St. Croix has Oprah and the Home Shopping Network. The locals
speak English. They have Cheerios and Oreos and Cheetos, and
they buy them with dollars and cents. Nevertheless, when Tim
Duncan, the finest college basketball player in America, arrived
on campus at Wake Forest in the summer of 1993 and his fellow
students learned that he came from the U.S. Virgin Islands, he
attracted all sorts of ignorant questions.
"Do y'all wear clothes down there?" asked one curious coed.
"No," replied an exasperated Duncan. "I bought everything when I
St. Croix is 82 square miles of nirvana. Go south to Puerto
Rico, hang a left, and it's the first beach on your right. And
like Puerto Rico, it's a U.S. territory. So when Duncan is asked
to describe how his upbringing might have differed from, say,
that of someone who grew up in Brooklyn, he shrugs and looks
For the record, Duncan has a habit of doing that. In fact, there
is the occasional story that suggests Duncan can be a little
clueless about the States. Duncan's former Wake Forest teammate,
Randolph Childress, recalls a conversation with Duncan
during the latter's first semester in college:
"Where are you from?" Duncan asked.
"D.C.," Childress replied.
"It's the nation's capital, for crissakes. It's where the
Duncan disputes the accuracy of Childress's memory, but no
matter. The point is that to the hoops world Duncan seems to
have materialized from someplace just this side of nowhere.
After all, he started playing basketball seriously only six
years ago. He was visited by only four college coaches while he
was being recruited. And he won't turn 20 until after the 1996
Final Four. Yet a month before last year's NBA draft, Dave
Twardzik, the Golden State Warriors' general manager, was
already saying, "The No. 1 player is Tim Duncan. He's the best
in college. It's not even close."
Naturally, all this has folks from the West Indies to Westwood
wondering: Where did Tim Duncan come from?
Since the moment her son could float, Ione Duncan had
volunteered as a timer at his swim meets. She would sit with her
stopwatch near the starting blocks and whisper advice to her
son. Go out easy, Timmy. Pace yourself. Reach at the finish,
honey. She would chatter nervously until Tim would finally look
up and say, "Uh, Mom, I'm try-ing to concentrate here." She
needn't have worried. She had already instilled in Tim the motto
that he would quote to himself for years to come:
Good, better, best.
Never let it rest,
Until your good is better
And your better is best.
Even when he was at the opposite end of the pool with his head
underwater, Tim could hear his mother cheering. "She was my
biggest fan," he says. "Every meet she was the loudest parent
there. Somehow I could always pick out her voice yelling over
The day Tim was born, Ione wept for joy because, after she and
her husband, William, had produced two daughters, it had been
her dream to have a son. Her goal was to push all her kids to
keep busy. She herself was rarely idle as a mother and as a
midwife who switched her work schedule to the night shift, 11
p.m. to 7 a.m., so that she would never miss one of her kids'
Cheryl, the Duncans' eldest child, was an accomplished swimmer.
But it was the younger two, Tricia and Tim, who became
world-class. Tricia would eventually represent the Virgin
Islands, which has its own Olympic team, in the 100- and
200-meter backstroke at the 1988 Games. At age 13 Tim was ranked
among the best in the U.S. in the 400 freestyle. What's more,
his records in the 50 and 100 freestyles still stand on St.
Croix. "Timmy was even better than me," Tricia says. "There is
no doubt in my mind that he would have gone to the 1992 Olympics
and held his own against the world."
Then one day in the autumn of 1989, Ione called Tricia into her
bedroom. "Feel my breast," said Ione, as her daughter touched
the malignant lump. "Make sure this never happens to you."
Ione continued her work as a midwife, delivering babies until a
month before her death. She lost her battle with breast cancer
on April 24, 1990. It was the day before her son's 14th
birthday. Tim never swam competitively again.
Hugo had arrived in St. Croix late on the evening of Sept. 17,
1989. He was not a welcome visitor, and by the time he departed
the next morning, fishing boats lay docked in the streets of
Christiansted. The Olympic-sized pool where the Duncan kids
trained, the only one of its kind on the island, was ruined. The
hospital was damaged to the point that Ione had to undergo her
cancer treatments in a tent. About the only objects of size left
undisturbed by the hurricane were Tim Duncan and the basketball
hoop outside his front door. Duncan couldn't possibly have known
it at the time, but Hurricane Hugo had helped blow him into his
future, into basketball for good.
After the hurricane Tim didn't swim for two weeks. He and his
team tried ocean swimming for a while, but his attendance at
practice dwindled. Then he lost his most vocal fan. "The
hurricane broke Tim's routine by taking away our pool," Tricia
says. "Then when Mom passed, he lost his motivation."
"I remember thinking that after basketball season ended, I'd go
back to swimming," Tim says, "but then basketball season never
Cheryl had purchased the backboard and the pole in December 1988
and shipped it from her home in Ohio to her baby brother as a
Christmas present. Tim's father, a mason, planted it in the
ground deep enough so that it could survive any storm. Deep
enough so that it could survive Hugo.
Cheryl and her husband, Ricky Lowery, moved to St. Croix after
her mother's death, and as Tim searched for a new direction, he
kept getting advice from Lowery, a former walk-on guard at
Capital University, a Division III school in Columbus, Ohio.
"Timmy, let's shoot a few," Lowery would say. "How many swimmers
do you see driving Porsches?"
Lowery and Tim began a series of one-on-one games on that
resilient outdoor hoop. Tim wasn't small; he stood just over six
feet as a ninth-grader, but Lowery, who had no way of knowing
the height Tim would attain, taught his pupil the perimeter
game. Tim learned slowly, his development hampered by the fact
that there were only four indoor courts on the entire island,
and usually those had volleyball nets strung up across them.
After Tim grew nearly eight inches during his high school
years--blooming into a post player--there were only half a dozen
men on the entire island who could look him flush in the eye.
The St. Croix Avis started to print glowing stories about this
local kid who was displaying unprecedented skills at St.
Dunstan's Episcopal High. When the newspaper phoned for pictures
of Tim, Cheryl sent them with a note apologizing for their
quality. Every year at the holidays she had arranged for a
family photo, but her shy brother often scowled and never looked
directly at the camera.
That reticence almost sabotaged Wake Forest's recruitment of Tim
as well. By the time he was a senior in high school, only Wake,
Providence, Hartford and Delaware State had shown interest in
him. Demon Deacon coach Dave Odom heard about Tim from a former
Wake Forest player, Chris King, who had visited St. Croix with a
tour of NBA rookies and watched 16-year-old Tim stand his ground
against Alonzo Mourning. During Odom's visit to the Duncan home,
Tim sat glued to the television, making no eye contact with
Odom, who eventually had to move over and sit right beside the
TV set as he made his pitch. Finally Odom asked if he might turn
off the TV because he thought Tim wasn't listening to him. "In
response to that he repeated back to me word for word what I had
been telling him," Odom says. "I was amazed. He has this innate
ability to look distracted but to take in everything around him."
Remembering that afternoon, Duncan says, "I was listening, but
the 49ers were on. It was the fourth quarter."
During the summer before he left for Wake Forest, Duncan finally
took the lead in his one-on-one series with Lowery. But who
knew whether he would be ready for the ACC? When he arrived at
college, he was just 17 years old, having skipped third grade.
"When Timmy came here, I heard stories from our coaches that he
was a project," Childress remembers. "So one day I walk into the
gym and see this tall guy who grabs a rebound, puts the ball
between his legs, dribbles coast to coast and slams. I went to
see our coaches, and I told them, 'Hey, there's a tall kid in
the gym doing some incredible things, and if he's not Tim Duncan
you better recruit him fast.'"
Duncan wasn't supposed to play much that first season. There was
even talk of redshirting him until another recruit, Makhtar
Ndiaye of Senegal, was declared ineligible, and Duncan had to
step in at center. In his first college game, on the road
against Alaska-Anchorage, on the first day he'd ever seen snow,
Duncan didn't score a single point. Didn't even attempt a shot.
Later that season in a game at Clemson, he got schooled by the
Tigers' smash-mouth center, Sharone Wright. "Sharone handed Tim
his head," Odom remembers. "It was a man against a young boy,
one thunder dunk after another. I got worried about Timmy. I
called him into my office the next day, and I eased my way into
the conversation because I didn't want to scare him. Suddenly he
interrupts me and says, 'Coach, I'm fine. I'm just out there
having a good time.'"
Duncan's stoic attitude makes him something of an enigma, even
to Odom and his teammates. This is a guy, after all, who slept
through Hurricane Hugo. And while his laid-back style is often
mistaken for disinterest, he is really just marching to the beat
of his own steel drummer. "Some people think he doesn't care
enough on the court," says former Maryland center Joe Smith,
who's now starting for the Warriors. "Don't be fooled. He's much
more vicious than he looks."
Despite his slow start as a freshman, Duncan needed just 51
games to set the Wake Forest record for blocked shots, and his
3.98 rejections per game in his career is the third-best in NCAA
history, behind David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal. As a
sophomore he averaged 16.8 points and 12.5 rebounds a game,
joining Smith as the only other player in the conference last
year to average a double double. After the season Smith, Jerry
Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, Duncan's fellow ACC super sophs,
all decided to turn pro. Each was among the first four draft
picks, and all would have dropped a notch had Duncan, 6'10" and
still growing, fled as well. "I was not ready," Duncan says. "I
just felt I was too young to be in the NBA."
Everybody on campus was ecstatic that Duncan was coming back for
another season, and tickets for the Demon Deacons' games will be
hard to come by in Winston-Salem. But one fan who will be in the
audience at many Wake games is Tricia, a physical-therapy aide
in Baltimore, who can be heard shrieking wildly whenever she
hears her brother's name called, just as Ione surely would have.
(Tricia's grasp of the game needs work though; she even shrieks
when Duncan's name is called for a foul.) "I sit there in awe,"
Tricia says. "I think about how much Timmy has matured, how he's
become a man."
Sure enough, this past Christmas in the family photo, Tim was
beaming, looking straight into the camera. Cheryl's going to
have that one enlarged.
St. Croix also has Dick Vitale.
The roars come from homes all across the island on winter
nights. The citizens scream together, but whether they are
cheering his name, Duncan, or his fashion of scoring, dunkin',
is difficult to say. At the Duncan house William sits in the
"dad chair," and Cheryl and Ricky huddle on either side as Tim,
the closest person the island has to an ambassador, goes to
work. Whenever Tim scores or rebounds or rejects a shot, one
ghostly chirp rises above the rest.
"Mom never got to see Timmy play ball seriously," Cheryl says.
"But I think she's looking down from heaven cheering him on, the
loudest voice among all the angels. I think Timmy still hears
Good, better, best....
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Once an Olympic hopeful as a swimmer, Duncan instead has emerged as a hoops star. [Tim Duncan emerging from water holding basketball]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Whether blocking a shot or dunkin', Duncan is the fan favorite at Wake Forest. [Tim Duncan dunking basketball] COLOR PHOTO: TIM O'DELL [See caption above--fan holding number 6 over sign reading: "TIM DUNCAN'S BLOCK 'O' METER"]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLANHugo couldn't knock out Duncan (here with his nephew, Cheyne) or his trusty hoop. [Tim Duncan playing basketball with his nephew, Cheyne]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Lowery (left) told Duncan that swimming wasn't the way off the Islands. [Ricky Lowery and Tim Duncan walking on beach]