It isn’t every day in college recruiting that a coach lands a future NBA lottery pick because a hurricane blew through the U.S. Virgin Islands.
What’s more, had this hurricane tormented some other helpless atoll, that coach’s ticket to the Final Four might have been leading the break on the university swim team instead of finishing it with two-handed jams against Duke.
In the end, though, Tim Duncan ended up as starting center of a basketball storm, Wake Forest, playing for Coach Dave Odom, who should be paying monthly homage to the basketball gods.
No, Odom does not now scan National Weather Service radar maps, charting tropical depressions that could lead to his next superstar.
“This was a once-in-a-career find,” Odom says of Duncan. “No question about that.”
Duncan has begun his junior season as the nation’s most touted big man, the last-of-a-breed low-post player who won’t turn pro before he’s 20.
Some think Duncan would have been the first player taken in the NBA draft last summer, had he declared himself eligible after leading the Demon Deacons to a school-record 26 victories.
At 6 feet 10 and 240 pounds, Duncan averaged 16.8 points a game and led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rebounds, 12.5, and blocked shots, 4.2. Those weren’t cream-puff stats. The competition included NBA lottery picks Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Joe Smith.
Perhaps more shocking than Duncan’s decision not to follow his fellow ACC sophomores into the millionaire boys’ club was that he never considered it.
“I had made [the decision to stay] for a long time,” Duncan says.
First a hurricane, now this. Odom isn’t asking for much this Christmas.
No matter what others say, Duncan maintains he is not physically or mentally ready for the pros. He won’t turn 20 until April.
“The truth is, he loves college,” Odom says. “He loves hanging out with people his own age. As much as he’d love the challenge, he couldn’t see himself spending 50 nights a year in hotels, hanging out with 30-year-old men.
“Nothing against 30-year-old men--I wish I was 30--but he just couldn’t see himself hanging out with Karl Malone. Nothing against Karl Malone. The one thing the NBA, or a big contract, can never do is make you 19 again.”
It was all too much too fast for Duncan. Not enough time had passed since Hugo.
When Hurricane Hugo swept through St. Croix in September 1989, Tim Duncan was a swimmer, one of the territory’s best 400-meter freestylers in his age group. Tricia, an older sister, swam the 100- and 200-meter backstroke for the Virgin Islands in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
But Hugo, in a blasted breath of destruction, wrecked a thousand dreams. Hugo uprooted trees, blew off roofs and tore apart fences, parts of which littered the island swimming pools where young Olympic hopefuls trained.
Duncan’s swim team tried to practice in the Caribbean, but somehow it wasn’t the same with all those sharks and no lane markers.
Duncan was also going through the crisis of losing his mother, Ione, to breast cancer, and nothing much seemed important.
So Tim Duncan quit.
Looking back, he can’t say for sure whether Hugo changed his life. Had the storm never occurred, had he kept swimming, had he continued getting better, had he made the 1992 Olympics, would Duncan have gravitated to basketball?
“Probably,” Duncan says. “Eventually. It just wouldn’t have been as sudden as it was. But slowly, I would have turned to basketball, I believe.”
Slowly may not have been fast enough.
Duncan didn’t take up the game until he was in the ninth grade.
After his mother’s death, Tim’s other sister, Cheryl, moved back to St. Croix with her husband, Ricky Lowery, a former walk-on guard at Capital University, a Division III school in Columbus, Ohio.
Lowery started working with Tim, who was 14 at the time.
Had it not been for Hugo, it’s debatable whether Duncan could have developed enough to attract attention two years later when Chris King, a Wake Forest player at the time, passed through St. Croix on an all-star tour.
When Odom asked King if he had seen any prospects on the island--one of those throw-away coaching lines--King mentioned a raw talent named Duncan who had held his own against Georgetown’s Alonzo Mourning.
Odom was gone so fast he left a dust trail.
With few other schools in the chase, Odom flew to St. Croix himself to close the deal on Duncan, not an easy task. Duncan stared at a television while Odom made his pitch. Odom was surprised to learn that Duncan had been listening all along when he looked up from the screen long enough to ask all the right questions.
Duncan accepted Odom’s scholarship offer, but what did Odom really have?
“When I saw him play, I said to myself, ‘Had he played in the continental U.S., there would be a holy war for the guy,’ ” Odom says. “But you can say that about a lot of guys.”
Truth is, no one was sure. Duncan was the least regarded of three recruits in 1993-94, ranking behind Makhtar Ndiaye from Senegal and Spain’s Ricardo Peral.
As a basketball town, St. Croix wasn’t Brooklyn. Or even St. Louis.
“When I first saw him play, I figured he was capable of being very good,” senior guard Rusty LaRue says. “Uh, maybe not the top player in the country.”
Duncan, though, was a quick study.
“I started playing at age 6,” LaRue says. “He didn’t start ‘til, what, ninth grade? That’s just amazing. He really knows a lot about the game.”
Odom considered redshirting Duncan his freshman season until a recruiting rules violation sent Ndiaye packing for Michigan--he’s now enrolled at North Carolina. Peral then was ordered to sit out a season after it was learned he had played for a club in Spain.
So Duncan went from redshirt to starting center in the land of the ACC giants.
His first college game, the opener of the Great Alaska Shootout against the hometown team, Alaska Anchorage, was a dud.
“He scored no points,” Odom says. “Against a Division II school. To come from there to today, or from that swimming pool to today, that’s a story.”
And it’s not over yet.
As the May deadline approached for players to declare for the NBA draft last spring, agents and reporters rang Odom’s phone off the hook, all sure Duncan would come to his senses and change his mind.
But Duncan had retreated into seclusion back home in St. Croix, leaving Odom to spread the word.
“He said, ‘Coach, it never crossed my mind,’ ” Odom recalls of the conversation. “I’m not leaving.”
The decision can be debated as an act of courage or one of stupidity.
“I’m not going to argue that financially it makes no sense,” Odom says. “I’m saying there’s another side to it.”
So what if Laker General Manager Jerry West almost tripped over his tongue the first time he saw Duncan.
“When you get on the court, it doesn’t matter who says what,” Duncan counters.
Stackhouse, Wallace and Smith came to different conclusions, all ending with dollar signs. Kevin Garnett skipped college and went straight to the pros.
Fine for them. Not for Duncan.
“I think [Garnett] is missing out on great years in his life,” Duncan says.
Duncan returned to Wake Forest to take care of unfinished business. The Demon Deacons finished third in the regular-season polls last year, but came up short in the NCAA East Regionals, losing to Oklahoma State.
“I just want to win as many games as we can and be a contender in the end,” says Duncan, who tonight will be up against another of the country’s top centers, Marcus Camby, when the 10th-ranked Demon Deacons play at third-ranked Massachusetts.
Duncan also returned to make good on a family pledge. William Duncan, Tim’s father, promised his wife he would make sure the children completed their educations.
“He just tried to keep us together as a family,” Duncan says of his father. “He was a father and a mother to us and supports us in whatever we do.”
When Ione Duncan died, she had known her son as an aspiring swimmer. She would be surprised to know that Tim can hardly swim two laps now without gasping for air.
“Two different things,” he says, comparing swimming to basketball. “In basketball, you get to stop every once in a while.”
Duncan suspects his mom would be happy with the way things turned out.
“I don’t think she ever saw me play basketball,” Duncan says.
So wouldn’t she be proud?
“I hope so.”