#Asia From Unicorn to Cockroach: What startup founders can learn from the great Tim Duncan


He is one of the greatest basketball players to ever live; and yet, Tim Duncan’s approach to the sport can be imparted on startups

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The Big Fundamental.

Old Man River Walk.


These are the nicknames for the greatest Power Forward in the history of basketball. Tim Duncan retired on Tuesday and the tall, quiet man from the US Virgin Islands will long be remembered as the best player to ever put on a San Antonio Spurs jersey.

As like many fans of basketball, the last day has been spent swimming through an ocean of articles dedicated to the greatness of number 21. And then randomly, in the last five minutes of the work day my colleague offered up one small opinion.

“You know, Tim Duncan is the ultimate ‘unicorn turned cockroach’”.

At the moment, it was obviously brilliant. Within 3o seconds the connection was made, but after diving deeper into the idea it becomes more apt.

Entrepreneurs take lessons from leaders in society, authors they admire and, most often, their children. In this case, the way Duncan prepared on the basketball court, in many ways, how anyone should hope approach entrepreneurship.

Let’s break it down.

He had to pivot early

Startups pivot, and most of them do so at the very beginning of the company’s history. Whether it was Odeo moving from an aggregation side-project to a publically listed company named Twitter, or a “camera operating system” that became Android, some of the greatest companies were built on the success of the pivot.

When Duncan was young he dreamed of becoming an Olympic swimmer. When Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix in 1989 and destroyed the only olympic swimming pool on the island, the dream took a massive hit. But it was the death of his mother from breast cancer at the age of 14 — which forced his sister and her basketball-loving husband to move to the island — that lead to Duncan picking up a basketball.

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They often say sports reveal a person’s true nature, and in the case of Duncan, adversity led to success. As the author William Arthur Ward once wrote.

“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.”

Unicorn talent who leaned on his ‘Co-founders’

By the time Tim Duncan was in his early twenties, he had the ‘Mark Zuckerberg factor’. Like the Facebook founder was in programming, Duncan was something of a basketball savant. In 1997 he was the National Collegiate Player of the year, the top overall draft pick and a two-time consensus all-American.

Revisionist historians even wonder if the Spurs tanked the 1996-1997 season to increase the likelihood of drafting Duncan (Personally, I think they did).

But what made Duncan a champion was not pure talent. It was the conscious strategy of leaning on his fellow teammates.

In 1999, a young Duncan took the mantle of Robin to David Robinson’s Batman on the way to winning the NBA Finals. In the early 2000s, it was the grit-and-grind defense and Duncan (despite being a two-time MVP in those years) allowing his teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to take over games when necessary.

More recently, as his body slowed down, Duncan took on a bit-role and actively supported the growth and maturation of the next great Spurs star, Kawhi Leonard.

In all these situations he was the best player, but took a small step to the side in order to achieve a goal.

And if Duncan is the company CTO (which by personality he certainly was), his CEO was the coach Greg Popovich. As the saying goes, ‘real recognised real’ and the two put their egos aside and helped one another into the Hall of Fame.

By comparison, Kobe Bryant, who also retired this year, may be more applicable to a Jeff Bezos. He did not play well with others, he actively undermined his coaches, teammates and ownership. And yet, by sheer force of will and immense talent took the Los Angeles Lakers to the top of the mountain.

Becoming a cockroach — disrupting the disrupters

As hinted at above. Since 1999 the Spurs have won 5 championships and appeared in a sixth. But over that time the team constantly re-iterated, re-tooled and challenged themselves to break the system. The only constants: Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich.

The first championship team won with ‘Twin Towers’ — playing two centers and clogging the lane with long arms, blocked shots and dunks. The middle years were defined by stifling defensive and a half-court-style of play which gave them the reputation for being boring. In 2013,2014 the team shed the ‘boring’ label and exploded on the scene with a small-ball game that changed the way basketball is played today (no, sorry Warriors fans, it was the Spurs in 2013 who won the first ‘small-ball championship’).

What Tim Duncan did during this time, and what Founders should keep in mind, was adapt — which meant not simply ‘accepting the changes’ but actively altering a skillset to fit a new playground.

In the early years, Duncan could be the young, active alternative to Robinson. In the middle years, he bulked up and developed an iconic bank-shot to fill the role of scoring big. And in the latter years, he lost that weight and became a defense-first player, which allowed him to move more quickly in a faster paced game.

Anyone can accept change but it is far different to actively embrace change because it requires fundamentally changing the approach to work.



The most important attribute of all.

Duncan will forever be remembered for his intense privacy (which is a take-it or leave-it trait for startups) and immense humility.

While Bryant spent 2015-2016 on a long retirement tour full of standing ovations and adoring fans, Duncan quietly went about his business, put together a decent (if not somewhat diminished) season and quietly announced his retirement this week.

Nothing could more accurately capture the opposing forces of the two most iconic players of their generation.

For Founders, Kobe’s “force of nature” approach to success is a rare trait (the ex-CEO of Housing, Rahul Yadav, comes to mind). Whereas Duncan operated in a manner that was both more sustainable, and more applicable to the average person.

It does not mean one should shy away from accolades, championships or success, but rather it is about focussing on the company and spending a career perfecting and honing the product. Success is a result; not a goal.

The attitude and work ethic of Duncan guaranteed he would have a long and fruitful NBA career. With the extra sprinkle of talent he became one of the best players to ever play the game.

Sports have an interesting ability to weave a narrative across cultures, communities and industries. For startup Founders thinking Silicon Valley is the only model, keep in mind Tim Duncan and the traits that helped him become a Champion.

Because, as we strive to break barriers, crash walls and disrupt industries there is one great truth that Duncan himself would tell anyone with half an ear:

It is always about the fundamentals.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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