At precisely 2 p.m. on May 8, Demon Deacons coach Dave Odom was driving to the airport when he placed a call to his office from his car phone. According to plan, center Tim Duncan answered the phone while seated at Odom's desk. The coach directed Duncan's attention to two sheets of paper that had been placed facedown in front of him on the desk. Odom asked Duncan to read the paper to his left, a press release announcing that Duncan was declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft. Then the coach asked Duncan to read the one on his right, another release explaining that he would remain at Wake Forest for his senior season. After studying the two documents carefully, Duncan told his coach that he would make the right choice.
Senior forward Sean Allen was lifting weights that afternoon when a teammate informed him of Duncan's decision. "It was a great relief, like hearing that somebody you love had made it through surgery," Allen remembers. "It's like the whole team was pacing nervously in the waiting room, but I think Coach Odom was working the worry beads the hardest."
For the second season in a row Odom feels as if he hit the jackpot because Duncan chose not to enter the NBA lottery. But even Odom can't figure a way to get his star center back for a fifth season, which may explain why, on the first day of practice this fall, the coach read to his players from a book entitled The Precious Present. The book came highly recommended by Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, who shared it with his team last season on the way to the Wildcats' national championship. The Precious Present, a collection of pithy proverbs, is a feel-good hit, much like the Wake Forest program itself.
Mostly due to the presence of Duncan, the 6'10" wunderkind from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Demon Deacons have transformed themselves from have-nots into heavyweights. Wake Forest has won the last two ACC tournaments and should win a third straight; no team has done that since North Carolina won three in a row from 1967 to '69. Duncan, who last season led the ACC in rebounding (12.3 per game) and blocked shots (120) and finished second in scoring average (19.1) and field goal percentage (55.5%), returns as the prohibitive favorite to sweep the national player of the year awards. He is joined on the baseline by Ricky Peral, a 6'10" sharpshooter from Valladolid, Spain, who was second in the nation in three-point field goal percentage (51.0%) a year ago, and by the 6'8" Allen, a strong defender and rebounder who started his collegiate career at South Florida and played a year at Anderson (S.C.) Junior College before coming to Wake. Odom will also find playing time for his prize recruit, 7'1" center Loren Woods from St. Louis, who will give Wake the option of playing a front line that averages 6'11", which is taller than most of the starting front lines in the NBA.
The key to Wake's season is junior point guard Tony Rutland. A relative newcomer to the playmaking role, Rutland has been a point guard only since his senior season at Bethel High in Hampton, Va., when his teammate, Allen Iverson, was forced to quit the team after the famous bowling-alley incident. Rutland, who averaged 11.9 points, 3.9 assists and only 2.7 turnovers a game last season, must play his way back into shape after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the '96 ACC championship game, an injury that required off-season reconstructive surgery. That setback, coupled with a preseason foot injury that has slowed Wake's only other experienced guard, Jerry Braswell, led Duncan to suggest shifting himself to point guard if Rutland didn't recover in time for the season opener. "I thought about what it would be like to have Tim dribbling the ball upcourt, and that cured me quicker than any rehab," Rutland says. "I knew I'd better be ready, or this team would be doomed."
If the guards can remain healthy, Wake has a chance to reach its first Final Four since '62, when Billy Packer was the point guard. Nothing less will satisfy Duncan. "I didn't come back to school to be a spokesman for college basketball," Duncan says. "I came back to do something special, to try to win another ACC title and then maybe the national championship."
With each significant victory during the Duncan era, Wake students have revived a curious ancient ritual known as rolling the quad, which consists of emptying the campus bathrooms of toilet paper and unspooling the rolls onto the trees and shrubbery in the middle of campus. "It feels so good to come home and see the quad looking like the dead of winter," Rutland says. "I guess if we finally do get to the Final Four, it'll look like a blizzard in April."