SAN ANTONIO — It is past midnight, the confetti is descending from the ceiling and the white-haired coach is hugging the 38-year-old player with whom he has won five titles in 15 years.
When an aging player so many thought was on the decline years ago becomes the only player to start for an NBA championship team in three separate decades — when the same player amazingly bookends two of his five titles a full seven years apart — it’s time to get Tim Duncan to fess up, no — to tell the world his secret for sustained success.
“Honestly?” Old Man River Walk asked past midnight Sunday, Father’s Day, with his two children at his side.
“Don’t listen to the media,” he said, busting up laughing.
He was right, we were dead wrong and the San Antonio Spurs are so much better for it.
Fifteen years after a second-year power forward teamed with David Robinson to win the franchise’s first championship in 1999, Duncan climbed the mountaintop again.
The head-down, plow-forward incarnation of spit-shine South Texas’s timeless pro basketball team scored but 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds, but he supported Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and turn-back-the-clock Manu Ginobili the way they so often supported their indomitable power forward, in a thorough domination of LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.
The series that was supposed to go seven games again lasted all of five because the Spurs were just too dominant, outscoring the Heat by 72 combined points in their four wins, playing so unselfishly, so purposefully, that no one wanted a part of this team right now.
When you watch Duncan trudge slowly up court in Game 5, a turtle trying to catch molasses at times; when you notice that his unspectacular vertical leap could be measured with a scratch-off lottery ticket; when you see Duncan use his wile and skill to ward off a high-flying league of Russell Westbrooks and Blake Griffins, well, it’s frankly nothing short of surreal to see his home court be roped off for yet another championship presentation going on midnight.
Duncan didn’t just raise the Larry O’Brien trophy for his team, this in-a-tizzy town or himself; he also raised it for every player and every team at any level who everyone else thought was done as a genuine contender for a championship.
“For whatever reason, it is sweeter than any other, whether it be because of the time frame, because I’m coming towards the end of my career, because,” looking at his children, “I can have these two here and really remember it and enjoy the experience — all those things make it that much more special.”
Duncan defied gravity as much as he defied time.
Like much of this roster, he was the unhip uncle in a league of cool kids. Unloved by sneaker companies, unwanted by network sponsors unless he’s playing LeBron, he was 38 going on 48 in so many observers’ minds.
Asked whether he felt accomplished or just old, he said, “I’ll say a little of both. Very, very old when you put it like that. But as I said, that span and to be effective and to be on teams and to be starting, I feel a real part of what we had done this year, just . . . it’s an amazing feeling.”
The game operations people at AT&T Center played Prince’s “1999,” when LeBron and the Heat were blown out for the third game in a row in a decisive 104-87 rout, a five-game rout by San Antonio.
San Antonio and Duncan easily could have faded quietly this year, a season after their devastating Game 6 loss to the Heat. No would have said anything or said Duncan’s legacy was tarnished.
He would not be remembered for a missed layup in Game 7 that enabled the Heat to pull out the most breathtaking series anyone could remember. Duncan would not go down as the what-if guy had Gregg Popovich not took him off the floor when the Spurs needed just one rebound to end Game 6 and win it all last June in Miami.
Duncan would still go down as the greatest power forward of his generation and perhaps all time, a guy with as many championship rings as Shaq, a player he competed for best-big-man-in-the-game supremacy at one time.
But he refused to let it die in Miami last year. The Spurs refused to let it go, believing they had the team and the talent and the reinforcements to help Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker claim one more.
Ginobili had a turn-back-the-clock night himself, throwing down the nastiest end-to-end dunks in transition of the series in the first half, finishing with 19 points and having himself a time from behind the arc.
It happened so fast.
The Heat led 22-6 with 4 minutes 48 seconds left in the first quarter. All the “Go Spurs Go!” delirium before tip-off was gone, substituted by concern the series could very well be going back to Miami for Game 6 if Miami’s start was a harbinger of the second half.
With 6 minutes 35 seconds left in the third quarter, the Spurs had amazingly erased a 14-point deficit and had a 14-point lead of their own.
Just like that, it was over. The lead grew to 20. The building reverberated with sound. As the horn sounded, Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” blared from the speakers.
Duncan, asked by ESPN’s Stuart Scott what the biggest difference was from 15 years ago, smiled and said, “Uh, 15 years probably.”
He went on to talk about the resilience it took for a team to lose so wrenchingly a year ago and find the fire and resolve to come back and do it again.
The San Antonio Spurs are outspent by 19 other NBA teams. Their players make close to $20 million less in salary than the Heat, who at $81 million have the league’s third-highest payroll.
Their players are vastly more marketable than the Spurs, and if truth be told the best thing always said about San Antonio is they simply play the most beautiful basketball imaginable, where five players become one and it actually feels like there are five balls on the court it moves so fast and fluidly.
And they are led by Tim Duncan, 38 years young, whose economy of movement, whose off-the-glass elbow jumpers, whose tenacity after 17 years was better than all the Clippers’ dunks and all Steph Curry’s threes combined.
He and his team were even better than the best player in the game, who had to admit like the rest of the world that those old guys can sure as hell still play.
Honestly? Don’t listen to the media.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.