Tim Duncan: The Rabbi Akiva of NBA Basketball
One of the best basketball players of all time, Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs, announced his retirement last Monday, after 19 spectacular seasons. Duncan, arguably the best power forward of all time, holds some unique NBA records. He is the only player who ever won NBA Championships in three different decades. He is also the only player in history to score more than 26 thousand points, take 15 thousand rebounds, and block at least three thousand shots. To be exact, there is one other player who shares this amazing record with Duncan: The legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But there is something else which stands out about Duncan’s illustrious career, a fact no less stunning than the amazing records he set as a professional ball player.
Duncan only began playing basketball at the age of 16! He started out as a swimmer, but after a hurricane destroyed the only Olympic-sized pool in his home town in the US Virgin Islands, he had to change course, and focus on an alternative sport. Incredibly, Duncan had to really learn the ins and outs of basketball throughout high school and college.
Duncan is also known for his genuine humility. He retired by issuing a short press release, and did not care for all the festive commotion and fanfare with which legendary ball players usually tend to end their careers.
In addition to that, Duncan is an avid, generous and dedicated philanthropist. His charity, The Duncan Foundation, focuses on raising general health awareness, and education. Lastly, Duncan also holds an academic degree in psychology, which might explain his great mental fortitude on and off the court.
As a rabbi, when I think about the fact that Duncan really started learning the game throughout high school and college, which is a very late stage for a professional ball player, I am reminded of one of the greatest rabbis of all times, Rabbi Akiva, who lived in Israel more than 2000 years ago. Like Duncan, Akiva was a late bloomer, and he neither read Hebrew nor studied Torah until the age of forty!
Like Rabbi Akiva, Duncan’s career demonstrates that you can start out late, and yet succeed and flourish and achieve. Sometimes we fall into the spiritually deadly trap of thinking that “it’s just too late for me”. Countless people from their 30’s to their 80’s fall into the trap of convincing themselves that “their ship already sailed”, that they’re no longer in a position to make notable changes for the good in their lives. That they’re already “locked in” to a given way of life. This is a terrible mistake. And it is also a form of spiritual death and existential defeatism. It is never too late.
I know of many Jews who made remarkable strides in their spiritual growth in very advanced age. One man I know of did not even practice monotheism until he was 75 years old. His name was Abraham. Another man I know of grew up in the most spiritually degenerate and morally depraved place in the world. His name was Moses. As we know, Moses was brought up in Pharoah’s palace, and yet he overcame these horrid settings, and became the greatest rabbi of all times. Throughout my life, I was privileged to know people who achieved tremendous spiritual growth in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. It is never ever too late to live in joy and truth, and to wake up in the morning for the eternal song of Torah Judaism.