Calvin Duncan of Virginia Commonwealth University goes to the basket in a series of improbable hesitations and powerful explosions, somehow finding a path through the human forest that populates the paint. At 6'3" and 197 pounds, Duncan, a junior, has the quickness and strength to do business inside, but perhaps more important he has developed a habit—on and off the court—of never pulling up short.
Throughout his 22 years, Duncan has adapted to life's obstacles with much the same grace he showed in adjusting to a fully extended Ralph Sampson blocking his path to the basket in a game against Virginia last season—on that occasion he executed a show-the-ball fake and reverse layup that left the big man scaling the wrong side of the hoop. Duncan never knew his parents—his mother died when he was two weeks old; he has never met his father—yet he seems immune to dark moments and possesses a personality described by friends and fans in Richmond, Va. as magnetic. As a high school junior in Linden, N.J., Duncan could read at barely fourth-grade level, yet today he is proudly on schedule to graduate with a degree in juvenile justice and is so adept at interviews and at addressing basketball clinics that he's known as The Ambassador.
"He has so much character," says Linda Isner, a teacher at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., who along with her husband, school president Robert, became a surrogate parent to Duncan after he transferred there at 18. "His attitude is 'I want to be the best I can be in everything.' "
At VCU, which is currently ranked No. 18 in the SI Top 20, Duncan has transformed himself from a playground-style scorer who averaged 26.6 points his senior year at Oak Hill and once scored 61 in a game to a team leader and multi-faceted All-America candidate. "I want to 'dare to be great,' " he says, invoking an aphorism used by Julius Erving to describe his Philadelphia 76er teammate Andrew Toney. Dr. J has been Duncan's inspiration since Duncan was in the seventh grade; Toney is exactly the kind of "off" guard Duncan aspires to become.
Duncan is blessed with a rock-hard body of the sort NBA teams covet. His specialty is turning 15-footers into 10-footers and 10-footers into five-footers, often with a trip to the foul line thrown in for good measure. While sharing Player of the Year honors in the Sun Belt Conference last season with Charles Bradley of South Florida, Duncan took 68% of his shots from eight feet or closer and averaged 17.4 points. Yet he was also deadly from outside, hitting 16 of 28 attempts from three-point range. In two easy VCU victories last week, 94-46 over Johns Hopkins and 75-44 over East Carolina, Duncan ignored opportunities for big scoring numbers, concentrating instead on passing and defense. "I don't want my teammates to start thinking that Cal's going to be hoisting it just because he's getting attention," says Duncan. "I want them to know I'm out there to win as a team." Clearly, while he says in mock despair that he "used to be a little funkier," Duncan knows that developing his team-oriented skills will do more to enhance his basketball future than raw scoring.
One can only wonder what Mabel Wyatt Duncan, an assembly-line worker for a lamp company, thought the future held for Calvin when, after his mother's death in South Boston, Va., she brought him to Linden and raised him singlehandedly, until she died of a stroke when he was 18. School was not important to the youthful Duncan, but basketball was, especially after he was dazzled by Erving, who was then in his slam-dunking heyday with the New York Nets of the ABA.
"I would get so excited watching Julius," Duncan remembers. "I would ask the older guys at the playground, 'Man, how can I get as good as Julius?' They kind of laughed and said, 'Practice.' It was funny, trying to be as good as Julius, but I just started practicing. Every day. But there were so many good players, I was never content."
Posters of the great man adorn the wall of Duncan's dorm room. He has met his idol on four occasions, the last when the 76ers came to Richmond for an exhibition game in October. Now hanging in the poster gallery is a treasure from that meeting, a VCU publicity poster of Duncan signed, " Julius 'Dr. J' Erving."
"I've learned I can't emulate Julius' game," says Duncan, who nonetheless emulates the Doc's postgame interview practice of draping a white towel around his neck while chatting with reporters. "His leaping ability, his hands, I just don't have," says Duncan. "But he's so positive, so positive. I would like to be like him—as a person."
Duncan's first step in that direction came when he got serious about school. Although he was a basketball star at Linden High, college recruiters stopped asking about Duncan because his grades were so poor. Some friends arranged for him to enroll on scholarship at Oak Hill, where he had to repeat his junior year. Applying the same diligence in the classroom as he had on the playground, in two years Duncan improved his reading skills from the fourth-grade level to the 10th. "What was I going to do?" he says. "Go back to Linden and do nothing?"