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  • Tim Duncan, the most coachable star to ever play, has now become the highest-profile assistant in NBA history. As Gregg Popovich and countless others are willing to attest, he was always a teacher.
By Rob Mahoney
July 23, 2019

When the Spurs announced that Tim Duncan would be formally joining the Spurs coaching staff as an assistant to Gregg Popovich, the first person who came to mind was Robert Swift. Before he washed out of the NBA, fell into addiction, and truly hit rock bottom—a story all its own—Swift was a 20-year-old center trying to prove he belonged. Swift looked up to Duncan, and the first time the two met on the floor, the young Sonic tried to make an impression by leaning into Duncan while guarding him in the post.

This is how Duncan responded (according to Chris Ballard's story on Swift for Sports Illustrated):

“Nah, nah, don’t do that,” Duncan says.

Swift is surprised. Duncan never talks to opponents. And yet...

“The ball’s going to swing to the other side, get position,” Duncan continues. 

The ball swings. Swift follows orders, shuffling his feet across the lane, staying behind Duncan.

“No, further up,” Duncan says. Swift takes a half-step.

“No, a little higher, don’t let me duck in on you.”

Swift complies. 

“All right, now come back,” Duncan says, moving across the lane. “The ball’s about to be swung back, but it’s not coming to me this time so don’t worry about it. But now you know how to play it.”

Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Nine-year NBA veteran Etan Thomas has a similar story, in which Duncan blocked Thomas’s hook shot and then offered practical advice on how to better create space for it next time. There was never any doubt that a player this generous with his opponents—in the heat of a game, no less—could make a great coach someday. It just seemed impossible that he would ever want to. Duncan is the kind of intensely private person who would walk off into the sunset after a Hall-of-Fame career without so much as a word. He would occasionally resurface at San Antonio’s practice facility to get in some run and offer counsel. Rarely did he make public appearances, save for those to celebrate the accomplishments of his long-time teammates. 

Duncan had always seemed like the sort who would enjoy the distance of retirement. There would be time to work on his hobbies, to spend with his family, and to concern himself with anything but basketball. If he found himself wanting to reconnect with the game, Duncan could have picked whatever job he wanted and the Spurs would likely have obliged. He could have worked a lighter load in player development, dabbled in the front office, or done occasional work as a consultant.

Instead, Duncan chose to be an assistant to Gregg Popovich. It’s a job that’s fittingly unglamorous; working as an assistant comes with the full grind of the NBA lifestyle but without the same level of authority and authorship that comes with making the final call as a head coach. For Duncan, perhaps that was more a feature than a bug. Few players of his caliber were ever so dedicated to the drudgery of the game. Something about having Duncan suss out the pick-and-roll defense for the fourth game in a six-game road trip makes all the sense in the world.

A loop is closed with Duncan, who might be the most coachable star in the history of the NBA, becoming one of the highest-profile assistants the league has ever seen. Had Duncan wanted to jump straight into coaching a team of his own, some other franchise or college would surely have obliged. Instead, the plan is for Duncan to wade back into the league it seemed he had left for good by taking the kind of job few superstars ever do.

That he would return to the NBA in this sort of capacity tells us something about Duncan, which is notable considering that he’s never told us all that much about himself. On some level, he must have missed it. Not the circus that has only grown bigger and louder since his retirement, but the investment of being a part of a team, and the people who make doing so worthwhile. Duncan, now 43, has spent the majority of his life as a teammate: flying from city to city, busing from place to place, and competing at the highest levels. Coaching is quite different, though perhaps it’s close enough.

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