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Danny Ainge was a Celtics guard who played alongside Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
Ainge knows something about big men who can get things done.
That’s why Ainge appreciates a big man like Tim Duncan, who retired Monday after 19 seasons with the Spurs. Duncan’s run included a 70-percent winning percentage and five championships.
But that’s really not what Ainge told Amico Hoops he remembers most.
“Tim’s greatness goes far beyond the numbers — which were remarkable,” said Ainge, who oversees the Celtics’ basketball side today. “But his humility, team-first mentality, being coachable, and his consistency were equally impressive.”
Ainge is right. Duncan was a super duper star who usually conducted himself like an everyday role player. He never got too full of himself. He never behaved like he longed to be part of the NBA’s steak-and-jet set.
He barely celebrated when things went right. And if he was overly distraught when things went wrong, you never knew it.
No matter who was beside him, Duncan adapted. He won a title with an old David Robinson, a young Tony Parker, a young Manu Ginobili, an older Parker and Ginobili, a young Kawhi Leonard.
If the Spurs needed 25 points and eight rebounds, Duncan gave it to them. If they needed eight points and 18 rebounds, he could give them that, too.
Center, power forward … define his position however you wish. The bottom line on Duncan is he was a throwback big man who beat you with footwork, craftiness and automatic shots off the glass.
With Duncan at center stage, the Spurs played basketball like Ainge’s Celtics of the 1980s, like basketball as it’s described in the encyclopedia.
EVEN KEEL, AND COOL
Duncan didn’t even announce his own retirement. Not to the public anyway. He left that to the Spurs, who sent out a simple press release.
That’s not better or worse than the traveling celebrity show of the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who retired at season’s end. Duncan’s method was just different.
It was just Duncan.
“The manner in which he chose to retire, with no big fanfare, says everything you need to know about his character,” said Pistons president of basketball operations and coach Stan Van Gundy.
Duncan retired with career averages of 19.1 points and 10.8 rebounds. He shot 51 percent from the field.
He was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft. The Spurs were never the same. They were never short of anything but a contender. A lot of people didn’t even notice, but every regular season, th e Spurs had a chance.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich certainly has had lot to do with that. But so did his relationship with Duncan. So did Duncan adapting to Popovich’s style.
As Van Gundy noted, Duncan was “one of the great players of the game who always put the team first.”
With Duncan, the Spurs put together a lot of firsts.
Perhaps most notably, they were the first team from the old American Basketball Association to win an NBA title following the merger of 1976.
And Duncan was the first (and still only) player to win a championship in three different decades. While a lot of fans were fawning over brighter stars in bigger cities, Duncan and the Spurs put together some of the league’s most unforgettable victories — both in the regular season, the postseason, and the NBA Finals.
“We had some battles with him when I was (an assistant) in Seattle and Dallas,” said current Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “He would destroy your game plan because he was such a smart player.”
Duncan didn’t always come out on top. In 2006, the Spurs fell to the Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals in seven games.
One game was decided by two points. Two were decided by one. Two more went into overtime.
But even in defeat, Duncan gained league-wide appreciation. The list included those who were trying to beat him.
“Our 2006 series is still the best playoff series I have ever seen,” said Mavs owner Mark Cuban. “Tim is probably the opponent I respected the most. His only goal was to win.”
THE FINAL RUN
In his final season, Duncan turned 40. In his final season, they failed to win a title, getting eliminated by the Thunder in the West semis.
But in his final season, the Spurs tied the 1986 Celtics’ league-best home record of 40-1.
Ainge was a member of that Celtics team, as was that frontcourt of Bird, McHale and Parish. Like the legendary big men before him, Duncan set the tone for his franchise.
“Tim left the game and the Spurs much better than when he got there,” Ainge said.
“I love how he never needed the spotlight on him. Yet, many have become great because of Tim’s uniquely balanced greatness.”