Image by Brian Barr

And Then There Were None

Tim Duncan’s retirement signals the extinction of the strong silent type in sports

You’ve probably never noticed, but Tim Duncan doesn’t tweet, ‘gram or snap. The name “Tim Duncan” is not trademarked. And over the course of his 19-year run with the San Antonio Spurs — which came to an end on Monday, with no tearful press release or heartfelt essay, just a modest 538-word press release — Duncan seemed to focus more on mentoring young players, being a selfless teammate and winning championships than developing his personal brand.

But with the 40-year-old’s departure from the league, his modest temperament feels like a relic.

In an era when power and presence is equated with volume, and when Twitter followers and Facebook fans can be as important a measure of productivity as shooting percentage, Duncan was famous for his placid equilibrium — and the results it helped bring. The same stoic, by-the-book approach that earned him his nickname, “The Big Fundamental,” also led him to five NBA championships, two MVP awards and three Finals MVP trophies.

In many respects Tim Duncan is the Daniel Day Lewis of basketball: an artist more concerned with craft than celebrity. “It’s not Tim Duncan to bring any attention to himself. He’s not glamming to the cameras. He just plays, and we’ve seen it for so long it’s become almost mundane,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN.

“To just walk away without a press conference is just typical Tim. Modesty. Humility,” echoed Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Not to mention that Duncan’s name remains untainted by controversy, a feat increasingly rare in today’s social media landscape, which almost inevitably leads to gaffes.

As a Lakers fan I’ll be the first to admit that Duncan was never the most exciting player on the floor. That accolade belonged to fellow retirees like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal. Duncan didn’t have signature facial expressions, infamous media blunders or the sort of shoes you’d show off on the first day of school. But his decision to disengage from the fray was a purposeful one: He’s a dedicated anti-egomaniac.

“Because I have no desire to tell you what I’m doing,” he told reporters in 2013, when asked why he wasn’t on social media. But his lack of interest in self-promotion goes much farther back. In 1997, as a senior at Wake Forest, he co-authored a paper titled, “Blowhards, Snobs and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism,” which explored some of the dark sides of “being motivated primarily by self-interest.”

This, I’m afraid to say, is why Duncan is part of a dying breed of athlete—one that may have just gone extinct. In Season 4 of the Sopranos, Tony asks his therapist, “What ever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type?”

In years to come, I wonder if we’ll be left wondering the same thing about Tim Duncan.