Gregg Popovich spoke for about 15 minutes, sometimes unable to hide his emotions, all the while wearing a T-shirt that had Tim Duncan’s face printed on the front. When the last question was answered, the coach turned, put his hands in his pockets and silently walked into a new era for the San Antonio Spurs.
It’s a day Popovich knew was coming.
That clearly didn’t make it any easier.
“He’s irreplaceable,” Popovich said.
Choking up at times and making wisecracks at others, Popovich bade a public farewell to Duncan’s playing career on Tuesday. The five-time NBA champion announced his retirement on Monday in a statement released through the team, ending a 19-year career that was spent entirely in San Antonio.
“I figured I better come out here and do this and somehow say goodbye to him,” Popovich said. “Which is an impossibility, for a lot of reasons.”
Popovich spoke in a corner of the Spurs’ practice facility in San Antonio, the spot where he holds court with reporters after workouts during the season. There was no news conference, no elaborate setup, not even any live coverage permitted. Even for something that will have so much impact on the team, the league and the sport, the Spurs kept things as simple as possible.
Duncan is leaving. In some respects, everything is changing. In others, nothing will.
“I think it will be a seamless transition for the team,” former NBA coach and current television analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “I think who it’s going to be hard on is Gregg Popovich.”
Popovich gave no indications otherwise Tuesday.
All in one answer — the premise being picking one person in history to have dinner with — Popovich made mention of Mother Teresa, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal and actor John Cleese. But given the choice between any of those people, or anyone else, Popovich said he would choose to dine with Duncan.
“I can honestly tell you my dinner would be with Timmy,” Popovich said. “And it would be because he’s the most real, consistent, true person that I’ve ever met in my life.”
“I can be on him in a game and ask him why he’s not rebounding in a relatively stern way and really get on him in front of everybody,” Popovich continued. “And on his way back to the court, he’ll say, ‘Thanks for the motivation, Pop. Thanks for the support, Pop.’ Then he’ll turn away with his eyes up in the air and we’ll both start laughing. And people don’t see those things. But his teammates have and that’s why his teammates love him.”
Duncan will go down as one of the best to ever play the game, and Popovich said he was the best teammate any Spurs player could have had.
There were moments of humor, too, like Popovich saying Duncan made him wear the clothes he gave him — including the shirt he donned Tuesday — or else he wouldn’t play.
“I remember a pretty neat summer league game when he first came in and (Greg) Ostertag blocked his shot,” Popovich said when asked what moment of Duncan’s career he enjoyed most. “That was pretty cool.”
Mostly, Popovich’s words showed sadness and appreciation.
He spoke at length about Duncan’s humility, and how that was instilled in him long ago. Popovich told a story about when Duncan’s father, who died in 2002, told the Spurs coach he needed to ensure his son would not be changed by fame or fortune.
“I can still remember before his father passed away, looking me in the eye and saying ‘I’m going to hold you responsible to make sure that when he’s done he’s the same person he is now.’ And in that respect, he is,” Popovich said. “He’s grown as a person, as we all do, through experiences. But his inner core, he was over himself when he came in and after all these accolades and all this success, he’s still over himself. Hasn’t changed a lick.”
Duncan and Popovich won more games together than any player-coach combination in NBA history — and Popovich said he owes his own success to the now-retired star, not the other way around.
To think of a season without Duncan, Popovich said, is mindboggling.
“I would not be standing here if it wasn’t for Tim Duncan,” Popovich said. “I’d be in the Budweiser league, someplace in America, fat and still trying to play basketball or coach basketball. He’s why I’m standing.”