SI Vault
S.L. Price
December 15, 2003
Two-time MVP Tim Duncan doesn't like to sound off or even share what he's really thinking. But the NBA's master of the mind game has one obsession: He needs to win at everything he does
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December 15, 2003

The Quiet Man

Two-time MVP Tim Duncan doesn't like to sound off or even share what he's really thinking. But the NBA's master of the mind game has one obsession: He needs to win at everything he does

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When his friends try to explain Duncan, the first place they turn is the island. Duncan grew up there with his father, jack-of-all-tradesman Bill Duncan, and mother, lone; two older sisters, Cheryl and Tricia; and Cheryl's husband, Ricky Lowery, who was as close to Tim as a brother. Bill Duncan all but doubled the size of their home singlehandedly—every nail and truss, every shingle had to be pounded and fit just right, above code—and the house, like the man, was a rock. When Hurricane Hugo tore through in 1989, leveling trees, peeling the corrugated tin off the homes around them, the Duncans huddled in a small cinder-block bathroom while Bill sat out on a bed for five hours, eyeing the seams and just daring that roof to move. It didn't.

Self-reliance was valued in the Duncan home; self-importance was not. When Dave Odom, the coach at Wake Forest, called Tim in the fall of his senior year in high school to set up the boy's first interview with a big-time coach (the ACC! Division I!), Tim shrugged. "Yeah," he said, "you can come down if you want to."

Duncan is, at this point, the most famous athlete in Virgin Islands history. Yet some countrymen think that he doesn't care enough about the folks back home. "They see him being interviewed and expect him to mention the Virgin Islands more, say hello to home, whatever," says Clenance, now a prominent media personality on the island. "There are those who feel he doesn't do enough. Just because he doesn't do it in front of a television camera, some think he doesn't have that love."

The problem, though, is not that Duncan feels too little for his home. It's that he feels too much. The buttery tropical light, the blue-green waters stretching to the horizon: For most, they're just postcard images of an idyllic island. But for Duncan they carry memories charged with pain. Tricia was a backstroker for the VI. at the '88 Olympics in Seoul, and at 13 Tim was considered one of the top U.S. freestylers in his age group; even then he had the rare ability to wall himself off from pressure. "I don't think it exists for him," says Michael Lohberg, his former swim coach. "He creates his own world." Their mother was the driving force behind those soggy training days, shuttling the children to practice, volunteering as a timer, repeating her mantra, "Good, better, best/Never let it rest/Until your good is better and your better is your best." During meets, beneath the water, Tim and Tricia could hear their mother's voice cheering them on.

"Timmy! Tricie! It was so embarrassing," Tricia says. "Now we would give anything to have that embarrassment."

On the day before Tim's 14th birthday, just weeks after the six-month power blackout caused by Hugo had fully lifted, lone Duncan died of breast cancer. After Tim got the news from his father, who was at the hospital, he walked into Tricia's bedroom and told her. She began sobbing. She's sure that Tim must have cried too, but her lasting memory of that moment is of Tim walking out, silently planting himself in front of the TV and playing video games the rest of the morning. His birthday got lost in the grieving. By the time of the funeral he felt like an old man.

"I've been grown-up for a long time," he says. "I went through that with my mom, and I grew to where I understood life and death and everything in between. It does make you realize your own mortality and the mortality of the people around you. You understand that you're not going to be around forever. You're not invincible."

Bill Duncan worried about his son's stoicism, wondered how Tim could keep so much inside without cracking. Tim, certain to this day that he would have been good enough to swim for the V.I. in the Olympics, quit the sport cold. He began playing more and more basketball with Lowery, first one-on-one, then in pickup games. Lowery, a former player at Division III Capital University, took one look at Tim's big hands and springy frame, saw how much the kid hated to lose, and knew what he had to work with.

He put Tim through endless drills, dribbling on stones, up stairs, carrying Lowery on his back around the front yard. By the time Tim went to Wake Forest, he could score with his left hand as well as his right. Four years later, when Tim's number, 21, was retired after one of the great careers in college basketball history, Bill Duncan took a microphone on court and began talking about lone and her death and how only he and Tim could know how proud she would be. Then he began to say the mantra again—Good, better, best...—and Tim's defenses kicked in. He walked up behind his father, "draped him," Odom recalls, "almost like a vine," and said, "That's enough, Dad."

Bill Duncan died of prostate cancer during the 2002 NBA playoffs. Five days later his children and other family members went out on a boat to a point off St. Croix and poured their father's ashes into the sea. More than once during Olympic qualifying, Tim said how much Bill would have liked to be there, hitting the restaurants, soaking up his son's accomplishments in an island setting. Getting to the Olympics had always been a fantasy for Tim. That he couldn't do it with the Virgin Islands—the island's basketball program was in disarray when he played his first competition for the U.S., in 1994, and international rules rarely allow a reversal—was something he accepted.

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