First Kobe Bryant, now Tim Duncan. A two-decade chapter of NBA history has closed.
Two giants of their generation retired within months of each other, and their exits, just like their personalities and their games, couldn’t have been much different.
The destination is certainly the same. They will be headed to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame together in five years.
Duncan ended his career Monday after 19 years with the San Antonio Spurs, three months after Bryant played the last game of his 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“You’ve got probably two of the best at their position. To see them go, it’s kind of sad, but it comes at some point,” said Grizzlies assistant Nick Van Exel, a former teammate of both.
Both retirements seemed possible going into the season after injuries and sometimes even ineffectiveness had creeped in late in their careers, but the absence of a familiar silver and black jersey, and one purple and gold one, is a jolt, just like when Oscar Robertson and Jerry West retired in 1974 after the same season.
For now, the NBA moves on without a pair of players most responsible for carrying the league forward after Michael Jordan, two who stood as the best examples of what the league long aspired to be.
“It’s like when Michael passed the torch to Kobe and Tim, and now them passing it to LeBron. It’s a natural progression,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “The NBA keeps thriving because we keep having great players and those two exemplified two of the best.”
Bryant proved a basketball player could not only be one of the brightest stars in Hollywood, but also Europe, Asia, or anywhere else his games were seen around the globe.
Duncan will always stand as the model that players don’t need to be backed by the big spenders in Bryant’s Los Angeles or Jordan’s Chicago to win, that small markets can soar with the right combination of skill and sacrifice.
Duncan embodied both, a player who for years could either dominate offensively, defensively, or both, without the desire for praise or paycheck that came with it. He took far below market value to give the Spurs the means to fortify the team around him, so much so that his salary had he continued playing would have appeared puny at a time when dollars are flying around to players — and not even All-Star ones — like never before.
His equivalent of a quiet exit out the back door Monday came via press release from the team, not much different than the dozens that have been sent out in recent days by NBA clubs announcing minor free-agent or draft-pick signings.
That’s all Duncan deserved?
More likely it’s all he wanted, which is what made him and the Spurs so perfect together. They don’t care for wasting time on words, and sure enough there wasn’t even a quote in Duncan’s announcement.
Bryant always did things differently, from his much-flashier wardrobe to his much larger bank account last season as the NBA’s highest-paid player, which prevented the Lakers from the building options that Duncan’s salary afforded the Spurs.
Bryant at first said he wanted no part of a farewell tour, no gifts from teams he was trying to beat, yet that’s exactly what his exit became. He announced early in the season that it would be his last, allowing him a long and lengthy goodbye.
And when it ended with his scintillating 60-point throwback in the final game of the season, somehow turning Golden State’s record-setting 73rd victory into the night’s second story, it was a final reminder that even when there were better teams and better players, he was never far from the spotlight.
He arrived in 1996 when high school players were far from a sure thing, one of the reasons he slipped to what seems now an unfathomable No. 13 in the draft. Duncan arrived the following June as one of the surest things ever, a four-year player at Wake Forest with NBA-ready skills and smarts.
Duncan got to the top first in 1999, Bryant’s Lakers won the next three titles before the Spurs ended their run, and the pattern stayed that way for years. One or the other appeared in 13 of the 16 NBA Finals from 1999-2014, and both Bryant and Duncan finished their careers with five championships.
Their playing days are over, but the debate over who had the better career — or perhaps, who was the best player of his generation — might continue many more years. Bryant scored far more but also lost more, unable to match Duncan’s amazing consistency during 19 straight playoff seasons and an NBA-record 17 consecutive 50-win seasons.
“For us as players, we just enjoy and appreciate each other,” Bryant said earlier this season. “It’s not a matter of who’s better or who’s greater. You just accept the careers that you’ve had. I appreciate his career, and vice versa.”
And sometime in 2021 in Springfield, Massachusetts, there will be a night to appreciate them together.