Publish date:


Virginia Military Institute basketball coach Bart Bellairs is
dribbling a ball through a shopping mall when he spots a trash
can. Bellairs decides he wants to shoot the basketball into the
can. Just then, Tim Duncan appears out of nowhere, dressed in
his Wake Forest uniform and standing steadfastly in front of the
can. Bellairs shoots the ball once, twice, a third time, and
Duncan swats away each attempt with a menacing smirk.
Increasingly desperate, Bellairs tries post moves, jumpers,
hooks, but Duncan effortlessly rejects his shot again and again
and again and again....

Bellairs awoke with a start at 3:28 a.m. on Nov. 24 in a hotel
room in Winston-Salem, N.C., a coating of clammy sweat on his
face. It was the morning of the day his Keydets would face
Duncan's Demon Deacons in the season opener. "What a horrible
nightmare," said Bellairs last week, recalling his sleepless
night and VMI's subsequent 92-63 defeat. "Duncan wouldn't let me
anywhere near the basket, and that night he wouldn't let my
players anywhere near the basket, either."

On Sunday afternoon Missouri coach Norm Stewart became the
latest victim of a Duncan nightmare, only this time it occurred
during a game and in front of a national television audience. In
the same gym in which the Tigers had upset top-ranked Kansas
five days earlier, Duncan dismantled Missouri with 18 points, 20
rebounds, four assists and three blocks in a 73-65 Wake Forest
victory. "It seems like every time you turn around he's staring
you in the face," said Tigers forward Derek Grimm of his
personal Grimm Reaper. "I could have sworn there were four or
five Tim Duncans out there."

All season long Duncan has brought new meaning to the term Demon
Deacon. After Wake Forest fell behind at Maryland by 12 points
at halftime on Feb. 1, Duncan rallied the Deacons to a 74-69 win
by scoring 25 points in the second half, just one point fewer
than the entire Terrapins team. He clinched a 58-54 win over
Virginia on Jan. 15 with two clutch baskets in the final 65
seconds. And after Duncan had 19 points, 17 rebounds, three
assists, four blocks and two steals in a 74-43 victory over
Mississippi State in December, befuddled Bulldogs coach Richard
Williams spoke for most opposing coaches when he said, "Duncan
is just, well, just put down that we had no answers for him."

Duncan, a senior center from St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin
Islands, is on his way to a third straight national Defensive
Player of the Year award. His three rejections against Missouri
pushed him past Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning into second place
on the NCAA's alltime blocked-shot list, behind only Colgate's
Adonal Foyle, another imposing son of the West Indies--he's from
the Grenadines in the Caribbean--who has played against
competition far weaker than Duncan has faced. In fact, Duncan is
such an imposing presence in the lane that, through last
weekend, only once all season had a team shot better than 39.7%
against Wake. And don't bother waiting for him to take a rest.
Six times this season he had played the full 40 minutes, and in
his 10 ACC games Duncan had been on the bench for only nine
minutes, total.

On the offensive end, he was taking fewer than 12 shots per
game, yet only twice this season had he failed to have a double
double in points and rebounds. He led the conference in scoring
(20.3 points a game), rebounding (13.8) and field goal
percentage (63.4%), and because he constantly had confronted
double- and triple-teams, he had become a deft passer who led
Wake in assists with 3.2 a game. It's important to note that
Duncan had put up those gaudy figures in the ACC, by far college
basketball's toughest conference this year, and in the process
he had guided the Deacons to a 19-2 record, including a 4-0 mark
on the road against Top 10 teams.

All of those factors--his team's record, its strength of
schedule, his statistical supremacy in a very tough
conference--suggest that Duncan is enjoying one of the best
seasons ever for a college center. Indeed, his performance may
be better than that of any pivot since UCLA's Bill Walton in
1972-73. "Timmy wins many of the statistical battles, and he's
going to set some records that will be tough to break, but it's
hard to judge where he ranks among the greatest college centers
of all time," says Wake coach Dave Odom, who coached Ralph
Sampson one season and faced Georgetown's Patrick Ewing and
Houston's Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon as an assistant at
Virginia in the '80s. "I'll say this, though: If you're looking
for a fearless warrior who plays his A game every single night,
you'd have a hard time finding anybody better than Timmy in any

But one question looms larger as March approaches: Can this
marvelous center lead Wake to an NCAA title? The klieg lights
that have been trained on Duncan for much of the last four
seasons have left the other Demon Deacons obscured. It's as if
we can't see Wake Forest for the tree. Except perhaps for 7'1"
freshman forward-center Loren Woods, the other Deacons are most
probably future State Farm agents and Hyundai salesmen. Still,
without the contributions of Woods, forward Ricky Peral and
guards Tony Rutland and Jerry Braswell, Wake never could have
ascended to No. 2 in the polls, its highest ranking ever, and
wouldn't be favored to win its third straight ACC championship,
a feat last accomplished by North Carolina from 1967 to '69.
Against Missouri, all five Demon Deacons starters scored in
double figures, and Wake clinched the game with an 18-2 run to
open the second half, a stretch during which Duncan didn't have
a point. "We may play supporting roles, but that doesn't mean we
aren't good actors," says Rutland.

Rutland is accustomed to life outside the limelight, having
played in the same backcourt with Allen Iverson at Bethel High
in Hampton, Va., yet even then he was considered the emotional
leader of his team. Despite struggling at times with a knee
injury that he suffered during last year's conference
tournament, Rutland is shooting 42% from three-point range and
is providing his customary comic relief. "We'll be struggling to
win a game in the final minute, and Tony will come into the
huddle saying something funny," Braswell says. "He's a constant
reminder that it's just basketball."

Braswell is a streaky shooter who swears he has never been tired
in a game, and he has been known to punctuate a long practice
with a series of tumbling runs. Braswell's boundless enthusiasm
energizes the other Deacons but also causes him to launch an
occasional low-percentage shot. "Sometimes I don't agree with
Jerry's taste in shots," Odom says diplomatically, "but I'll
never question his effort to find them."

Peral is a constant in the Deacon equation. A 6'10" utilityman,
he averages 8.4 points and 4.3 rebounds while playing the
sharpshooting perimeter game that he learned in his native
Spain. "Ricky does his job in a quiet manner," Duncan says. "I'd
say he's like your liver. You don't appreciate having it, but
you sure do miss it when it's gone."

Woods, who on Jan. 23 became a starting forward, is growing
every day as a low-post player, a benefit of serving as an
apprentice to one of the game's masters: As of Sunday he led all
ACC freshmen in points and rebounds, while playing just 19
minutes a game. "Loren is borrowing a lot from Tim, and he knows
he has some huge shoes to fill next year," Rutland says. "We're
just not sure yet how big his feet really are."

Despite the role-playing skills of this supporting cast, plenty
of skeptics doubt whether Duncan's mates can give him enough
help for Wake to win its first national title. Memories linger
from last season's 83-63 defeat in the NCAA final eight, a loss
in which Kentucky smothered Duncan, and no other Deacon picked
up the slack. "I think all these players around Timmy--and even
I, as his coach--approach every game with a real sense of
responsibility, because we hate to let him down," Odom says. "We
all appreciate that he's here with us when he could have been a
millionaire right now in the NBA."

By returning to college for his senior season, Duncan passed up
a shot at a guaranteed three-year, $9.385 million contract,
which he would have gotten if he had been the first player
selected in the draft. That's not a bad entry-level salary for a
psychology major just out of school. To explain why he was
willing to give up $3 million for one last college season,
Duncan, 20, says part of the answer can be found in the book The
Hurried Child, which details the dangers of forcing adult
responsibility on young people.

Duncan's stature in the college game was probably best summed up
by Wofford coach Richard Johnson on the eve of his Terriers'
Jan. 29 date with the Deacons, in what can only loosely be
described as a pep talk. "Let me tell you guys about who you're
playing tomorrow," Johnson said. "Someday your six-year-old kid
will ask you for a Tim Duncan jersey for Christmas. This is your
chance to play a future NBA Hall of Famer, your turn to face the
greatest player any of you will ever meet."

For now, anyway, Duncan swats away such talk as if it were one
of Bellairs's subconscious hook shots. "I guess it's possible
that someday people will look back at what I did this season and
mention my name alongside guys like Walton and Ewing," Duncan
said in the quiet locker room after the victory over Missouri.
"I don't really like to live in the past, but maybe when I'm 50,
I'll sit on my Jet Ski alone in the ocean off St. Croix and
reminisce for a moment or two about all I did this year--and
then I'll ride off looking for another wave to jump."


TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Duncan teammates like Rutland and Sean Allen (passing) must play more than bit roles. [Tony Rutland in game; Sean Allen in game]