WHO: Tim Duncan, a.k.a “Old Man Riverwalk.”
WHAT: A quick turn as Spurs head coach gets Tim Duncan his first victory off the court.
WHY IT’S SO GREAT: Let’s be honest, it hasn’t exactly been a banner year for the San Antonio Spurs. For more than twenty years, they’ve been one of the most reliable teams in the NBA, making it to the playoffs each year without much of a struggle, along the way building a dynasty that clinched five championships from 1999 to 2014. But as the Big Three players (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker) retired, and the Kawhi Leonard debacle played out, things got a bit shaky. This season especially has been marked by historic losing streaks and nail-biting wins. So when news broke that Tim Duncan would be stepping in as acting head coach while Gregg Popovich was out on “personal business,” it restored a balance in the universe that only the reliable “Old Man Riverwalk” could have provided.
Last night, the Spurs eked out a 104–103 lead against the Charlotte Hornets, overcoming a 17-point deficit in the third quarter with Duncan, who normally serves as assistant coach, in what he called the “big boy chair.” This was the team’s fourth win over the past twelve games, and having Duncan at the helm to earn his first win as acting head coach made the victory that much sweeter. (Though technically he served as head coach for part of the November game against the Portland Trail Blazers, when Coach Pop was ejected after berating an official.)
Following the game, Duncan emphasized that it was a collective effort alongside assistant coaches Becky Hammon, Will Hardy, and Mitch Johnson. “Mitch prepped the game for us, Becky and Will were making all the calls, and I was the only one just standing there screaming at people, nonsensical stuff,” Duncan told Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News. “We did it coach by committee and it could have been any one of us out there.”
It’s clear Duncan’s presence made a difference to the team. Both DeMar DeRozan, who joined the Spurs after Duncan’s retirement, and former teammate Patty Mills said they enjoyed huddling up with the Big Fundamental. “He obviously has that presence,” Mills said after the game. “Everyone obviously listens to what he says, and he’s very calm in situations and very constructive and everyone listens. It was good to hear or see everyone dialed into what he was saying.”
Though Duncan doesn’t have any head coach aspirations as of now, seeing him help lead the team to victory once again made it seem like all was right in the Spurs world, even just for a night.