Today is Tim Duncan Day because the mayor of San Antonio said so. I’d like to wish you a “Happy Tim Duncan Day!” but the reality is that this first Tim Duncan Day has to be a somber Tim Duncan Day. Because Tim Duncan is gone. He actually, literally might be gone. When was the last time anyone saw him? Until you find proof that he’s still among the living, I’m going to assume that he disappeared à la Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope shortly after his retirement interview last week.
But his memory will live on forever, as many great writers have already pointed out. I will not be one of those writers. This Duncan tribute piece – if you can even call it that – is about how his career’s final act perfectly intersects with the release of Radiohead’s ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool.
First, some history, because maybe that will help explain how I came up with this idea…
I woke up at 8:15 am on Sunday, May 8th, 2016 with a splitting headache and all my clothes on, sideways on a queen-size bed in the Extended Stay of Dublin, Ohio. The previous night, two dear friends were married, the Spurs were still up 2-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals with game 4 coming up that day, and the new Radiohead album was about to be released, so despite my killer hangover, things seemed to be going well. Then I got to the airport.
Upon check in, I was informed that my flight was delayed, and because of it, I would miss my connection in Phoenix and be trapped in Arizona without a way to get home until Monday. That won’t do. That won’t do at all. Instead, I could wait at the Columbus Airport for 5-6 hours and board a flight that would eventually land in Oakland that evening, but I would miss nearly every minute of San Antonio’s game 4 against Oklahoma City, thus ruining my genius plan to arrive back in the Bay Area with plenty of time to get home, take my pants off, order a massive burrito, and watch the Spurs in the comfort of my own home.
I took solace in one thing – that the new Radiohead record was going to be available for download a couple hours before my flight left Columbus. At least the greatest band in the world would provide the soundtrack to my anxiety-ridden flight home, or so I thought. Because the world is a giant asshole, I couldn’t download A Moon Shaped Pool directly to my iPhone – even though the Internet was more than happy to let me pay for it with my iPhone. Sigh.
The flight was terrible. The Spurs were fighting for their playoff lives. I was fighting to stop myself from puking all over my fellow passengers. And somewhere below, thousands of people were happily listening to the first new Radiohead music released in over four years. But soon, my fortune would change.
When I landed, the 4th quarter had just begun and San Antonio was up by four points. Even better, my girlfriend was stuck in traffic meaning I had time to watch the final quarter unfold. Would I witness glory in Oakland’s Southwest terminal?
Nope. I watched the Spurs shoot 7-21 while the Thunder made everything – everything that mattered at least – and run away with a 14-point victory. For the second time in the series, San Antonio blew a chance to take a commanding lead in the series, and we all know what happened next.
But the Radiohead album didn’t disappoint me. It was all I listened to that week, where games 5 and 6 went completely wrong and Duncan played his final NBA minutes. By the time Game 6 rolled around, the two had become intertwined in my brain and I started drawing parallels between the suddenly human Duncan and the heavy, melancholic ache of Thom Yorke’s lyrics in what very well could be the last record his long-time band releases.
So, here we are. I present to you “Tim Duncan’s Spurs Career as Told by A Moon Shaped Pool!”
Track 1) Burn the Witch
Widely viewed as a song about how challenging the status quo often results in the challenger’s ostracism or worse. When viewed through the lens of Tim Duncan, Burn the Witch becomes the anthem for putting the Spurs’ history of coming up short behind them and storming their way to their first NBA championship in 1999. Burn the Witch was Tim Duncan announcing that the Spurs have arrived and the rest of the league was on notice.
Track 2) Daydreaming
Daydreaming is what happens as the high from the first title wears off. If there was any doubt that Duncan was now “the man,” those doubts have been erased. Duncan has to be wondering if this is real life, that the kid who didn’t even know if he’d start at Wake Forest just achieved what every basketball player dreams of – in his second year in the league. At the end of the song, Yorke’s whispers of “half of my life” are played in reverse, foreshadowing that Duncan would eventually spend half his life as a Spur.
Track 3) Decks Dark
Remember that time Duncan almost left San Antonio for Orlando? Yuuuuuck. But he didn’t, and we all look back and smile now. Yorke’s lyrics suggest that Duncan’s flirt with the Magic was “just a laugh, just a laugh” and sarcastically inquires, “have you had enough of me?”
It’s safe to say that no Spurs fan has “had enough” of Tim Duncan.
Track 4) Desert Island Disk
I can’t figure out what this one’s about, so let’s chalk it up to Duncan being confused and bewildered after losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs two years in a row from 2001-02. Gah, what a stupid two years.
Track 5) Ful Stop
This is what happens when you piss off Tim Duncan in the playoffs, he comes back with a vengeance. Just as Yorke is sick of the “foul tasting medicine / to be trapped in your full stop,” Duncan is fed up with losing to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Yorke warns that “truth will mess you up,” signaling that neither Bryant nor O’Neal are the NBA’s best player, and that Duncan is actually the greatest player of their generation. The Spurs went on to win the 2003 Finals behind a transcendent performance by Duncan.
Track 6) Glass Eyes
Following the 2003 Finals, David Robinson retired. Glass Eyes represents Duncan’s coming to terms with having to be the best player and emotional leader of the Spurs, new territory for the 6-year NBA veteran. In the song, Yorke panics, “The path trails off and heads down a mountain / Through the dry bush, I don’t know where it leads,” mirroring Duncan’s reluctance to become the team’s sole leader at this stage in his career.
Track 7) Identikit
An identikit is a picture of a person, reconstructed from strips showing facial features selected to match witnesses’ descriptions; used by police to build a likeness of a person sought for a crime.
In 2004, Derek Fisher committed the most heinous crime in Spurs history, and Duncan, with his reconstructed team of Spurs, including a young Manu Ginobili and even younger Tony Parker, set out on a quest for justice in 2005. Though they didn’t face the Lakers in the playoffs this year, they were eventually rewarded for their vigilance with a third NBA title, in which Duncan earned MVP honors for the third time in his career.
Track 8) The Numbers
Duncan and his Spurs failed to repeat as NBA champions again in 2006, this time falling to their division rivals, the Dallas Mavericks in a seven-game Western Conference Semifinal matchup. But the Spurs vowed to come back, and led by Duncan, swept LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Their journey from the Game 7 loss to Dallas to four-time NBA champions is best summed by Yorke’s haunting close to the song: “And you may pour us away like soup / Like we’re pretty broken flowers / We’ll take back what is ours / Take back what is ours”
Track 9) Present Tense
Following the 2007 season, the Spurs and Duncan suffered a series of strong regular seasons with no shot at winning a title. Chronic knee injuries began plaguing Duncan, but even when healthy, his team ran into buzzsaws in the form of the 2011 Memphis Grizzlies and 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder that prevented him from capturing a fifth NBA title.
Even after a fairy tale-esque 2012-13 campaign, when it appeared that Duncan was 2 minutes away from reclaiming his place on the top of the NBA, James and the Miami Heat snatched the Larry O’Brien trophy out of his hands. Had time come for Duncan to call it quits?
Yorke’s lyrics suggest that Duncan’s greatest enemy isn’t his opponent on the court, but time itself: “This dance / Is like a weapon / Of self defense / Against the present / Present tense”
Track 10) Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief
Instead of hanging ‘em up and walking away, Duncan set his soul on fire and vowed to win a fifth title, even with only one good knee. The Spurs would not be stopped, besting the Miami Heat in a Finals rematch, 4-1.
“The ones you light your fires to keep away,” Yorke croons before a series of string instruments take the song into its chaotic finale. The NBA lit its fires, but nobody could keep Duncan and co. from taking basketball’s greatest prize.
Track 11) True Love Waits
True Love Waits explains Duncan’s decision to finally retire from professional basketball. Yorke’s pained second verse begins with “I’m not living / I’m just killing time,” a sentiment echoed by Duncan in his post-retirement interview: “When it’s not fun anymore, I’m done.”
The chorus represents the voice of the fans, “Just don’t leave / Don’t leave.”
But after two decades of truly transcendent basketball, it’s time to let the Big Fundamental go.