck about political parties or the weather. Death and taxes do not register on her radar. I wonder what Duncan thought when he first released a basketball towards that red square on the backboard and the geometry of it all sent the ball sailing through the hoop. Did he feel joy? I wonder what her first word will be when she discovers the precision of syllables or, better yet, a bank shot.

I re-watched Duncan’s final game the Sunday after my daughter’s birth. At six days old, she lay in my arms, and I barely even thought about how much she’d already changed. She was just there, eyes closed and ignorant of her father’s strange obsessions. And there was Duncan younger on the screen than the day he retired, but older than when he’d started.

She is an angel who screams in the night, and all of this is to say that the two contrasting views of Duncan are intertwined. On the one hand, people, who most likely had no rooting interest in the Spurs, viewed him as an odd relic. On the other, those who wanted him and his team to succeed lived within the scaffolding of his bones, only they didn’t feel like bones at all — they felt like warm blankets.

In his salute to the power forward, Serrano shares an awesome anecdote about seeing his father react to the Spurs winning their first title. The story is about community and ends with Serrano writing, “It was just a whole bunch of horns being honked by a whole bunch of Mexicans. That was the first time I understood that people could be truly tied together by sports, and that San Antonio was tied together by basketball.”

These two views of Tim Duncan always existed; one just as likely true or false as any other. But both perspectives labeled him as the Greatest Power Forward of All-Time. For some that title reads with little nuance and positions everything about Duncan behind a façade as lacking in humanitarian concern as an Aztec altarstone. Through this lens, Duncan was always an old and unrelenting desert. However, the other viewpoint of him found a way to grow maize in that brittle soil, and that’s about something more than sacrificial deaths — that’s about love.

“If you love Kobe, it’s because you love Gordon Gecko. If you love LeBron, it’s because you love Jay Z. If you love Steph Curry, it’s because you love Rudy. But if you love Tim Duncan, it can only be because you love Tim Duncan,” writes Jared Wade. I would add that loving Duncan required seeing poetry in household items — perhaps it required a parent’s blindness, or a book by Pablo Neruda.

The family unit is strange in its familiarity. The windows on other people’s houses are as dark and mysterious as the sockets on an unlit jack-o-lantern. To some, Duncan appeared listless. But how does that explain his hand on the back of his teammate’s heads or the embraces shared with his coach?

Words cannot describe the shape of her fist, which she tightens into the nucleus of an atom.

Most tellings of Duncan’s NBA origins begin with ping pong balls and a back injury. Then they make mention of a coach walking with him on a beach. They have a conversation. The conversation is a good one. Championships are won over eons. The wet footprints in the white sand fossilize.

Yet that can’t be the all of it.

Babies are, for lack of a better word, shapeless. After they eat, they become wet noodles. What they produce in the first week barely even qualifies as real shit — it’s all black tar paste and yellow seeds. They cannot focus, as their eyes dart in unpredictable patterns. Heck, their eyes might even change color by the time they exhibit a personality beyond a beating heart and sleepiness. Yet all this uselessness makes them helplessly adorable. And they endear themselves to parents and strangers through their vulnerabilities.

At age 13, Duncan the basketball player still lacked form. An oft-cited footnote in his development is how Hurricane Hugo forever deterred his dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer. When the storm destroyed the pool, Duncan gave up the sport because he would not swim in the ocean — he was so afraid of sharks. Conventional narratives would have the hero face or conquer his fears, but Duncan became great by running from them.

Then, at age 14, his mother died of breast cancer, and he embarked on the journey of becoming the Tim Duncan we recognize — that tall silhouette cradling a basketball to his chest before each and every game. And, as my wife holds our daughter to her chest, I cannot help to reflect on Timmy’s relationship with his own matriarch. I cannot help to think about what worlds the absences might create. Love always gives birth to fears that are fortunate to have. Duncan’s fear was perhaps his greatest blessing.

When asked if the act of hugging a basketball before every game is in tribute to his mom, Timmy has responded in the past: “No. No. It’s a superstitious thing.” And I have no reason not to take him at his word. On a conscious level, the gesture probably means little more than his explanation: “For nothing else, it’s just something I say before the games. Get ready to go.” If the gesture ever did threaten to suffocate the sport, it did so with the love and commitment of maternal instinct; the ball pulled closed for protection and then set free.

Duncan’s joints opened and closed like hinges. He was a doorway. The game moved through him and, for a time, so did we. When I arrive at the top of the stairs, she will be there, by the window, nursing a future I barely know, but is here already.

@Eatthebasketba1 / @The_Step_Back / @Hobartpulp /@dailydrunkmag / @Rejectionlit / @Classical / @TheFLReview / @ColdMtnReview / @Bluestemmag / @HarpoonReview

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