Timothy Theodore Duncan was born on April 25, 1976, in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His mother, Ione, was a professional midwife. His father, William, was a mason. On an island with a lot of babies and a lot of building, the Duncans did better than most. Tim was a precocious child who was usually miles ahead of his elementary school classmates. When he was eight, he was moved up a grade and was a year younger than his class right through college.
Like his older sisters, Cheryl and Tricia, Tim had a long, supple athletic body. On St. Croix, that doesn’t make you a basketball player, it makes you a swimmer. Tricia in particular was a great one. Internationally ranked in the 100-meter and 200-meter backstroke, she competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Tricia believed her little brother would eventually surpass her.
Tim had already decided he wanted to be an Olympic champion, and his parents fully supported the decision. Ione was at every meet, often driving Tim crazy as she delivered an unending stream of advice, criticism and inspiration from the stands. Her favorite mantra was: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better, and your better is best.”
Tim’s specialty was the 400-meter freestyle. In his early teens, he was already known in the international swimming community. He broke several records at 12 and 13, his times were on par with the top swimmers his age in the U.S., and he was only getting longer and stronger. Think Ian Thorpe with longer legs and bigger arms and feet. Tim’s physical gifts were obvious, but it was his focus and concentration that enabled him to stay at the top of his game. He had the ability to break down every stroke, analyzing what he was doing right and what he could be doing better. He was a coach’s dream.
Even though the Olympics in Barcelona were three years away, Tim was a lock to make the Virgin Islands swimming squad in the 50-, 100- and 400-meters. What he really wanted was to make the U.S. team, for which Crucians are technically eligible.
On September 17, 1989, Hurricane Hugo crashed into St. Croix and everything changed. Tim's father had been through his share of violent storms and had built his house to withstand a direct hit—which Hugo was. The rest of the island, however, lay in utter ruins. Among the casualties was the swim team’s pool, which had filled with debris and needed major repair. When practices were moved to the ocean, Tim had a major problem: he had a mortal fear of sharks. He started skipping practices, and eventually drifted from the team.
Tim had other things on his mind. During the summer of 1989, his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought the good fight and urged Tim to keep swimming even though she found it harder and harder to attend his meets. She died in the spring of 1990, a day before Tim’s 14th birthday. He never swam competitively again.
Fortunately, something else had caught his attention. A year earlier, Cheryl—now married and living in Columbus, Ohio—had sent down a basketball goal. Tim’s father had set it up, measuring to make sure the rim was precisely ten feet from the ground. He anchored it in cement and boasted that it could withstand anything that hit the island. Well, he was right.
After Ione died, Cheryl moved back home with her husband, Ricky Lowery, who had played some college ball, starting at point guard for Capital University in Columbus. Prior to Hugo, Tim had just goofed around shooting. After Ricky arrived, basketball became his new passion. Tim was tall for his age—around six feet—and Ricky figured he might top out around 6-4 or 6-5. He began teaching the youngster the finer points of the perimeter game. Tim learned how to handle the ball, penetrate, recognize passing opportunities, come off screens, use the glass on pull-up jumpers, and finish on the break.
In the fall, Tim made the St. Dunstan’s Episcopal High School team as a 14-year-old freshman. He figured he’d play some hoops, have some fun, and when the pain of his mother’s loss subsided, he would go back to swimming. It never happened. Over the next three seasons, Tim grew nine inches and became the best player on the island—and maybe even in the entire Caribbean. Already tutored in the ways of a perimeter player, he began using his quick feet and long body to establish himself as a post-up force. He was raw, but because he had learned the game his own way, at his own pace, he was in many respects a unique talent.
Soon crazy stories began filtering into the college scouting community about a giant in St. Croix who had quit swimming to become a basketball player. Three schools—the University of Hartford, University of Delaware and Providence University—were intrigued enough to fly south for a look-see, and all three offered Tim a scholarship on the spot. A fourth school, Wake Forest, saw fit to send its head coach, Dave Odom.
Odom was looking for a big man to compliment Randolph Childress and Rodney Rogers, but because of the school’s diminutive size, he was having a hard time luring the A-level player he wanted. He had already gone scouting in Africa and Europe on this quest. Now Odom headed to St. Croix on the advice of his former player, Chris King, who had scrimmaged against Tim when a group of NBA players stopped on the island and arranged an impromptu competition with the locals. According to King, Tim—just 16—had played Alonzo Mourning to a draw. Mourning had just been selected second in the NBA draft. How could Odom not check the prospect out?
Odom was hoping to
watch an organized game or scrimmage, but instead he had to settle for a
five-on-five pickup game on an outdoor court. He was worried that a sudden
cloudburst would scatter the players, and Tim could sense it. Before the
game started, he leaned over and assured Odom that, no matter what happened,
he could play ball. The weather held, and Tim put on a show. That evening,
Odom did his best sell job. Tim liked what he heard and assured Odom
that Wake was on the top of his list. However, he said he would not make
his decision until the spring of his senior year. Odom left St. Croix
knowing he would spent the next several months in agony.
Tim was an eye-opener
for a program that historically played poor sister to powerhouse programs
like Duke, Maryland and North Carolina. Here was a center who was putting the ball
through his legs, banking balls off the glass at all angles, swishing
three-pointers and going coast-to-coast in team scrimmages. Originally,
Odom had considered red-shirting his 17-year-old freshman. But his breathtaking
all-around game earned Tim—whom Street & Smith described
as a “mystery man” in its preseason guide—a starting
job when the regular season began. The Demon Deacons needed Tim. The previous
year, they had reached the Sweet 16, but Rogers had bolted for the NBA
and center Derrick Hicks had graduated. Left without a low-post presence,
Childress was the team’s only experienced scorer.
When the ACC schedule began, Tim held his own at first, but in a meeting with Clemson he was given multiple facials by Sharone Wright. Odom called him into his office afterwards, and Tim entered fearing the worst. When he realized the coach was concerned that his confidence had been shattered, Tim started laughing. The coach had a lot to learn about his young center!
The rest of the year was a blur—for Wake opponents. Tim seemed to unveil a new pivot move every game, and when teams gave him the outside shot, he drilled it. His bank shot, meanwhile, was almost unstoppable, making him a threat from any distance. Tim led the Demon Deacons to stunning wins over Duke and UNC, and the team earned an NCAA bid with a 20-11 record. They won their first game and dropped their second, to Kansas, ending a remarkable season. Because of his slow start, Tim averaged just under 10 points a game, but he was grabbing 10-15 rebounds and swatting four or five shots a night in the second half. That summer, he was invited to play for Team USA in the Goodwill Games.
Tim continued to improve in his sophomore season, becoming a lethal scorer. As the Deacons inched up the national rankings, his name was now being mentioned in the same breath as the three other ACC super sophs: Joe Smith, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace. In a late-season meeting with UNC, Tim held Wallace to four points while scoring 25 himself in a 79-70 win. After the game, Jerry West suggested that Tim might be the top player in the 1995 draft if he chose to leave school. Tim assured everyone he had no intention of going pro until he graduated, even though the NBA was planning to add a rookie salary cap in 1996. He was giving up countless millions, but he was determined to stay in school.
In the ACC Tournament, Wake made it to the championship game against the Tar Heels. Tim took ’Sheed apart once again, pulling down 20 rebounds, and Childress hit a clutch jumper with four seconds left in overtime to seal the win.
In the NCAA Tournament, the Deacons advanced to the Sweet 16 again, where they met a brutal Oklahoma State team. In a head-to-head confrontation with Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, Tim grabbed 22 rebounds, swatted eight shots, and limited the ultra-physical center to 4-for-15 shooting. But a late turnover by Childress proved to be the difference in a tight game, and SU won 71-66.
Tim ended his sophomore
year with excellent numbers (16.8 ppg and 12.5 rpg) and was named the nation’s
top defender. Statistically, he was the third-best shot-blocker in NCAA
history with 3.98 per game.
The Deacons lost only four conference games and beat Virginia, Clemson and Georgia Tech in the ACC tourney to repeat as conference champs. Tim scored 27 points and pulled down 22 rebounds in the finale against Georgia Tech, which gave Wake all it could handle in an extremely tense game.
Unfortunately, Tim came down with the flu as the NCAA Tournament started. He sucked it up and played decently in wins over Northeast Louisiana, Texas and Louisville, but just as he was feeling 100 percent, the Deacons ran into Kentucky. Rick Pitino ordered his players to triple-team Tim, and for once his teammates did not respond to the challenge. Wake’s run to the Final Four came up a game short. Tim, named Defensive Player of the Year a second time, finished the year averaging 19.1 points and 12.3 boards per game
As soon as the season
ended, everyone wanted to know Tim’s plans. Odom called him into
his office and pushed two press release across the table. One announced
that he was hanging around for his senior season, the other announced
that he was entering the NBA draft. Tim couldn’t resist. He paused
for what seemed like an eternity to Odom before smiling and assuring his
coach the he planned to stay.
The 1996-97 Demon Deacons were inserted as odds-on favorites to win it all. Everyone was a year older and wiser, and 7-1 freshman Loren Woods was on the squad, giving Tim a twin tower in the paint. The team’s mission was clear: Tim had passed up millions to win an NCAA title. Wake responded by winning its first 13 games, including victories over Utah and UNC. The squad ascended to #2 in the polls—its highest ranking in school history. Tim was showing off moves that took NBA centers years to learn, slicing through double- and triple-teams, passing out of others, and finding room for quality shots where none appeared to exist.
To Tim’s frustration, the Deacons lost momentum down the stretch and failed to win a third straight conference title. There was more than one smart coach in the ACC, and they had learned how to keep the ball out of Tim’s hands. In the NCAA Tournament, Stanford, led by guard Brevin Knight, played a textbook game against Wake and shocked the Deacons, 72-66.
After his final college game, Tim had an opportunity to assess what was one of the great senior seasons for a college center. His scoring rose to 20.8, though he took fewer shots, averaging 60.6% from the field. He dished out 3.2 assists per game and hauled down 14.7 rebounds to lead the nation. On defense, he shut down plays before they had a chance to develop, winning Defensive Player of the Year an unprecedented third straight season. He also earned first-team All-America honors for the second time, and was everyone’s pick for college Player of the Year.
Now it was a matter
of seeing who got the first pick in the NBA draft. The Boston Celtics
and Vancouver Grizzlies—two rebuilding clubs—had the most
balls in the hooper, followed by the Spurs, who had gone 20-62 after losing
David Robinson for all but six games. When San Antonio beat the odds and
got the top selection, Tim was ecstatic. Robinson was back to full strength
for the 1997-98 campaign, joined by guards Avery Johnson and Vinny del
Negro and forwards Sean Elliott and Chuck Person. With two big-time big
men in the lineup, coach Gregg Popovich spent the summer rethinking his
The Spurs hoped to
continue their run and sweep to an NBA title. But the supporting cast
was banged up, forcing players to fill unfamiliar roles. Tim tried to
do too much in the opener against the Phoenix Suns. He was so bad that Popovich had
to bench him. At halftime, Phoenix coach Danny Ainge instructed his players
not to double-team Tim anymore—he was your typical overmatched rookie.
Tim finished the night with 32 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Spurs
to a 102-96 victory. The Spurs won the series in four games, but they lost
to the Utah Jazz in the following round.
Although everyone had to sit through a protracted labor dispute to begin the 1998-99 season, Tim didn’t have to wait long for his first taste of the NBA Finals. The Spurs won 37 of 50 games in the truncated campaign, with Tim going for 21.7 points and 11.4 rebounds a night and winning All-NBA and All-Defensive Team honors. The team on the floor was a year older but a year better, putting less pressure on the aging Admiral. Mario Elie, a member of the former champion Rockets, became the Spurs’ most effective bench player after coming over from Houston.
Tim faced down Minnesota's Kevin Garnett in a first-round victory over the T-Wolves, and then he and the Spurs ran roughshod over the Lakers in a surprising four-game sweep. San Antonio also took four straight in the West finals against the Portland Trailblazers to set up a championship meeting with the overachieving New York Knicks. Led by Tim’s dominant play, the Spurs won the first two games and then took two more in a five-game wipeout of New York. Tim was the easy pick for MVP.
The Spurs continued to age in 1999-2000, and it was beginning to show. Tim stepped up his performance, pouring 23.2 points a game. But despite 53 wins, the team did not always have enough in the tank at the end of close games. This caught up to San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs againstthe Suns. Phoenix won in four games. Tim was injured and missed the entire series. Though he was once again selected All-NBA and All-Defensive team, he was saddened by what he felt might be a rebuilding period on the horizon.
To Tim’s delight, the Spurs played well throughout the 2000-01 campaign and finished with a league-high 58 victories. Derek Anderson, one of Pitino’s Kentucky stars, joined the club as a free agent and averaged 15.5 ppg while running the offense along with Johnson, Antonio Daniels and Terry Porter. Tim put up his usual numbers and won his usual awards, and everything seemed right as the Spurs annihilated Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. Tim was a rebounding machine, as San Antonio continued its run with a five-game victory over the Mavs. It all came crashing down against the Lakers, however, as Shaq and Kobe Bryant orchestrated a four-game sweep, turning the tables from a couple of years earlier.
The Spurs returned essentially the same team in 2001-02, with veteran Steve Smith logging valuable minutes in place of Anderson, who was dealt to the Blazers for a draft pick. Also emerging as valuable players were Bruce Bowen, a defensive specialist inked over the summer, and rookie Tony Parker, who replaced Johnson at the point. Tim continued his rise toward Hall of Fame status, but Robinson was clearly in decline, and Popovich spelled him frequently with burly Malik Rose. This all added up to another 58-win season—and another playoff showdown with the Lakers, this time in the second round. After splitting the first two in L.A., the Spurs dropped the next two at home and the Lakers went on to win Game 5 for the series victory.
Tim took little consolation
in his best season to date. Despite averaging 25.5 points, leading the
NBA in rebounds, field goals and free throws, and winning the MVP award,
he believed the Spurs had not yet achieved what they were capable of. Robinson,
meanwhile, announced that the 2002-03 campaign would be his last. He wanted
one final shot at a title and believed Tim could elevate his game to
get the Spurs there. Popovich restructured his rotation to make the most
of the Admiral’s minutes, and gave increased playing time to Rose,
Bowen, Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili.
The Spurs got a nice lift when Parker nailed down the point guard job. He proved to be good for more than 15 points a game. The Spurs went 60-22 and were in excellent shape for the playoffs.
MAKING HIS MARK
As for Tim, he enjoyed a second straight MVP season, averaging 23.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists. Some fans felt that New Jersey's Jason Kidd deserved the award, so it was only right that the two stars should meet in the NBA Finals. After hard-fought series wins over the Suns, Lakers and Mavericks, the Spurs squared off against the Nets in a grinding defensive battle that saw the teams knotted after four games. Tim took over in the final two contests, keying a pair of wins, and the Spurs had their championship. Tim was a whirlwind in Game 6, swatting a record-tying eight shots. He finished with 32 for the series, establishing a new mark. He was named MVP of the finals for the second time.
It took a year to adjust to life without the Twin Towers, but the 2003-04 season was still a good onefor the Spurs, who won their last 10 games heading into the playoffs. Tim netted 22.3 per game and finished second in the league in rebounding to Garnett, who walked away with the MVP award. Robinson’s shoes were filled by Rasho Nesterovic and Robert Horry, another player with championship experience. The Spurs swept Memphis in the first round of the playoffs, but they could not overcome the Lakers in the next round. Tim watched the Detroit Pistons pick apart L.A. in the finals and wondered how San Antonio would have done against Larry Brown’s no-stars. He only had to wait a year to find out.
With Shaq gone to Miami and Kobe up to his eyeballs in legal woes, the Lakers were a non-factor in the West, enabling the Spurs to build a team for the 2004-05 playoffs. Tim got his 20 points and 10 rebounds most nights. Ginobili, meanwhile, went from a bench guy to a big-time player. Parker continued to mature at the point, Bowen made First Team All-Defense for the second straight season, and the Spurs got excellent contributions from Nazr Mohammad and Brent Barry. San Antonio won 59 games and was almost untouchable at home, losing just three games all year. The Spurs could out-score you, out-hustle you, out-rebound you and out-defend you. Entering the postseason, they were the team to beat.
The playoffs opened against the Nuggets. After an early scare, the Spurs hammered Denver in five games. In the second round, San Antonio beat the Sonics twice at home and then lost two in Seattle. Tim stepped up and led his team to victory in Games 5 and Game 6 to close out a worrisome series.
The Western Conference Finals brought on the Suns and MVP Steve Nash. This, the experts said, would be the best series of the spring. Could the San Antonio D clamp down on Phoenix, or would the Suns run them out of the building? Popovich had a surprise up his sleeve, as he asked his troops to beat the Suns at their own game. It was over in five. The Spurs advanced against the defending champion Pistons.
The 2005 NBA Finals promised to be a bruising affair, as both teams featured grinding defenses, and only Tim stood out as superstar-level scorer. Of course, he had to contend with his old college nemesis, Rasheed Wallace. Plus, Detroit had Ben Wallace, the league’s premier help defender. In the first two games, in San Antonio, Tim had his way with the Detroit defense, and Ginobili also scored at will as the Spurs embarrassed the Pistons with two blowouts.
As millions of fans tuned away, Detroit fought its way back. The Pistons ganged up on Tim and forced him to receive the ball farther from the basket, which clogged things up at mid-range, where San Antonio had done much of its damage in the opening contests. The Pistons took the next two games to even the series. They nearly stole Game 5, but the Spurs survived in overtime to take the series back to San Antonio up a game.
Detroit showed its grit and edged the Spurs in Game 6 to force a seventh game. The Pistons built an early lead in the decider, but as the second half wore on, it became increasingly difficult for either team to score. Midway through the third quarter, Tim dug deep and found what he needed to end the stalemate. He seized control around the rim to give his team a lead it would never relinquish. The Spurs won their third championship, 81-74, and Tim was named the MVP.
From the heights of 2004-05, Tim experienced the depths the following year. Slowed by a painful case of plantar fasciitis, he limped through 80 games and averaged under 20 points for the first time in his career. The Spurs nonetheless were able to win 63 games and capture another division title. Tim felt better by playoff time, and his defense and rebounding helped the Spurs down the Sacramento Kings in six games in the opening round.
Next came an epic battle with the Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks. Tim was a scoring machine early in the series, but Dallas pulled off a pair of narrow victories to take the series lead. In Game 5, Tim scored 36 points and hauled down 10 rebounds in a thrilling 98–97 win.
Back in Dallas for Game 6, the Spurs evened the series behind a monster second half from their center. Game 7, in San Antonio, was a classic. Tim scored 41 points and led the team with 15 rebounds and six assists, but the Mavs prevailed in overtime to end San Antonio’s quest for a fourth NBA title. After averaging 18.6 points per game during the regular season, Tim had lifted his scoring to 25.8 during the postseason. However, in that fateful Game 7 overtime, he made only one of seven shots.
Tim turned 30 in 2006–07, but once again he led the team in rebounds and scoring, averaging an even 20 points a game. He was also back in the lineup for the All-Star Game, after not making the team the previous season. The Spurs won 58 games and finished second in the division, but they turned it on come the postseason. They tore through the Western Conference playoffs, defeating Denver, Phoenix and Utah while dropping a mere four games. In the NBA FInals, the Spurs blew LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers off the court in four straight. Tim had a somewhat lackluster series, but he proclaimed title #4 as his sweetest ever.
Tim enjoyed another typically solid season in 2007–08, averaging just under 20 points a game. The Spurs featured the same core of Duncan, Parker, Bowen and Ginobili, with Michael Finley also playing a support role. That was enough to get the Spurs in to the playoffs, where they reached the conference finals again. This time, however, they ran up against a red-hot Lakers team and fell in five games.
Tim’s 12th season in the NBA was a painful one. After a fast start, he was slowed all year by a sore knee. With Ginobili injured too, and several players aging, the Spurs limped into the playoffs and were defeated easily by the Mavs. It marked only the second time in the decade they had made a first-round exit. Tim’s stats were consistent with previous seasons, but he was starting to slow down.
Still, Tim was a dangerous and effective player. In 2009–10, he was averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds a game when he was voted into the starting lineup for the West All-Stars. Tim’s scoring fell off in the second half, but he was ready for Nowitzki and the Mavs come playoff time. San Antonio avenged the previous year’s defeat by bouncing Dallas in the first round. Unfortunately, the Spurs didn’t have enough left in the tank to get by the Suns, who beat them in four straight.
Tim paced himself during 2010–11, stepping up when the team needed a boost. His supporting cast now featured Richard Jefferson, George Hill, and Gary Neal, in addition to Parker and Ginobili. Tim’s scoring fell to under 15 a game, but the Spurs were nearly unbeatable. They finished with the second-best record in the league at 61–21.
San Antonio fans were gearing up for a last hurrah when the playoffs began, but it was not to be. The Spurs were upended by the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. It was just the second time a #8 had knocked off a #1. Zach Randolph went crazy in the fourth quarter of the sixth and final game, scoring 13 points in the last five minutes to turn a one-pointdeficit into 99–91 win for Memphis.
In 2011–12, the Spurs featured a balanced attack with eight or nine players capable of scoring in double-figures. At the All-Star break, they found themselves in a familiar place—the top spot in the Southwest Division. Whether they carry this success into the playoffs remains to be seen. On paper, the Spurs do not appear to appear to have a championship dynamic.
San Antontio still has a dynamic champion in Tim, however. As his remarkable career winds down, he is still capable of dominating the floor. In the first half of his 15th season, he had 25 or more points twice, 15 or more rebounds three times, and five or more assists five times.
With three NBA Finals MVPs, two NBA MVPs, nine First-Team All-NBA nods and 13 All-Star appearances, a strong argument can be made that Tim belongs among the Top 10 players in history. Who they are and where Tim slots in is a matter of debate, but he will forever be remembered as a class act and an all-time great.
TIM THE PLAYER
Tim is not only a freakishly good athlete, he is a freakishly talented big man. Indeed, there is very little he cannot do with a basketball in his hands. Tim is hard to strip, hard to block and hard to stop, because if you stop one move, he usually has a counter-move that follows. He has a wonderful touch around the rim, and his bankshot is one of the NBA’s great old-school moves. He is also one of the best-passing big men ever.
It’s what Tim can do when the ball is not in his hands that truly sets him apart. Even in his mid-30s, he is so agile and has such quick feet that he can wait an extra second on plays and still beat most defenders to a spot. This comes into play when he must jump out on a perimeter shooter—he closes out quickly for a big man, without flying past the shooter or fouling him.
Tim understands how to use his body on rebounds, and his long arms and sure hands mean once a ball is in his grasp, it is likely to stay there. Oh, about those hands. Few men his size have ever had softer ones, or exhibited finer control when shooting, passing and dribbling.
Tim isn’t a big talker, but his leadership skills are unquestioned. He shows his teammates the way through actions and deeds, not words. This has been the case during his NBA career and during his time on American squads in international competition. Tim is a Hall of Famer in every sense of that label.
© Copyright 2012 Black Book Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.