SAN ANTONIO — Annual traditions are everywhere in San Antonio.
There’s the way the famed Riverwalk is transformed into a sea of lights at holiday time. Fiesta Noche del Rio, a summerlong outdoor performance of song and dance that dates back more than half a century. A huge rodeo, taking over the city for about three weeks every winter.
And of late, there’s been the Tim Duncan Watch.
Unlike the others, this is one San Antonioians dread. But if he goes out now, he’ll be going out as a champion — for the fifth time.
San Antonio’s 104-87 win over the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night gave Duncan his fifth title, all with the Spurs. And throughout this series, speculation has been rampant that if the Spurs ended Miami’s reign Duncan might finally feel like the time is right to end what will surely be a Hall of Fame career.
“Amazing,” Duncan said. “It makes last year OK.”
His first title was in 1999. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a longer span between championships.
“It’s a very emotional time,” Duncan said.
When the 2011-12 season was threatened by a lockout, it was speculated that Duncan might have already played his last game. He’s certainly doesn’t play for money anymore — he’s making about $10 million this season, a giant sum in the real world but well below market value by NBA standards — and has always seemed to be a reluctant superstar.
And then, every fall, Duncan shows up for training camp, the Spurs win a bunch of games, and the legacy just keeps growing.
“I know he’s got one more year on his contract, and he loves being with us, loves playing basketball,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “Either way, whatever he decides, I’ll support him. But if I have to choose, obviously, I would love him to keep going. I love playing with him.”
It’s hard to find something in San Antonio more revered than the Spurs.
“Go Spurs Go” signage hangs from what seems like every other building in the sprawling city. If someone is on the streets of San Antonio on game day and not wearing Spurs gear, chances are they live somewhere else. During the NBA Finals, it’s not uncommon for residents to strap Spurs flags onto their cars, drive through downtown and honk like crazy — even on off days in the series.
Duncan has never played for money anyplace else. Sunday was his 1,488th NBA game. Every one of them has been in a Spurs uniform. The only other players in NBA history to play that many games and never change teams: Utah’s John Stockton and Indiana’s Reggie Miller.
“He feels a responsibility to his teammates,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He enjoys them. He wants to hang around as long as he can while he’s useful and while he’s having an impact on the game. He takes care of his body. He works out all summer long with a variety of different things, boxing, swimming. He’s very careful about what he puts in his body, so he does everything he can to maintain a level of play.
“At some point,” Popovich added, “that will stop.”
Duncan insists he doesn’t know. It’s something he, Parker and Manu Ginobili — the Spurs’ Big 3 — have been hearing for years, that their demise and breakup is imminent.
By now, they almost find it amusing.
“We’ve been on our last run for the last five or six years from how everyone wants to put it,” Duncan said. “We show up every year, and we try to put together the best teams and the best runs possible because what people say doesn’t matter to us. As I said, as long as we feel we’re being effective, we’re going to stay out here and we’re going to play. We feel like we can be effective, and we have been.”
Duncan is the 21st player in NBA history to win five rings with one team. Everyone else on that list played for the Lakers, Celtics or Bulls. That speaks to longevity and sustained greatness, which all factors in to the enormous legacy he’ll leave behind at some point.
Again, though, that’s not Duncan’s thinking. Not now. Not yet.
First things first — there’s another parade coming to San Antonio. When the Spurs won the Western Conference title and earned their rematch shot with Miami, which won last year’s finals in a seven-game classic, Duncan vowed that San Antonio would win this time around.
He was right.
“This is the only one that counts right now,” Duncan said.