Hlas: I've never seen a better performance in person than Tim Duncan's

Retiring San Antonio Spur won and won and won

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  • The night Duncan scored 53

Iowa played in the 2001 Alamo Bowl in San Antonio’s Alamodome. I was there, but I had to go to the archives to remember the highlights of the Hawkeyes’ 19-16 win over Texas Tech.

Nate Kaeding kicked four field goals, including a 47-yarder with 44 seconds left for the win. Kliff Kingsbury was Texas Tech’s quarterback. Bob Sanders picked off a Kingsbury “Hail Mary” pass in the end zone to end the game.

Kingsbury is now Tech’s head coach. Kaeding is the retail development director for the Iowa City Downtown District. I’m still doing this.

Anyway, what I do recall vividly from that week leading up to the game was an NBA game in the Alamodome, which the San Antonio Spurs once called home. I got a press pass and sat courtside, and watched the greatness of a then-fourth-year Spur player named Tim Duncan.

Duncan scored 53 points. It may have been the best single-game performance I’ve ever seen in person. Jumpers, finger-rolls, reverse lay-ins. He was fantastic. His team, however, lost 126-123 in overtime to the Dallas Mavericks because Steve Nash made a 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left in the OT.

Duncan made just 61.8 percent of his free throws in that 2001-02 season, but was 15 of 15 this night.

“Think about it, Timmy Duncan!” a short, loud man sitting next to me yelled at him as Duncan sized up a fourth-quarter foul shot. “Think about it, baby!”

That man was Mark Cuban, the Mavericks’ owner. He breathed fire the whole night, yelling at officials, cheering on his players, and acting like anything but a garden-variety billionaire.

After the final buzzer, Cuban rushed onto the court to hug Dallas’ players. During breaks in the game, he signed autographs and posed for photos with fans.

I barely spoke with him during the game, but shot him an email after I returned to my hotel, asking what it was about the NBA and basketball that made him so passionate. To my surprise and delight, he responded the next morning.

“I’ve been a basketball junkie as long as I can remember and I’m smart enough to realize I’m the luckiest guy in the world and living a dream,” Cuban wrote.

“What makes it particularly satisfying is knowing that peoples’ perception of the NBA is so wrong. So many people think those guys don’t work hard at their jobs. They do.

“Watching the guys practice, the coaches prepare, the fans get excited, and then seeing it all come together is an amazing experience. Add to that all the strategy in terms of how to build a team, and to me, it couldn’t get more exciting.”

That was in 2001. Cuban had Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, two prototypes for great talent and professionalism. Nowitzki, 38, still is playing. He just agreed to a new 2-year contract.

The Spurs had David Robinson and Duncan, two prototypes for great talent and professionalism. Robinson is in the Hall of Fame. Duncan will join him — and Nash, and eventually Nowitzki — there one day.

Duncan was part of five NBA champions. The 53 points stood as his personal-high for the rest of his career, which ended Monday when he retired via press release. In his 19 seasons, the Spurs were 1,072-438 in the regular-season and 158-98 in the playoffs.

That is the best stretch of any team in the four major U.S. team sports over the last 19 years.

“Pass. Score on both blocks. Drive. Rebound. Great defender,” Nowitzki told ESPN.com Monday about Duncan. “But he was always about winning, never about making a brand out of himself. That’s what I appreciated the most.”

I’ve been to a lot of games. Way too many, really. But that one in San Antonio 15 years ago with Duncan was sublime. As was he.

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