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The Year of the Retiring Superstar

After 19 NBA seasons, Tim Duncan retired in typically pragmatic fashion.David Zalubowski/AP/File

Perhaps a secret memo was circulated among our sports heroes, probably on the Intranet of The Players’ Tribune, informing them that 2016 was the year to retire.

This has become the year of ending careers, a time to bid adieu to some of the signature athletes of the last 20 years. It’s a bittersweet ’16. San Antonio Spurs center/power forward Tim Duncan became the latest legend to log off, announcing his retirement Monday after 19 NBA seasons.

If 2012 was the final year of the Mayan calendar, 2016 feels like the end of days for illustrious athletes. Duncan joins a list of those who have played or will play their final game in 2016 that includes Peyton Manning, Kobe Bryant, David Ortiz, Charles Woodson, and Calvin Johnson, all masters of their craft. Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch isn’t quite in the same class, but the man who introduced “Beast Mode” to the football lexicon is another notable retiree.

Locally, the retirements of Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo and former Patriots offensive lineman Logan Mankins resonate.


Father Time is undefeated, and he is kicking butt and taking big names in 2016. (Ortiz is giving him a run for his money, no?)

Part of the fun of consuming sports is being able to say you saw (insert athlete here) play. Duncan, Manning, Bryant, Ortiz, Woodson, and Johnson are all players that future generations won’t be able to appreciate by simply Googling their statistics. As a fairly young man, it’s odd to see players I vividly remember entering their given leagues becoming part of the tapestry of the past, their excellence reduced to a few pertinent numbers and their careers eulogized, condensed, and sanitized.

The 40-year-old Duncan announced his retirement in typically pragmatic fashion. He did it without the premeditation, pomp, or poetry of Kobe’s retirement. He didn’t give his sport a chance for a long kiss goodbye like Big Papi or attempt to match Manning by padding his title total for posterity as a complementary piece.


A rudimentary press release was the perfect send-off for Duncan, just as Kobe departing in a 50-shot, 60-point blaze of glory was ideal for him.

Actions speak louder than words in sports. No one personified that better than Duncan. He was the most understated and one of the most underrated superstars in NBA history, a five-time champion and winner of back-to-back MVP awards in 2002 and 2003. His patented move, a bank-shot jumper, was emblematic of his game — elegant in its simplicity, deadly in its reliability, and steadfast in its practicality.

So bedrock was his brand of basketball that his nickname was the Big Fundamental.

Duncan’s Spurs teams won at least 50 games in every season, except the 1998-99 campaign that was reduced to 50 games by a lockout. The Spurs settled for winning their first NBA title that year.

There are two players in NBA history with at least 26,000 points, 15,000 rebounds, and 3,000 blocks — Duncan and a fellow named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Duncan and Gregg Popovich were the modern NBA’s answer to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They have the most wins by any player-coach duo in NBA history (1,001).

We’ll always wonder what might have been if the Ping-Pong balls had bounced propitiously for the Celtics in 1997, and they had gotten the No. 1 pick instead of the Spurs.


Rick Pitino came to remake the most fabled organization in NBA history in his image in 1997 with the idea that Duncan would be his drawknife. There hasn’t been a more NBA-ready talent to take as the top pick than Duncan in the last 20 years, and that includes LeBron James.

Instead, the Celtics ended up with third and sixth picks and free agent Travis Knight as their big man. C’est la vie, C’s.

Athletes retire much younger than most of us. Deciding when to retire is a delicate balancing act.

No one wants to overstay their welcome and stumble off the stage like Willie Mays with the 1973 New York Mets. Of course, if you perform like Ortiz, then pundits and fans beseech you to stick around a little longer, usually just long enough so they can decry your decline.

If you retire while still in your prime like Johnson, then your dedication and love for the game are questioned. Megatron walked away at age 30, deciding he had taken enough physical abuse and suffered enough of the mental abuse that comes with playing for the Lions.

Kobe probably should have retired a year earlier, but he wanted to do it on his terms — the theme of his career — not because of injuries. Manning backed, err, quarterbacked his way into a perfect retirement. Duncan nailed his retirement like one of those bank shots.

Woodson, the first primarily defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, would have been welcome to prowl the Raiders secondary as a quadragenarian, picking off passes for a 19th season. But he backpedaled from the game as effortlessly as he did on Sundays, departing with 65 interceptions, tied for fifth all time.


(Woodson will always be remembered in these parts as the man who made the Tuck Rule the legal tender for luck.)

Ortiz is an outlier. What the Red Sox icon is doing at age 40, leading the majors in doubles, slugging, OPS, and extra-base hits, defies aging and description. With 34 doubles in 81 games, he is on pace to become the first player in 80 years to hit 60 doubles in a season.

Yet, watching Ortiz try to navigate the base paths, you see just how frangible his big finale is.

Retirement is often billed as a choice, but it chooses you. Time doesn’t stop for anyone. The games go on.

No matter who wins the games this year, sports fans will suffer great losses.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.