What The Hell Is TSN4?: How A Vancouver Excursion Taught Me To Love Tim Duncan

Tim Duncan has been around and incandescently great forever. As his career winds down, one can't help but feel he's also been underappreciated.
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While much of America spent the evening of May 2nd enrapt by their television sets, caught up in the excitement of witnessing one of the best first-round NBA playoff games in history, I was in a state of unadulterated panic. Tim Duncan was playing in a pivotal postseason contest for what may very well have been the last time ever, and I was missing it.

Duncan was in Southern California making his last stand against Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers, and I was far away, some 1,300 miles up the West Coast in Vancouver. It was the night before the Vancouver marathon, and I'd scheduled the trip months in advance—drive up, run the race, enjoy a pleasant weekend in British Columbia, have a beer or five, see the sights, and come home. Little did I know beforehand that I'd be missing game seven of a spectacularly entertaining series.

On that fateful Saturday evening, I was with a small group of friends at a pub on Cambie Street, the main drag running through Vancouver, enjoying a pregame meal and pleading with the bartender to help me find the game on the establishment's bizarre Canuckian excuse for a TV. Some frantic googling on the pub's shaky wifi revealed that the game was broadcast Canadianly on something called TSN4, which sounded to me more like a fake television channel invented for a bad spoof of an ESPN commercial than an actual thing, but I was in no position to judge at the time. My night’s happiness hung in the balance as I tried to find this TSN4 in the massive, winding hedge maze of Vancouver's cable channels. I failed.

So I sat there, idly picking at my plate of roast chicken and spaetzle and bemoaning my terrible luck, refreshing my phone once every 3.7 seconds to update the box score as the fourth quarter unfolded. I grew more frustrated with each play. A Duncan offensive rebound and putback with 3:11 left—103-102, Spurs. A Kawhi Leonard basket shortly thereafter—105-102. A minute later, a monster three-pointer from Matt Barnes off a J.J. Redick assist—tie ballgame. How was I missing this game? I was like an expectant father stuck in a hospital elevator as his firstborn child is delivered.

With mere seconds remaining in the game, our bartender suddenly realized that hey, wait a minute, there are two TVs here, and while one of them has just the local Vancouver cable channels, the other one has a different subscription with the American lineup, including TNT. With the press of a couple buttons, Duncan's likeness was suddenly visible, and all the panic and vexation ran out of me. We turned in just in time to watch as Duncan, with nine seconds left, calmly drained two free throws to tie the game at 109 and force one final possession for all the marbles.

We all know what happened next. Paul made that ridiculous bank shot off the top-right corner of the square, the Clips held on for the two-point win, and Duncan held CP3 in a passionate postgame embrace that smacked of devastation and catharsis. It was as raw a display of emotion as I've ever seen in sports. This is why we watch: we spend years of our lives following teams and players because when these sort of moments finally do happen, they validate the time and energy we’ve put in. Seeing how much the game means to people like Tim Duncan—yes, even mild-mannered, bland-seeming Tim Duncan has a heartbeat—makes it mean something to us by extension. That brief hug, between two old friends from Wake Forest, is what the game is all about. And I almost missed it.

I'd never cared so much before about seeing Tim Duncan. I've always admired the man, always respected him, but he has never been appointment television for me. I'll admit it: I have taken him for granted. But seeing him at what might have been the end there, clutching Chris Paul, it hit me: Appreciate this now, because you might never get another chance.

***

We still don't know what the future holds for Duncan. He might announce tomorrow that he's walking away; he might re-up with the Spurs this summer and roll on for another year or, hell, another three. There's no way to know. But here's what is certain: we're now well into the second round of the playoffs, and while there are a handful of competitive and interesting teams remaining, the postseason feels eerily empty without Duncan and the Spurs around. They belong here, in these latter stages. May is a month to watch the flowers bloom, remember at the last moment that oh shit, Mother's Day is today and I’ve got a phone call to make, and watch the Spurs slog through the Western Conference playoffs. We shouldn't have to settle for only two of those three.

We've come to expect a certain degree of predictability from our brackets. The teams that fight on from one round to the next share certain things in common—wisdom, experience, and the like. Incumbency defines our perception of NBA playoff teams. The squads that have been there before, we expect to come through repeatedly. There's a level of comfort that comes with entrenched contenders. Even if we hate them, we love them. The Spurs may not have been your favorite team over the years, but you’re familiar with them. Seeing them in the Western Conference finals damn near every season is oddly heartening. They’re a train arriving at the station, right on time.

By now you've already heard the tropes about how this postseason is different. It's been well publicized that all six franchises to win titles in the 16 seasons since Michael Jordan retired—that would be San Antonio, Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, Boston and Dallas—have been eliminated. It's equally well known that for the first time since MJ, we'll be witnessing a Finals without Duncan, Kobe Bryant, or Dwyane Wade. But what gets less run is the simple yet often overlooked notion that Duncan stands above all of this. He's in a league of his own. He's carried a franchise that's won more than 60 percent of its games 18 seasons in a row. All the while, he's been the best two-way player on his team and its spiritual anchor. To call Duncan the greatest power forward of all time is actually an insult masquerading as an acclamation. It sounds nice, but it's too easy. Rather than praise Duncan, it staves off the real question: what if he's the best player we've ever seen?

There are no easy narratives to support that. No Gatorade commercials, no dunk contests, no baseball sabbaticals, no Flu Games, few unforgettable buzzer-beaters. With Duncan, all we have is 18 years of sustained excellence. It's a shame that doesn’t count as much as it should.

***

Will Tim Duncan retire? We don't know. But should he?

As much as we masters of sporpsology would like to fancy ourselves experts, we don't have any idea there, either. Duncan's decision is his own; only he knows what’s right for himself. It's a highly personal choice. What it says about us, that we have the audacity to project our shit upon him and pontificate as to what he should do, I couldn't possibly tell you. The point is this: Tim Duncan has to wake up every morning and be Tim Duncan. Whether he begins each morning at the practice facility or on the couch in his sweats watching reruns of Key and Peele is on him.

There's a common line of thinking that Duncan should feel an obligation to time his retirement correctly; that his legacy hangs depends on it, or something like that. Some have compared Duncan to the legends before him who hung around too long and tarnished their reputations: Wizards-era Jordan, Bird with a bad back, Kareem barely able to drag his old bones up and down the court, et al.

But who in their right mind actually thinks less of these men because they stuck around and continued to do something they loved? Tim Duncan is basketball, and basketball is Tim Duncan. To cleave the two because of some arbitrary idea of what a career arc should look like is hokum. From everything I can suss out about Duncan, the game is the thing in life that brings him the most joy. He derives pleasure from the process, the camaraderie, the competition, and the winning. Why would he let go of all that until he’s good and ready?

And from our perspective, why would we want him to? We're blessed to be watching someone play basketball better than just about anyone does anything. Duncan’s a treasure; only a masochist would want him to go away.

***

At the end of a long weekend, I hauled ass from British Columbia back home to Oregon. The first thing I did once stateside, after checking texts and tweets and unsuccessfully begging the customs guy to let me use their bathroom, was find an archived stream of that Spurs-Clippers Game 7. I'd seen bits and pieces already, but I was craving the entire thing, and my envy at everyone in America who'd already seen it was boiling over. Eventually I found the game, I watched and contentedly relived every second.

Except it wasn’t the same. Watching that game after the fact, some 43 hours later, was an awful substitute for enjoying it live. Part of it, obviously, was the lack of suspense—knowing that the Clippers would ultimately win, and precisely how they'd win, took away from the experience. But the other part of it is that basketball, like most things in life, is best appreciated in the company of others. That Saturday night was exciting because almost four million people took it in together. They oohed, they aahed, they gasped, they cried, they live-tweeted. They had a bonding experience.

That's what watching Tim Duncan—or any sublime athlete—should be. It's a chance for all of us to witness greatness together, to share it, to celebrate and appreciate. Watching this man work his magic is a unique opportunity. The tragedy with things like that is that often, you don't notice them until they're taken away.


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