Most athletes play just a few short years professionally. For the legends, that arc lasts somewhere between 10 and 20 years, rising, plateauing and descending long enough to become a pocketbook of stories that can be traced to your own life. Their memorable games, seasons and struggles serve as guideposts. They add texture to your own personal experiences. Like Michael, Larry and Magic before them, Kobe, Duncan, KG and Dirk offered as escapes, inspiration and entertainment for so many.
Transferring to a new high school, I had to learn how to argue why the Big Three in Dallas — Dirk, Steve Nash and Michael Finley — was a real contender to my new friends. After college, making a little money and feeling pretty good about having a job in a recession, I went to my first live playoff road game feeling confident. Instead, I was humbled with a historic embarrassment at Oracle Arena. As if life was reminding me, don’t get full of yourself. A few years later, after moving to secure a dream job, I was relegated to cheering among unopened boxes and suitcases as I watched the Finals win on a grainy online feed, reminding me the best things in life are better than you could’ve imagined, even if you never imagined it happening that way.
Kobe. Duncan. KG. Dirk.
They were the gravity for basketball fan bases for nearly twenty years, and they each gave their four corners of the basketball universe a familiar figure as children navigated their way to becoming a part of society as adults, complete with life partners and children of their own. And even as Kobe, Duncan and KG said goodbye this year, their retirements were spaced out by about a couple months (May ... July … September), as if the basketball gods wanted us to remember their greatness individually for a beat as we said good-bye. Dirk is on year by year mode, as you do, when you’re a NBA player closer to being 55 than 15.
“It feels like our era is next," LeBron James told ESPN in September. "That's what it feels like. Me, Wade, Bosh. We're next. We're on deck. We're the next group behind those guys. So that's one of the first things that I thought about, like, once Dirk, and Vince Carter, and Paul Pierce decide to go, we're next.”
Per Basketball Reference, win shares is a player statistic which attempts to divvy up credit for team success to the individuals on the team. Guess how many wins these four contributed over the years?
Go ahead, guess.
The answer is 771 wins.
Seven-hundred seventy one. 771 wins is hard to imagine for our NBA basketball minds to comprehend, even in the context of record breaking regular seasons. Duncan is No. 5 all time, Dirk No. 6 (and counting), KG No. 7 and Kobe No. 17. As a trio, Duncan, Dirk and KG are second only to Jordan, Malone, and Stockton.
As winners, they basically passed around the Larry O'Brien trophy like it was a basketball itself for the better part of 20 years, reluctant to share with anyone else. They won 12 championships over twenty years, including an 11 of 13 stretch from 1999-2011, providing the most competitive decade of Western Conference basketball ever.
Winning the hard way, they did it before moneyball hacked into the mainframe of the league and made everyone play 3-and-D. Efficiency is a ruthless thing, a metric that doesn’t yield easily once it takes center stage. Yet these guys carried their team using the mid-range and with their backs to the basket, curing our basketball illnesses with potions and strange brews. And even as Dirk kickstarted the stretch four revolution, they were artists, using the entire canvas, practicing their basketball artistry with brush strokes between the lines and in the spaces. Like cursive writing or driving a stick in the age of emojis and self-driving cars, these virtuosos were masters of an art before it turned to science.
And if their offensive style was a thing of the past, their loyalty is even more so. Kobe and Duncan played twenty years with a single team each. Dirk is two ticks away from twenty. That’s sixty years between three teams for three players. This may never happen again in the era of harder salary caps and all-in rebuilding. Even KG, who played for three teams, remained the face of Minnesota as he left to build a lasting bond with Boston. Both cities now love him as their own. Will there ever be a set of superstars who so singularly represented their respective basketball cities?
For all similarities in winning and tenure, they were ultimately so different, like comicbook super heroes hailing from different worlds with contrasting personalities and skills. Whether it was maniacal hero-ball and obsessive shadowboxing with MJ from Kobe, lab-built textbook fundamentals and a culture-first attitude from Duncan, Wolverine-levels of kinetic energy and commercial-perfect yelling from KG or Euro-stereotype breaking and physics-driven space-bending shooting brilliance from Dirk, basketball fans recognized each of their personality and style stamps inside the game.
Fifteen years is enough to build a habit, long enough to forget that time marches on, especially when new memories are reborn every fall, sometimes with a new haircut or a new shot, but still the same legend underneath, like a superhero appearing in a new series with a new costume or new power. Yet, there’s a moment in every non-superhero relationship when you realize the last big event was really the last big event. After his injury in 2013, Kobe’s win shares disappeared and was never to be heard of again. Duncan, managed precariously for the last five years to preserve him for those vintage playoff performances, saw his win shares dip by almost half last year, perhaps quantitatively confirming what he already knew inside before the numbers were counted. KG, the energy-driven superstar if there ever was an energy-driven superstar, got the visit from Father Time in 2013 has been replacement-level since.
Next year, this chart will look exactly the same except for one line. Dirk’s blue line. Still the franchise’s best bet for an All-Star berth. Still draining threes. Still lacing them up. Still adding to the cumulative 771 win shares between the foursome. He came into the league the last of the four but his clock, too, is ticking.
Three down. One left.
Kobe. Duncan. KG. Dirk.