The Captain of the San Antonio Spurs walks off the basketball court for the last time
Last January 25, Tim Duncan sat out the game that San Antonio Spurs played against the Golden State Warriors. Duncan was suffering from an injury to his right knee – which was supposedly his good knee. Without their Captain, the Spurs lost that game. Duncan would not return for several weeks although he did manage to last the regular season and even strove on until the Spurs’ playoffs campaign ended against the Oklahoma Thunder. Duncan went down with his team and his team, with him.
Struggling with two bad knees, we knew that Tim Duncan would likely retire after nineteen seasons with Spurs. We also knew that that last setback against OKC will not define Tim Duncan’s legacy. And true enough since he announced his retirement, there have been heaps of articles in the usual sports magazines and online sports websites but also articles in Time Money, Entrepreneur, Huffington Post and the New York Times.
This is one more tribute to Tim Duncan (and the Spurs) and this Spurs fan’s attempt to explain that basketball team’s remarkable success that is unmatched by any other organization in all of the four major US professional sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball).
I personally liked Yaron Weitzman’s homage to Tim in SB Nation:
He, along with Gregg Popovich, transformed the small-market San Antonio Spurs into a powerhouse of a franchise, a team and organization, that every other one in world of professional sports has looked to emulate for years. And it all started with the man known as the Big Fundamental.
His game was never flashy, though to true basketball enthusiasts it was more beautiful than anyone else’s. The impeccable footwork from the low block. The genius-level understanding of defensive angles and positioning. The automatic bank shot off the glass. And, perhaps most important of all, the ability to lead by example and desire to empower the revered man now commonly referred to as Pop.
For all his basketball IQ, Tim Duncan’s success drew in equal measure from his chemistry with the rest of the team and his understated leadership. Rebekah Epstein’s article in Entrepreneur comes closest to my own views on the key ingredients to the success of Duncan and the Spurs. Rebekah says that there are four leadership lessons that we can learn from the team:
- True confidence is quiet – no need to beat your chest when you post-up or point to the sky when you make a three, as Pop would say.
- Earning professional respect is the key to success
- Teamwork matters
- Being consistent counts
Give more than you take, pull more than you push
Let me add a few more cents worth to Rebekah’s views.
Many fans as well as sports analysts acknowledge the quiet leadership of Duncan. No primal scream from the Spurs alpha dog when he scores that clutch shot. I will add that Duncan’s is not just quiet leadership; his is servant leadership. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge all managed to achieve their individual potential because of the San Antonio culture that Duncan exemplified, i.e., leadership that is not associated with codes like power, selfishness and control but rather with harmony, community and teamwork. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said of Duncan, “His understated selflessness made him the ultimate teammate.” In other words, he gave more than he took and pulled more than he pushed.
Servant leadership is rare not just in sports but also in business, in government and in almost any leadership environment because the behaviors it requires are both difficult and risky. Servant leaders spend a lot of time on sharing their learning and discovering paths for greater team success without regard for personal benefit other than the sense of self-replenishment and fulfillment that the positive team interactions provide. Servant leadership requires not just courage but also virtues such as humility and self-control, traits that can easily be interpreted as weaknesses in most leadership situations typically pervaded by greed, ego and aggression.
It requires true confidence be a quiet, servant leader. As Pop would say, Tim was already over himself even as a young man – something that you can tell even from the way he was totally oblivious to fashion.
Photo credit to Bar Stool Sports
The deadly art of teamwork
Tim Duncan is a master of the physics of a bank shot. He is also a virtuoso of the dynamics of the pick-and-roll. Basketball is a science and Duncan is its Leonardo da Vinci.
While we recognize great scientists like Darwin, Newton or Einstein, none of these scientists achieved their work alone. You can be sure that the greater the scientific achievement, the greater the number of good scientists that have collaborated on it. Did you realize, for instance, that the giant particle collider in Switzerland has more than 7,000 physicists regularly participating in its experiments?
No matter what the fans of Kobe Bryant may think, basketball is team sport just like true science. The Spurs game relies on rapid ball movement taking place with constant player movement. The team is like a perpetual motion machine on the court. There is no designated shooter in any play; instead, the team relies on always making that extra pass to throw the opponents’ defense off. When the opportunity presents itself – Swooosh!
The Spurs pursue their science with a passion and in the process turn it into art – the deadly art of teamwork!
Turning the worst moments into the best
Success did not come easy for Tim – far from it. Every success always came at the heels of failure and pain.
At first, Tim always wanted to be a swimmer. He learned basketball only after Hurricane Hugo destroyed the only Olympic Sized pool in his hometown of Saint Croix. Then, his mother died of breast cancer one day before his 14th birthday. Before she passed away, she made him promise to complete his college education. Tim concentrated on his education and basketball to help relieve the pain of loss of a parent.
When he first started playing, he was horribly awkward in the court. It was only his height– and the perception of Coach Dave Odom that he was extraordinarily focused and that he was learning rapidly – that kept him in the Wake Forest team. He did learn fast and by the time that he completed four years of college, he was already the all-time leading rebounder in the post-1973 NCAA. That was enough to earn him the first draft pick for the San Antonio Spurs in 1997. Behind the twin towers of Duncan and David Robinson, San Antonio won its first ever NBA Championship in the 1998-99 season.
Then disaster struck again. Duncan tore cartilage in his left knee playing against the Sacramento Kings in April 2000. He has to miss the rest of the Regular Season as well as the Playoffs that year. Again, it was Tim’s deep desire to win that allowed him to rapidly recover by the next season. It could have been a career ending injury but instead became the turning point when the mantle of Spurs leadership was finally transferred from Dave Robinson to Tim Duncan.
Each of the worst moments always led to the best and in the course of 19 years, the Spurs had become the most respected team in the NBA. Last January Tim Duncan went down with his team and his team with him. His injuries led Tim to retire. I just can’t wait for what happens next in the Alamo.
Featured image courtesy of Hottytoddy.com
Peter Dizikes, The Twilight of Idols, New York Times, November 5, 2006
Jim L. Heskett, Why Isn’t ‘Servant Leadership’ More Prevalent?, Working Knowledge, Harvard Business School, May 1, 2013
Great Man Theory, Wikipedia