Michael Phelps is 6’4” tall. He’s dominated several Olympic games with his tall, svelte frame. His height advantage was unnecessary in many of his races, as he crushed the competition with superior athletic ability. Were it not for one ill-fated natural disaster, I could have written those same words about 6’11” Tim Duncan, and I wouldn’t have spent the past 17 years as a San Antonio Spurs fan.
Tim Duncan grew up on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Isles. Unlike many kids today, he didn’t start playing basketball until he was a freshman in high school. Before then, he was a swimmer. And a good one too. As a young teenager, he was a member of the local swim team. He was so talented that he became the top U.S. competitor in his age group in the 400-meter freestyle. But then, the unthinkable happened.
In 1989, Hurricane Hugo ripped through the Caribbean and the United States. Causing over $10 billion dollars in damages and the loss of over sixty lives, it cross St. Croix as a category-four storm. In the aftermath, as the island’s residents started to rebuild their fractured lives, the local swim team discovered the foundation of their pool was analogously cracked. There was no rebuilding it.The team was done. They’d missed their opportunity.
Twenty-five years later, before the 2013-2014 season, Duncan was hearing the same thing. He’d missed his opportunity. There were gale-force winds conspiring against his opportunity for greatness. Age. LeBron. Durant. But the stoic, resigned Duncan wouldn’t have any of it. After a Western Conferences Finals victory over the Thunder, he stated, in a matter of fact way, “We have four more [games] to win. We’ll do it this time.” Confident words from a man who was 17 years into his NBA career—a career that almost never happened.
Shortly after Hurricane Hugo, Duncan’s mother died. He decided to give up swimming just as easily as he’d decided to start it. But, prompted by his brother-in-law, he started playing basketball. The transition from the water to the court must have been difficult for him. He spent the next several years of high school and college figuring things out. He adopted an awkward game—something we still see to this day. Glass from 22 feet. Sweeping flip shots through the lane. Ducking underneath lengthy opponents with a swimmer’s precision. While figuring it out, Duncan grew 9 inches in high school, got recruited by four major college programs, and ultimately chose Wake Forest University.
Duncan had a chance to leave college early for the NBA. But he promised his mother he’d finish. I’m glad he did. In 1996—Duncan’s junior year at Wake Forest—the Philadelphia 76ers held the first pick. They selected Allen Iverson. Given Duncan’s junior year performance, he likely would have gone first in that draft. The next year, the Spurs picked Duncan with the first pick, after an injury-riddled season left their best player, David Robinson sidelined. And the rest, as they say, is history. Five titles. Three Finals MVPs. Two league MVPs. Countless other accolades.
I jumped on the Spurs bandwagon in 1997 when they picked the quiet, reserved, awkward former swimmer from Wake Forest. He was the antithesis of Allen Iverson. Workmanlike. Committed to team. Egoless. A player I could get down with. Some call it boring, I call it basketball. And it’s beautiful to see a leader committed to team over self. In many ways, that’s the gospel way—the Spurs exemplifying “doing life together” in ways that transcend basketball. Sometimes you have to relish these moments. They don’t come around very often. Life has a way of throwing all kinds of surprises our way. For Duncan, it started with a hurricane. And for 17 years, I’ve enjoyed watching a great player on the court—as calm as the eye of a storm. So here’s to the greatest power forward of all-time and the greatest player of his generation, Tim Theodore Duncan. Who knows? He might not be done yet. I wouldn’t put it past him.