After the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals, Tim Duncan stopped to console LeBron James in a hallway inside Quicken Loans Arena. Duncan placed a hand on his vanquished counterpart's shoulder and delivered what began as a heartfelt message.
"This is going to be your league in a little while," Duncan said softly, before breaking into a smile, "but I appreciate you giving us this year."
Both players cracked up as they headed into the summer.
James would go on to win four most-valuable-player awards and two championships over the next six years, while Duncan collected headaches over repeated questions about his presumed retirement.
Those queries continued Saturday, even as Duncan sat one Finals victory away from a fifth title that would allow him to seize control of the NBA back from James and the Miami Heat.
Could Duncan say definitively whether another championship might prompt him to retire after 17 seasons?
"I don't have any plans on doing anything," Duncan said with the Spurs holding a three-games-to-one lead on the eve of Game 5 at the AT&T Center on Sunday. "I'm going to figure it out when it comes. I'm not saying I'm retiring. I'm not saying I'm not retiring. I'm not saying anything.
"I'm going to figure it out as it goes. I've always said if I feel like I'm effective, if I feel like I can contribute, I'll continue to play. Right now I feel that way, so we'll see what happens."
San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich obligingly quashed speculation about his retirement, saying he'd like to keep coaching beyond this season, even if he must replenish his stable of pilfered assistants on what seems like an annual basis.
When it comes to the future of the Spurs' Big Three, it's a little more complicated.
Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are each under contract for one more season, with Duncan holding a player option. Parker said in March he would like to play five or six more seasons in the NBA before completing his career with the French professional team he recently agreed to buy as controlling owner.
"Every year the journalists keep saying the same stuff, that we're done and it's the last run," said Parker, who at 32 is a pup compared to Ginobili, 36, and Duncan, 38. "I totally understand. We're getting older every year, but we always come back and just keep pushing the limits, I guess, especially Timmy and Manu."
It's helped considerably that Popovich has closely managed his stars' minutes and San Antonio has quality young players such as Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Patty Mills, giving the Spurs a head start on retooling for their next era, whenever that may be.
Duncan said he hasn't allowed himself to think about what winning his first title in seven years might feel like even though the Spurs are coming off back-to-back blowouts of Miami on the Heat's homecourt.
There's the little matter of what happened last year when San Antonio had a chance to end the series against the Heat with a five-point lead late in Game 6.
"We're 30 seconds away," Duncan said. "We feel that we have it in the bag and it slips out of our fingers. So I think we learn from that, and we draw on that, and we say, 'Hey, it's not over till it's over.' Our goal right now is to just win one more game. We'd love to do it [Sunday]. We'd love to do it in one game."
Duncan has already added to his legacy in these Finals by surpassing a pair of Lakers legends. He broke Magic Johnson's record with his 158th playoff double-double and has eclipsed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by logging a record 8,869 playoff minutes.
Winning another title would make Duncan the first to do so in three decades. His championships would have spanned 15 years, trailing only the 17-year gap between Abdul-Jabbar's first and final titles in 1971 and '88.
He also might have to do some more comforting of a respected rival in the hallway after the game.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times