A banner bearing Tim Duncan's name and No. 21 jersey was unveiled in the rafters of the AT&T Center on Sunday to cap a ceremony befitting one of the greatest to ever play basketball.
The San Antonio Spurs honored Duncan, the five-time NBA champion, two-time Most Valuable Player, three-time Finals MVP and 15-time All-NBA selection, with a series of speeches and stories that captured what made him just about peerless when it came to combining on-court excellence with quiet leadership.
It began with Sean Elliott, the master of ceremonies, bringing up Duncan's "class and true humility." When he said that Duncan was the "ultimate teammate" and that he "changed the Spurs organization into the standard of the NBA and all professional sports," Duncan looked sheepish.
Elliott then handed the microphone over to Tony Parker, who recalled thinking that Duncan had recorded "a quiet 30 and 20," then being stunned that this was even possible. In describing what made Duncan special, Parker brought up a moment from last season, where he noticed the future Hall of Fame big man taking 20 minutes to play defense against rookie Boban Marjanovic after practice at 40 years old.
Next up was Manu Ginobili, who said that Duncan always blamed himself for losses when he wasn't at his superb best, and when that happened, you knew he'd be in the gym extremely early the next morning. And when his teammates messed up, you knew Duncan would be there for them, like when Ginobili's crucial turnover cost the Spurs a playoff game against the Sacramento Kings in 2006. Ginobili, devastated, didn't want to talk to anybody, but Duncan made him go out for dinner, talk for hours and eventually cheer up.
Before Gregg Popovich delivered his speech, he gave the mic to Dave Odom, who coached Duncan at Wake Forest. Odom provided perhaps the best Duncan quote of the evening -- after he went scoreless in his first college game, a loss to a Division II team from Alaska, Duncan told him, "I'm leaving a lot of room for growth."
Popovich's remarks are better watched than written about, but he joked about bringing carrot cake to Duncan's hotel room for 20 years and remembered deciding with San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford that they didn't care that Duncan wore his shorts backward at practice. He saved the best part of his speech for last.
"This is the most important comment that I could make about Tim Duncan," Popovich said, holding back tears. "I can honestly say to Mr. and Mrs. Duncan, who have passed, that that man right there is exactly the same person now as he was when he walked in the door."
Elliott then announced that a tribute video would be played on the JumboTron. This was not a typical tribute video, though -- instead of everybody involved in Duncan's career talking about how amazing he was, it was Duncan thanking everybody who was involved in his career. It was produced by Duncan's brother, Scott.
When Duncan finally walked to center court, he said he should have saved the speech in the video, then continued to speak for more than four minutes -- a surprise to those in the organization who thought Popovich's prediction of two minutes was "preposterously high."
Duncan said the support he has received from fans and former teammates had been "overwhelming," adding that he "got so much more from you guys, from my teammates, from these guys over here, than they can explain they got from me. And I know that."
He thanked his family, said Popovich was "like a father to me" and praised him and Buford for putting the Spurs' puzzle together. He also displayed the sense of humor that everybody around the organization has raved about for the last two decades, that the public rarely gets to see.
"I won a lot of bets tonight," Duncan said. "I didn't wear jeans. I wore a sport coat. I didn't wear a tie, a bunch of people knew that. And I spoke for more than 30 seconds. Thank you, San Antonio. Thank you."
The whole point of this, of course, was for San Antonio to thank Duncan, not the other way around. You don't need to have been around him for two decades, though, to know he would find a way to make it about everybody else.