Revisiting Tim Duncan's prank on Gregg Popovich as he nearly left the San Antonio Spurs

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Tim Duncan announced his retirement from the NBA this week, ending a storied 19-year run with the San Antonio Spurs. "The Big Fundamental" led the Spurs to five NBA championships and captured three NBA Finals Most Valuable Player awards, two league MVP awards, one NBA All-Star Game MVP and 15 NBA All-Star game selections.

Duncan's mere presence made San Antonio a winning town as the Spurs went 1,072-438 in regular-season play -- better than any other team in any other sport over the last two decades. Duncan also won championships in three different decades. 

But, all of that nearly happened elsewhere when Duncan was a free agent following the 1999-2000 season, one year removed from his first NBA championship with the Spurs.

As Deadspin writes, the Orlando Magic were coming off a surprising 41-41 season and had the cap room to improve. The big three free agents in the class were Duncan, Toronto Raptors' swingman Tracy McGrady, and arguably the best player in the league, Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill. Nearly a decade before LeBron James took his talents to South Beach and formed a dynamic trio with Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, the Magic were looking to be Florida's first NBA superteam.

McGrady was coming off his best season in 1999-2000, averaging 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds for the Raptors in 79 games. However, he was stuck in the shadow of his real-life cousin Vince Carter in Toronto. With the opportunity to start, McGrady was the first to sign with Orlando and Hill, coming off six seasons in Detroit as the NBA's best all-around, followed. To acquire Hill, the Magic made a sign-and-trade deal with the Pistons, sending point guard Chucky Atkins and center Ben Wallace to Detroit.

It was all part Orlando's plan to free up cap space to lure Duncan. McGrandy, speaking to the Philippine Daily Inquirer just prior to the Magic's acquisition of Hill, had high hopes.

“Once Grant and I get here, this will definitely be the city. The East is locked up. If Duncan comes here, it will be scary," McGrady said.

"Only the [Los Angeles] Lakers will be out west. Imagine those matchups? It will be unfair to the league if all three of us come here. We'll have the East. We'll be playing the Lakers for years."

Sharing the same agent, Hill, McGrady, and Duncan seemed destined to play together, As Shaun Powell of wrote in 2010, the Magic were doing everything to persuade Duncan into leaving San Antonio.

It helped Orlando that the Spurs' team was aging quickly as David Robinson and Avery Johnson were both 35 years old and Sean Elliot was nearing his 40s.

The Magic came hard. They flew Duncan in on a private jet. They super-imposed Hill and Duncan into Magic uniforms and slapped them on billboards around the city with the title "Imagine." The Epcot ball at Disney World was scribbled with "Grant Us Tim" in lights.  

Powell also noted that then-Orlando resident Tiger Woods helped with house-hunting. The stage was set for Duncan to join "T-Mac" and Hill, creating the most formidable dynasty in the NBA. 

Spurs' head coach Gregg Popovich, having spent three seasons as Duncan's coach, described that time as "nerve-wracking." The team was aging and its best player -- somebody he grew close to -- on the cusp of leaving. 

"It was hell," Popovich said. "You get close to a player and you don’t want to see him leave. I never let myself believe he was going to stay. I was just getting myself prepared, for sanity reasons. It’s no fun.”

Luckily for the Spurs, all the correct pieces fell into place. Robinson left his vacation in Hawaii early to come home and persuade Duncan to stay (via USA Today). Duncan, notorious for his low-profile personality, team-first mentality, and general lack of attention-seeking traits seemed turned off by the pageantry the Magic bestowed upon him.

Unfortunately for Orlando, Hill only played four games for the team in the first season. While McGrady developed in an NBA All-Star, Hill's entire stint with the Magic was injury-riddled.

But it was the moment that Duncan revealed his decision to stay -- by pranking coach Popovich -- that makes it a worthwhile memory.

“Well coach, you know, there’s no beach in San Antonio,” Duncan said, easing into the devastating news. Popovich, obviously disgruntled by what he thought Duncan was about to say growled back, “There’s no beach in Orlando, either. There’s a cultural desert there. What do you want to go there for?”

The exchange brought a smile to Duncan's face and happiness to the city of San Antonio.

San Antonio Spurs
Southwest Division
Western Conference
Tim Duncan
Southeast Division
Eastern Conference
Orlando Magic

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