The Twilight of the Captain

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.

Read Yaron Weitzman’s SB Nation Article: Tim Duncan announces his retirement after a 19-year career

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Earning professional respect is the key to success
  3. Teamwork matters
  4. Being consistent counts

Read Rebekah Epstein’s article in Entrepreneur here.

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.

Duncan Fashion

Timmy’s oversized fashion

Photo credit to Bar Stool Sports

The deadly art of teamwork

Teamwork makes the dream work

Teamwork makes the dream work

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!

Watch The Beautiful Game, a Tribute to the San Antonio Spurs.

Beautiful Game

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.



This is your team now

Featured image courtesy of


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


Dear Noynoy

I posted the open letter below in my FB page for my friends to read more than 3 years ago. I’m reposting the letter here in anticipation of the State of the Nation Address of the President on July 22.

May 11, 2010 at 11:36pm

This is an email note that I sent a dear friend near the low point of Noynoy’s campaign. I’d like to post this at the Dear Noynoy FB site but I’m afraid it might be too long. So I’m posting this here instead.

Hi Bernie,

Let me try to answer your question starting from somewhere closer to our common field of experience – the corporate world. The current financial crisis has put to question whether the high profile CEOs – the likes of Jack Welch of GE, Albert Dunlap of Sunbeam, Sandy Weill of Citigroup – were the most effective leaders for the complex multinational organizations that they once headed.We are not sure anymore that the brash, publicity-hungry, the autocratic albeit charismatic leader provides the best results. (There is a lot of debate around the characteristics of a good leader but there is consensus on one point, i.e., a good leader delivers results.)

The pendulum is swinging the other way now. You have the likes of Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, forcefully making a case for quiet leadership:

“You [define] quiet leaders almost through a series of negatives. They’re not making high-stakes decisions. They’re often not at the top of organizations. They don’t have the spotlight and publicity on them. They think of themselves modestly; they often don’t even think of themselves as leaders. But they are acting quietly, effectively, with political astuteness, to basically make things somewhat better, sometimes much better than they would otherwise be.

“If you look behind lots of great heroic leaders, you find them doing lots of quiet, patient work themselves.”

The good leader realizes that he does not have all the facts and all the skills and therefore surrounds himself with the best people. Nobody can say that Frank Drilon is not smart and is not politically astute. Fortunately for us, he is not the only person around Noynoy. What about Mar Roxas? Will Mar allow Drilon to monopolize the ear of Noynoy? I think not. Mar has a lot of strong ideas himself. What about Johnny Santos, formerly of Nestle? What about Cesar Purisima? Dondon Paderanga? Emy Boncodin? As we learn about who are advising Noynoy, we will no doubt find many more strong personalities who will be highly intelligent, well educated, and will be well-respected in their respective fields. Personally, I’d like to see Drilon – as well as the rest of the Noynoy advisers – to try their darndest to get Noynoy to support their respective positions. May the best idea win.

So what do we need from Noynoy or, indeed, from the other “presidentiables”? Badaracco says that the leader is ultimately responsible for making the ethical decisions. Maybe something like disarming warlords like the Ampatuans before they commit their dastardly crimes? Can you rely on somebody who does not resign his position after the administration he represents has been found to be coddling warlords to make ethical decisions?

The article you sent belittles the relationship between Cory and Noynoy as a mere “affiliation”. As Cory’s son, I have high expectations from Noynoy.To express this expectation let me once more quote the articulate Professor Badaracco: “The most fundamental inner resource of leaders is a peculiar, negative skill. Leaders need the capacity to distance themselves from the pressures and seductions of success and to think and live for themselves. None of the inner resources [described in my book]—having a good dream, a sound moral code, or unsettling role models—matters at all if leaders cannot resist the flow of success.” Cory lived simply to the end, to the end true to the ideals of democracy that she espoused. I expect from Noynoy the same simplicity, fidelity, and self-awareness as Cory.

I’d like a president who will do a lot of quiet and patient work hands on, who will not be afraid to surround himself with people who are smarter than himself, who can be trusted to make those difficult ethical decisions from the many different – and sometimes conflicting – inputs (from Mar Roxas to Frank Drilon to the local barbero as your article wryly describes), whose ego will not be so large as to incessantly yearn to earn “pogi” points for himself rather than deliver solid results – fiscal stability, clean government, education, employment, peace.

If there’s one thing I’d like to see during Noynoy’s campaign, it’s an indication of the dynamics of consensus building within his team. Fair?