You don’t know much about Tim Duncan. Think about it: outside of his 10 amazing seasons with the Spurs-including multiple MVP Awards and three NBA Championships-what do you know about the guy? If what you think you know is based on the fact that he’s one of the best players in NBA history, you’re probably off the mark. Because truth be told, the guy is nothing like what you could assume.
To understand what makes Tim so different from other NBA players—and what you might suppose about him—we have to go back to his life on the island of St. Croix, where Tim, the son of a mason and a professional midwife, didn’t pick up a ball until he was halfway through his teen years. Unlike athletic customs in the United States, when a young kid in St. Croix sports a long, lean, athletic body, he isn’t immediately directed to a basketball court. Instead, he swims.
Tim’s long limbs and huge hands and feet gave him an advantage in the water from the start, but his focus and determination were the qualities that elevated him to elite swimmer status. Routinely, he broke down every stroke to analyze what he could do better—especially the 400-meter freestyle, his best event. Three years before the ’92 Games in Barcelona, he was all but guaranteed a spot on the Virgin Islands Olympic swim team for the 50, 100 and 400. However, Tim was blown off course by events out of his control.
Hurricane Hugo battered St. Croix in 1989; most of the island was left in ruins, with its buildings demolished and infrastructure in shambles. Miraculously, Tim’s house—with a fortified foundation—withstood the powerful winds and storm surge. Anticipating violent storms, his father William used his expertise in stonework to build a house that couldn’t be knocked down. The local swimming pool, where Tim trained, wasn’t as fortunate. Filled with storm debris and needing extensive repairs, the pool lacked all functionality. Consequently, swim practices were moved to the ocean. But by the time the team reconvened, Tim had experienced another painful blow, which accelerated the demise of his swimming career. His mother Ione, who was his loudest supporter at every swim meet, lost her battle with breast cancer the day before Tim’s 14th birthday. Completely crushed, Tim never swam competitively again.
In the months following his mother’s death, Tim found a new way to express his athleticism and competitive nature while simultaneously dealing with his grief and pain. Just before Ione’s death, Tim’s sister Cheryl, who was living in Ohio, sent a basketball hoop back to St. Croix so Tim could pick up the game. Putting his masonry skills to work again, Tim’s father anchored the hoop in a strong cement base, predicting that nothing could ever knock it down. Before ending his water game, Tim did nothing more than heave a couple of playful shots up at the unfamiliar rim. Little did he know that he was laying the groundwork for his future career.
When Tim’s mother passed, Cheryl and her husband Ricky Lowery, who had been the starting point guard for Capital University, moved back to St. Croix to be with the rest of the Duncans. Ricky took the court with Tim and began teaching him the skills of the game. At about six feet, Tim was tall for his age, and Ricky guessed that he’d grow another four or five inches. With this estimate in mind, Ricky taught Tim the nuances of the perimeter game. Tim discovered a passion for the sport, and before long he was a complete player—able to dribble, pass, finish off the break and shoot from the outside, especially the pull-up jumper off the glass.
The next fall, as a 14-year-old freshman, Tim tried out for and made St. Dunstan Episcopal High School’s varsity team. Initially, his approach to the game was pretty nonchalant—just a way to have fun and get over the loss of his mom—but that quickly changed. Over the next three seasons, Tim grew nine inches and began dominating the entire Caribbean. The perimeter skills Ricky taught him, combined with his new tall frame, made Tim an unstoppable threat, which the Virgin Islands had never before seen.
When he was 16, something happened to show Tim that his talent was rare everywhere, not just on the small islands. A group of NBA stars flew down to St. Croix for some rest and relaxation, and one day they decided to play some hoops with the locals. The recently drafted Alonzo Mourning matched up against Tim. The two big men battled back and forth in front of a group of spectators. When all was said and done, the teenager had played the NBA star to a draw. Word of this island teenager with amazing skills soon reached the U.S. mainland, and colleges came calling. Nevertheless, unlike most seven-foot high school players who had proven they could hang with an NBA player, Tim’s phone wasn’t buzzing off the hook.
While U.S. blue chips were out proving themselves to college coaches in AAU games and summer league tournaments and camps, Tim relied on coaches coming to him. The University of Hartford, University of Delaware and Providence College all sent coaches down to scout Tim in person, and all three offered him a full ride on the spot. Wake Forest, the only large school to show interest in Tim, sent head coach Dave Odom. Instead of watching Tim play an organized game inside a gym, Odom witnessed him playing pick-up ball on an outdoor court. Although Odom was nervous about the informal set-up, Tim’s game was convincing enough for Odom to offer him a scholarship.
After his senior season, in which he went 25/15/5, Tim accepted Odom’s offer. He headed to Wake the summer before his freshman year, before practices started. While shooting around on his own, Tim joined a pick-up game with some of the older Demon Deacons. One of the players—unaware that Tim was an incoming freshman for the basketball team—saw Tim’s skill in action. He sprinted up to Odom’s office and told him that some guy was down there embarrassing Wake’s starters. Tim was ready to test the waters of college basketball.
Tim’s first contest was against the University of Alaska, in Anchorage. The faster, more complex game left Tim scoreless throughout, as he played in an unusually timid and hesitant fashion. He remained awkward for the first half of the season, but his game, set on a strong foundation, was not shaken. He rebounded and entered the second half with a vengeance, putting the scoring ability for which he is now known on display.
His sophomore season was nothing short of spectacular, as Tim perfected his moves in the paint. By the end of the year, the Deacons were nationally recognized, and Tim had earned the Best Defensive Player in the Nation award. Predicted to be the top pick in the ’95 NBA Draft, Tim assured his teammates and coach that he had no plans to leave school. Education was always important to him; he actually skipped a grade in elementary school, making him one year younger than his classmates throughout his high school and college years.
As his game continually improved during his junior season, Tim again had to assure his team that he wasn’t leaving early—a decision that led to one of the best single seasons for a center in college basketball history. He scored 20.8 ppg while taking few shots, averaged 60.6 percent from the field, and racked 14.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per contest.
Everyone knew that Tim was going first in the ’97 Draft, but who would get him was unknown. The Celtics and Grizzlies, both coming off miserable seasons, had the most balls in the lottery hopper. But it was the Spurs who got the top pick. They too had suffered through a terrible season, but most of their 62 losses were because the Admiral, David Robinson, was injured and played in just six games. A healthy Robinson and solid supporting cast made the environment ideal for the studious young center and the Spurs. In Tim’s rookie season, the team improved their win total by 32 games—the biggest increase in NBA history. Averaging 21.1 points and 11.9 boards per game and leading the league with 57 double-doubles, Tim was voted Rookie of the Year and selected to the All-NBA First Team.
The rest of Tim’s career has been well documented and will stand out in the league’s record books. His way of life and his game’s sound foundation have allowed him to remain rock-solid while weathering all storms, literally and figuratively. When dealing with his mother’s death, Tim endured and found a new passion. When he experienced culture shock and the more complicated game in the U.S., Tim stood strong and rose to the occasion. And after 10 seasons, the unwavering veteran center hasn’t worn down at all. His experience and steady play in the middle allow the Spurs to challenge for the NBA Championship every year.
Now that you have the background behind Tim Duncan’s ascension to the game’s elite, you can certainly appreciate what the man has to say about his inspiring journey.
STACK: At what point in your athletic career did you learn the importance of being a team player?
Duncan: I have always been that way—through high school, college and now. I think it’s because I’ve been blessed with great coaches over the years. They have all preached the team concept and the understanding that although you have a good player, you’ll only get so far without a whole team surrounding him.
Besides these coaches, who else had an impact on you and your early development as a basketball player?
Duncan: I didn’t have a lot of coaching growing up—not until I was 15 or 16. My sister and brother-in-law, who was an avid basketball player, moved back to the island. He started teaching me some aspects of the game, and I learned a lot from him early on. Then I went on to college, and my coach at Wake Forest, Coach Odom, was a great influence as well. Then I was in the NBA, where there are amazing coaches, too.
Did you look up to any basketball players or other idols when you were growing up in St. Croix?
Duncan: I was always a big Magic Johnson fan growing up. I love that he embodied the whole team concept. The Lakers of the 80s were the kind of team I wanted to play for and had the kind of players I wanted to be like. Magic started that whole team concept. Although he was the best, it wasn’t just him out there. He had a bunch of guys around him, and that’s how they got it done.
Did you model your game after Magic’s—spreading the ball and doing it all?
Duncan: (laughs) Sure, we play different positions, but I would love to be able to say that about my early career. We play two different kinds of games, but the concept is the same—moving the ball and getting everyone involved. We both understand that we can’t do it alone.
Was leaving St. Croix for Wake Forest a hard transition for you?
Duncan: Absolutely. I was going to play a totally different style of basketball and at a very high level. It was a big-time shock to me. There was a big learning curve, but I was lucky enough to be in a situation where a bunch of seniors were there to help me. [Playing basketball at Wake] didn’t work out for some of the other recruits, so I had the opportunity to step in and play a whole lot my freshman year. That really helped my learning process.
Can you explain why you chose to stay at Wake Forest for all four years?
Duncan: I enjoyed college, I really did. I was a big fan of college life and college basketball. It is great to be in a situation like that, where you have the opportunity to really grow as a person. You can be “grown up,” but not in an all-the-way grown-up situation. I was really excited to stay four years and finish up my degree. I got it done so that I could move on and never have to look back later in life and think, “Now I have to finish [my degree].” It all worked out for me, and I am thankful I did it that way.
Did the Spurs, once they selected you, help further your development?
Duncan: It was another great situation that a number-one pick hardly ever steps into. I had some veterans like Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott and David Robinson really help out my development. Usually, a top pick goes into a really tough environment; he has to be the man, carry the team and find a way to win. I got there, and these guys were already established. Yeah, they were coming off injuries, but they had been in the league, playing together for years. I could just step in, play my game and get better and better outside of the spotlight while they carried the team.
What has been your most memorable moment as an athlete so far?
Duncan: My first championship in the NBA is the most memorable; it was just so unexpected and came early in my career. I just couldn’t believe that I was experiencing that so early on. But every championship has been sweet, and there is nothing like knowing that you are the last team standing at the end of the year.
How do those MVP Awards stack up?
Duncan: Those are great years as well. Those awards, combined with the championships, have really been the sweetest thing for me. It’s great to win MVP, and it’s great to win other individual awards; but when it’s not justified by winning championships or regular season titles, then it loses a lot of meaning.
You represent experience in the adidas ‘It Takes 5ive’ campaign. What have you learned throughout your career regarding the importance of each player having a role on a team?
Duncan: I think you just said it: the importance of every player having a role. If you look back over the past few decades, all of the great teams—the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls—that’s always there. It’s always been about five people being on the same page, and understanding and playing for one goal. I think adidas wants everyone to understand that it’s not only about an individual and what he can do, but about getting a team to where they want to be and getting a player to where he wants to be. You have to use all of your teammates.
10 or 15 years from now, when someone looks back on your career, how would you want him to remember or describe you?
Duncan: I hope he would describe me as someone who played hard, loved to play and won a lot of games. That’s the extent of it, nothing more.
What do you think are your best physical and mental weapons on the basketball court?
Duncan: Physically, it’s just being healthy. I’ve only been through one knee surgery in my career, and knock on wood, it’s the last one. Being healthy enough so that you can give it your all, I consider that a huge blessing. Mentally, the experience I have really helps me out. I am going into my 10th season, and I have been in and experienced every situation possible. Experience is definitely underrated, and being able to bring it to the table is definitely an advantage.
How important were sports to you when you were young, and how important do you think they are for any young person?
Duncan: Competition is great for everyone. Sports can teach you so much at an early age, including camaraderie and sportsmanship. But the competition aspect is something I’ve always been big on—I always wanted to compete in something. It was swimming for many years, then I moved on to basketball. I had to find a way to channel my competitive energy, so I’m lucky that basketball worked out for me.
Where did you get idea for your charitable foundation?
Duncan: I got the idea from my teammates when I came into the league. I looked at guys like Avery and everything they did for the community here. I wanted to find a way to be a part of and give back to the community like they did. [My foundation] aims to serve the communities of San Antonio, St. Croix and around the Carolinas. Those are the areas I’ve been in throughout my career, so I really try to do a lot with the kids there. We like to reward them when they show good behavior and exhibit positive characteristics. We also do a lot with cancer research and development. I lost both my parents to cancer, so that’s very close to my heart, and I want to do all I can in that respect.
You are known as a very skilled player. What kinds of things do you do in the off-season to hone your basketball skills, like footwork and shooting?
Duncan: I work a lot on my shot, but it’s hard to work on footwork. The experience from games— going through a whole season where your body and feet endure many different situations—is where you can pick things up. I just try to get in the best shape I can strength-wise and do a lot of running in the summer to build a good base for the season. I worked really hard last summer to improve my shot. Those things have been my biggest focus over the summers. But I usually take about a month off after the season for recovery purposes, then I get back in the weight room and start things slowly. I stay off the court for another two to three weeks after that, then I work on-court drills back in slowly as well.
Outside of basketball, what do you enjoy doing?
Duncan: I love the water; so all kinds of water sports are enjoyable for me. I grew up on an island, so just being in the water is one of my favorite things; it really has an effect on me.
If you had a chance to speak to a high school athlete, what advice would you offer him based on your experiences?
Duncan: Get your education. The number of guys who are blessed to be in the league is so small compared to the number of high school players [who want to play in the league]. But one thing you can do is get your college education. If you are blessed enough to get a scholarship to play college basketball, make sure you get your college degree, too, then move on from there.