He was the star who appeared from nowhere, so obscure in basketball recruiting circles he was considered the third-best prospect in a three-man freshman class when he landed at Wake Forest in 1993-94.
Tim Duncan had ranked in the top 16 in U.S. freestyle swimming until age 12, when Hurricane Hugo destroyed the Virgin Islands pool in which he trained. After that Duncan turned to basketball, making a splash that ripples through the sport a quarter-century later, culminating in yet another NBA title the other night, his and San Antonio’s fifth championship in a 15-year span.
By now it’s considered a given that Duncan, at 38 in the twilight of his career, is the best power forward ever to play professional basketball. “I think it takes moments like this at this stage of his career for people to remind them of his greatness,” says Randolph Childress, the current Wake assistant who played with Duncan in 1994 and 1995 and remains a close friend. “He’s not such an in-your-face kind of personality, so he’s going to fall through the cracks. Now, to be honest with you, Tim prefers it that way.”
Spared the coddling that attends most prep phenoms, Duncan has avoided ostentation since he arrived in Winston-Salem as a stunningly skilled, confident and composed 17-year-old. “I didn’t expect anything from anybody,” he said 20 years ago. “I just came in here to play, and try to do the best I could out there. That’s what my father told me – no matter what happens up here, just try your hardest and do your best.”
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Even the tattoos Duncan got in college, an uncommon affectation in the mid-90s, were hidden by his jersey. To this day he rarely seems perturbed or changes expression on the court. Typically, during a break in the action during a 1997 victory at Duke, when players from both teams fell atop him fighting for a loose ball, the 6-11 big man tucked the ball behind his head, stretched out, and relaxed until the tangle was unraveled. “When it’s time to show emotion, I show my amount,” he said in an interview his sophomore year. “And then I go back to playing.”
Given the light competition he faced growing up in the Virgin Islands, the Wake staff worried it would take a year for the youngster to become acclimated to the high-pressure, physical nature of ACC basketball. “I think he has no idea, absolutely no idea what faces him,” said Jerry Wainwright, then a Demon Deacons assistant coach. “He has a profound shock in store for him.”
But Wainwright hadn’t seen Duncan in action. Bill Foster, then at Virginia Tech, had. He phoned Wake head coach Dave Odom – who’d only observed Duncan in action on an outdoor court in St. Croix – and asked his plans for the unsung post player. “He said, ‘He’s going to be a redshirt kid,’ ” Foster recalled. “I said, ‘You’re going to be lucky to keep him after two years.’ ”
Odom quickly agreed with the former coach at Clemson and Miami – Duncan started his first game as a true freshman and all but one of 128 games during his Wake career, averaging more than 34 minutes per outing. The player dubbed “The Big Fundamental” in NBA circles displayed a rare blend of talent and skill from the day he stepped on an ACC floor. He had a deft shooting touch. He understood positioning to rebound and score. He ran the court relentlessly. He adeptly shared the ball, handling it with a guard’s aplomb.
“I used to shoot 3s when I first came here,” Duncan said of playing at Wake. “I used to bring the ball up, stuff like that. The coaches were like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Childress says that if Duncan got a rebound in a pickup game “you might as well just run down the court to get an outlet pass, because he was going to try to push it.” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich claims Duncan still yearns to flex point guard skills.
Duncan’s defensive timing is impeccable. Even as a freshman he rarely went for a fake. The 1995 national defensive player of the year finished his Wake career as the modern ACC leader in blocked shots (481). With Duncan guarding the post, the 1997 Demon Deacons notched the best ACC field goal percentage defense (.364) in a 50-year span.
Duncan defied the growing tide of early defections to the pros and stayed at Wake for four years, finishing as a two-time ACC player of the year and consensus All-American (1996, 1997), and the 1997 national player of the year. The Deacons won consecutive ACC titles in 1995 and 1996, a feat only Duke and North Carolina have matched over the past four decades. “Of all the years I’ve been coaching in this league,” then-Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said in 1996, his 15th season in Atlanta, “I think that Tim Duncan – I know there’s Ralph Sampson and Brad Daugherty – but Tim Duncan is at least, at least, the best big man maybe ever to play in this conference.”
There’s no maybe about it any more, especially if you take into account an NBA career that has produced 14 NBA All-Star selections in 17 seasons, two league most valuable player awards (2002, 2003), the NBA rookie of the year award in 1998, and those five championships with the Spurs, the team that picked him first in the 1997 draft. “You couldn’t argue with his credentials before today, and it’s going to be even harder now,” former Spurs teammate David Robinson told USA Today after San Antonio ousted Miami and LeBron James in five games. “He’s clearly one of the best players to ever play.”
Only the L.A. Lakers have won as many championships over the past 15 years as small-market San Antonio, where Popovich has fashioned teams that neatly complement Duncan’s sound, workmanlike approach. Among active players only the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant has won as many NBA titles as Duncan. And few performers of any era have been so durable and productive for so long. Duncan has missed just two starts in 1,254 games as a pro. Last week he passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most minutes ever played in the NBA postseason.
“Tim is Mister Consistency,” says Chip Engelland, a longtime San Antonio assistant coach. “His preparation is second to none. Starts preparing early and puts in his time, cross-trains.” Engelland says Popovich also limits the veteran’s playing time to protect Duncan’s cranky knees. “Believe me, it’s not easy to rest him,” says the former Duke player, laughing painfully. “That is not an easy conversation that we love to have. When he rests, he’s not happy.”
Duncan had been at Wake for only one year before Odom made a comparison that’s crucial to understanding his serendipitous star’s success. “Ralph played because he was tall, and that’s what tall people are supposed to do,” Odom said of Sampson, the 7-4 Virginia center whom he coached as a UVa assistant in 1983. “But he didn’t have a passion. This kid has a passion.”
Long past being a kid, Duncan, the only player to start on NBA championship teams in three different decades, retains his passion for the game. “He enjoys what he’s doing,” says Childress, who attended the NBA finals in Miami. He expects his friend to exercise a $10.3 million option to play for San Antonio next year, assuming the Spurs squad, best during the 2014 regular season as well, remains largely intact. “When I saw him and spoke with him, physically he felt great. He sounded great. He looked great.”
Where Tim Duncan is concerned, that’s about as great as it gets.