The moment when Tim Duncan knew it was over…
by Keane Shum
It’s been four days, and I still can’t stop watching it: He misses the layup, then the tip, and pulls the silver spur on his jersey up over his nose, like he’s sucking for air, chest burning from heat inhalation. It is the longest five seconds Timothy Theodore Duncan has ever taken to run back on defense, and when he finally turns around and bends his knees, getting into his stance, he pauses first to slap the floor with his right hand. His palm smacks the floorboards so hard you can hear it on the broadcast, in between Jeff Van Gundy saying “point” and “blank.”
The next word is “miss.”
I must have been 12 or 13 years old the first time I saw someone slap the floor on defense. It was Christmastime in Hong Kong, and I was sitting in the stands watching my school’s holiday basketball invitational for American schools in the region, from Singapore and Jakarta and the military bases in Okinawa. The tournament has been an annual slice of Americana in the Far East for more than 40 years: The band plays, cheerleaders high-kick along the baseline, parents shout abuse at the coaches and the referees.
What I remember is one of the guards from Taipei backing up into the top of a two-three zone and then suddenly bending over and pounding the gym floor with both his hands. He roared “Defense!” as he stood back up, and then his teammates followed. It was fearsome; I don’t think five people in that crowd had ever seen this kind of thing before. We didn’t get the NCAA in Hong Kong. I had no idea about Duke or Wojo or the Cameron Crazies. All I knew was that slapping the floor on defense seemed like just about the most intimidating thing you could do on a basketball court.
I got to play in the Christmas tournament my senior year of high school, but I never dared slap the floor. I knew I couldn’t back it up. I fouled out of our last game, a close loss to a Beijing team that included a skinny freshman named Joe Alexander.
I went to law school at Georgetown, which is why I was in DC on March 22, 2008, when West Virginia upset Duke 73-67 at the Verizon Center to advance to the Sweet 16. Joe Alexander scored 22 points and pulled down 11 rebounds for the Mountaineers, but his most memorable contribution was goading backup point guard Joe Mazzulla into slapping the floor when he entered the game, right in front of the Blue Devils bench.
“Man,” Alexander said later, “That was just such a great thing to happen in my life.”
It happened again in January this year, when Miami was blowing out top-ranked Duke by 28 and each Hurricane defender got real low, two hands on the court like Spiderman on the side of a building that Steve Wojciechowski was falling off. These are the most satisfying moments in sports—or in anything, really—when the good guys win, when they wipe that aggravating smirk off a villain’s lips and throw it back in his face.
The Miami Heat are not evil, exactly. I, for one, am past demonizing The Decision and The Welcome Party, thanks mostly to Dirk Nowitzki. But I couldn’t help the feeling, after Timmy went for 25 and 8 in the first half of Game 6, and Manu hit the free throw that put the Spurs up by 5 with 28 seconds left, that we were going to get another one of those moments. The trophy was in the tunnel.
Because even if the Heat aren’t the Masters of Evil, the Spurs are unquestionably The Avengers, and Tim Duncan their Steve Rogers, their Captain whose only superhuman powers are his strength, intelligence and durability. For as long as I have loved basketball, almost since that day I sat in the stands and saw a player slap the floor for the first time, the Spurs and Duncan have been everything right about the NBA. Their patient, careful building of a franchise draft pick by late draft pick; the egoless leadership transition from Robinson to Duncan to Parker; even Popovich’s principled act of civil disobedience early this season, sending his stars and a kid named Danny Green home from a nationally televised game against the Heat so they might have some extra lift when they needed it in June. If only Pop had defied David Stern for a couple more games, if only Danny Green hit a couple more threes, if only Duncan got a couple more inches of lift on that layup, we might have had another one of those moments. Tim Duncan might have saved the world.
He was so close: So close to dropping the ball in the basket, so close to tying the game, so close to proving that nice guys do finish first, that you can be that guy on the court who doesn’t call every foul, who doesn’t yack in your defender’s ear when you blow by him, who doesn’t cuss the ref out even when the ref holds an inexplicable grudge against you. We were one layup—and, two days before that, one errant Ray Allen three—away from showing the world that you can be that guy and still come out on top.
Instead, we have Duncan, 42 seconds left in game seven, crouching down and slapping the floor on defense. Only it’s not fearsome, or intimidating, or anything like when the good guys win.
“It’s just frustration,” Duncan said, when asked about the moment.
As Duncan rises from the floor, Miami calls timeout, and Duncan never stands all the way back up. He is bent over, hands on his knees, looking at the top of the free-throw circle in silence while every throat in the Miami metropolitan area is oh-ing the “Seven Nation Army” riff. LeBron and Chalmers file past Duncan, and even his own teammates abandon him, walking stoically back towards the San Antonio bench. The game is not over for another 39 seconds, but already, all is lost.
For more from Keane Shum, check out his website, keaneshum.com.