The magnitude of Tim Duncan's contributions over his 19-year career are every bit as remarkable as the announcement of his retirement on Monday was understated: Duncan collected five titles with the San Antonio Spurs and 1,001 regular-season victories, all with the same team in a small basketball outpost held over from the ABA-NBA merger.
In an era defined by athleticism, Duncan was a master of mechanics. While contemporaries built careers on defying gravity, Timmy deked opponents with jab steps, shoulder fakes and line-drive bank shots, with both feet on the ground. He didn't captivate fans or sponsors with his exploits or charm them with charisma. He was wholly uninterested in the salesmanship required to build a personal brand and didn't give the NBA and its marketers much to work with as the league harnessed its star power to expand its global reach.
For Duncan, the postgame podium wasn't a platform, but a sentence.
Yet something improbable happened while he was slinking out of the Spurs' locker room and dodging the spotlight:
Inside the league, Tim Duncan became the most influential player of his generation. Though he had little public appeal outside central Texas over his two decades in the league, Duncan ushered in cultural change in NBA practice facilities, locker rooms and executive suites.
The present-day NBA has become singularly consumed with the adoption and implementation of organizational culture. Forever looking for competitive advantages, franchises have turned to workplace culture as a bulwark. We might not be able to attract a top-line free agent, or hit the jackpot in the draft, but there are 44 games in an NBA season that can be won if we value the right things.
This is the league's guiding principle in 2016, from Atlanta and Salt Lake City to Oklahoma City and Brooklyn, where disciples of the Tim Duncan era learned the art and science of team-building in San Antonio. They've applied the findings and sculpted them to suit a particular roster or market. Some have enjoyed modest success while others are just getting started. But try as they might to replicate the Spurs' recipe, all of them are forced to concede at a certain juncture that they're missing one essential ingredient:
They don't have Tim Duncan.
"We walk into our houses and thank Tim Duncan," Atlanta Hawks head coach and longtime Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer says. "You think about all the coaches and all the GMs and even the assistant video guys who are now assistant coaches, all the people who have climbed the NBA ladder -- we all owe our success, our place in the league to Timmy.
"The magnitude of that, the number of people in this league who have enjoyed opportunity or found fortunate spots in the league, you can trace it back to this one guy -- to the way Timmy played ball and the conducted himself. The 'culture' is Timmy."
Kevin Durant was a credible leader during his tenure with the Thunder -- a founding father of the program, in the words of general manager Sam Presti. Begrudging a first-rate star like Durant the opportunity to forge his own professional path is unwarranted, but his departure from Oklahoma City underscores a truth that owners and execs learn sooner or later. An organization's culture can shield it from disaster, but that culture is only as strong as its leading player.
That's why more measured voices in the Golden State Warriors wince when they read about their owner taking a victory lap for an organizational structure that's light years ahead. It's why every Spurs alum now in a senior managerial role elsewhere understands there's a limit to what infrastructure can do for a team absent a transcendent leader on the roster.
And it's why Gregg Popovich said a couple of years ago, "Before you start handing out applause and credit to anyone else in this organization for anything that's been accomplished, remember it all starts with and goes through Timmy. As soon as he [retires], I'll be 10 steps behind. Because I'm not stupid."
There's an ethic of reticence in San Antonio, where Duncan managed to shroud himself in mystery for 19 years. "I don't feel comfortable putting myself out there," he told me in 2013. "I'm just a basketball player. I play the game. I go home." Confidants describe the public relations part of the job as "torture" for Duncan, an affront to the game. The periphery of the NBA life, everything outside the practice facility, is nonsense.
"Trying to be something that you're not gets you out of your comfort zone," Duncan said then. "I'm not that guy. I did a little bit of that. I've done my share of it, but I'm just not that guy. I don't think of myself in that respect. I love playing basketball and that's what I want to do. I don't need the extra stuff."
But in the Spurs' day-to-day operations, Duncan's emotional intelligence was the connective tissue that held together Popovich's disciplined structure. Duncan would readily pass the mantle to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, then celebrate their success as if it was his own.
"The thing that amazed me about how Timmy built relationships was how subtle it was -- the touch, the arm around the shoulder, the thing that would look like little or nothing to outsiders," Budenholzer says. "It affected people, maybe because it was subtle and under-the-radar."
Blake Griffin, who has admired the way Duncan carries himself, sought out Duncan's counsel a few years back. Griffin was part of a Los Angeles Clippers team that now had several loud voices and wanted to glean how quiet leadership could make a difference. "The thing I took away the most was this idea that a leader isn't the guy who's pounding the chest, or huddles or giving motivational speech," Griffin says. "It was really reassuring to me as a younger guy, that you don't have to be something you're not. Of many things you can say about him, that's the thing that sets him apart -- he never tried to see who wasn't. And it works.
"At any time, there's always the one guy they'll use as an example. Maybe it's Russell Wilson for a year or two. Then they move on to Tom Brady or [Kevin Garnett]. But [Duncan] has been the guy you constantly hear about who's constantly doing it right. He's the guy who deserved the shine, but was riding underneath it."
For a man who was so inaccessible to those looking in from the outside, Tim Duncan was an everyman. Most of our lives and careers emulate Duncan's: We do the work quietly and diligently and don't have much cause to glory-hound. The job is the job, and if you're lucky, you do it because you love it, but not for any external affirmation, other than you want your partner, family and friends to be proud because it's nice to be admired by the people in the world you care most about.
Tim Duncan invented the NBA's modern vision of team culture. Now the rest of basketball is trying to imitate the guy nobody found fashionable.