If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, then the story of the relationship between the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich is perhaps best left in the hands of a skilled photographer than a veteran scribe. After all, Duncan and Popovich are men of few words when it comes to the media, so the thousand grabbed in one shot through a camera lens likely eclipses what a thousand microphones and recording devices picked up all season.
The two met on Duncan's home turf in the Virgin Islands not long after the Spurs drafted Duncan with the first overall pick. Away from cameras and the game of basketball, the two developed a relationship that stands as iconic as any in NBA history.
Off the court, both are as well-guarded with the media as a poorly executed offensive set is by the Spurs' defense. But on the court they have an uncanny ability to let all the distractions melt away, and with them, some of the wall that divides us and them melts too. In the minutes before Game 7 of the NBA Finals, photographer Jesse D. Garrabrant of NBA Entertainment captured a shared moment between Duncan and Popovich that says more about their relationship than they ever will publicly.
There are few times in sports more chaotic and lively than those that occur just before an NBA Finals game. In real-time there are flashbulbs going off in the distance, music playing over the arena speakers, and a vibrant-yet-tension-filled energy flowing throughout the building. But in the this fraction of a second, Duncan and Popovich are an island of calm.
Everything surrounding them stands out of focus, which is appropriate, because in the grand scheme of the Spurs these two are all that have mattered over the past 15 years.
Amidst the pyrotechnics and light shows, the photographer's lens somehow draws in the lighting of a natural sunset in this very artificial environment. Duncan and Popovich stand perhaps a foot apart, facing each other. It would be a timeless photo if the 2013 NBA Finals patch adorning Duncan's left shoulder hadn't dated it.
Duncan stands a head taller than his coach, but has that head bowed in deference and respect, his gazed fixated on the floor. His expression is both stoic and tranquil. At this time a million things are running through Duncan's mind–something he's admitted goes on in his head constantly–though that stoic expression will not betray a single thought.
Shadows conspire to hide Popovich's face–which is due to either coincidence or years of experience on Popovich's part hiding from the spotlight–but the photographer proves too skilled for even a man trained by the military to hide in the shadows.
The coach's expression is subtle, as if Leonardo da Vinci painted it himself after first perfecting the art on the Mona Lisa, but speaks volumes. There are hints of pride, nostalgia, and reverence in that face; even as it stubbornly tries to cling to the perpetual scowl Popovich is renowned for. In his interview with the media before Game 7, Popovich would deny telling his players to enjoy this time, even though cameras and microphones caught him in the act. In this photo, the eyes, or what little one can see of them, tell the story–they're smiling.
Gathered here, neither is speaking a word to the other, but one needn't be said. This is Game 7 of the NBA Finals, perhaps their last of this timeless run, and the moment speaks for itself. The lighting is perfect, iconic even. This might be the twilight of their respective careers, but in a sunset there is still warmth and life, even as it fades into dusk.