A fear of sharks drove Timothy Theodore Duncan to become a basketball player.
Born in Christianhead–a town with less than 3,000 inhabitants–on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, April 25, 1976, Timothy was the youngest of William and Delysia Duncan’s three children. William was a mason and Delysia a midwife. Duncan was a bright student—he was moved one grade ahead at eight–and dreamt of becoming an Olympic swimmer, following in the footsteps of his sister Tricia, who, at 14, swam backstroke for the U.S.V.I team in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Before he was ten, Duncan was training six days a week in the pool and working with weights another three days each week. Delysia Duncan was supportive of her children’s swimming, and Tim was a standout in the 50, 100 and 400 meter freestyle who hoped to make the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. On September 17, 1989, Hurricane Hugo—the most damaging hurricane ever recorded at the time—tore through the Caribbean, leaving 100,000 people homeless and causing over $10 billion in damage. The only Olympic-sized pool on St. Croix was decimated, forcing Duncan to train in the ocean. Afraid of sharks, he quit. Seven months later, Delysia Duncan died of breast cancer, one day before her son’s 14th birthday. Before passing, she made her children promise to graduate college. To help relieve his pain and frustration, Duncan began playing basketball.
Tim Duncan was six feet tall and awkward when he entered St. Dunstan’s Episcopal High School in late summer 1990. With little coaching, training or competition in the Virgin Islands, he learned basketball fundamentals from his brother-in-law, who had played point guard for a Division III college in Ohio. Duncan mastered some skills and, by the time he was a senior, had grown to 6’9” tall. In his final year of high school, he averaged 25 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks but, given the weak level of basketball in the U.S.V.I., only received scholarship offers from Hartford, Delaware, Providence and Wake Forest—hardly powerhouse choices. In the fall of 1993, Tim Duncan left a tiny tropical island for Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Wake Forest University. After earning a starting position as a freshman, he was held scoreless in his first game before recovering to help the Demon Deacons to a 20-11 record. Following a summer spent playing with Team USA in the 1994 Goodwill Games, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West [Daily Dose, November 5] suggested Duncan might be the top pick in the 1995 NBA Draft if he went early. Recalling the promise he had made to his mother, Mr. Duncan opted to stay in school. By his senior year of 1996-97, Tim Duncan was undeniably the finest college player in the land. After becoming the first player in history to lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots, “The Big Fundamental” earned first-team All-America honors for the second year in a row. He was also named Naismith College Player of the Year and won the 1997 John R. Wooden [Daily Dose, October 14] Award as best overall male player in college basketball. Duncan graduated on time and finally made himself eligible for the draft.
The San Antonio Spurs selected Tim Duncan with the first overall pick of the 1997 NBA Draft, where he joined David Robinson—himself a number one pick a decade earlier—to form the “Twin Towers.” In his first season, he became the first rookie since Larry Bird to be named First-Team All-NBA and earned the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. Two seasons later, he was named Finals MVP after leading the Spurs to the franchise’s first NBA title. Following Robison’s retirement in 2003, Duncan became the heart and soul of San Antonio, the fourth-smallest market in the NBA. The 6’11”, 252 pound Duncan could pass, rebound, run the floor and defend. He led the Spurs to the playoffs in 18 of his 19 seasons and he and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich became the modern day Bill Russell and Red Auerbach [Daily Dose, January 12]. Russell considers Duncan “one of the most efficient players of his generation.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said of Duncan, “He’s the best big man of his generation. He’s versatile-nothing is lacking in his game. He’s very, very consistent.” Never flashy, his simple yet effective style of play has led to team success. And Tim Duncan is not yet done.
Duncan did not grow up a basketball prodigy. He was a little known late-bloomer who went on to become one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history. Quiet and unassuming, Duncan is a superb teammate and a coach’s dream. Nicknamed “Groundhog Day” for his consistency, Duncan is the only player ever elected to the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams in each of his first 13 seasons. In 19 NBA seasons—all with the Spurs—Mr. Duncan has won five NBA titles, two league MVP Awards and has three times won the Bill Russell Award as Finals MVP. Duncan has played in 15 NBA All-Star Games and was MVP of the game in 2000. The “Big Three” combination of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker has won more playoff games than any trio in history, and Duncan and John Salley are the only players ever to win NBA titles in three different decades. Duncan is in the top 15 on the NBA’s all-time list in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and games played. He has won more games with one team than any player in league history and is the oldest player to collect 20 points and 20 rebounds in a single game. Mr. Duncan had his number 21 retired by Wake Forest and was named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated in 2003.