If Hurricane Hugo had not hit, Tim Duncan probably would be dreaming of Olympic gold as a swimmer and the San Antonio Spurs might be another team that never made it to the NBA Finals.

But the hurricane that ravaged his native St. Croix in 1989 destroyed the only Olympic-sized pool on the island. So Duncan turned to football, then basketball.

At first, he was so clumsy he was the subject of jokes.

"He never got angry, he'd just play harder," said classmate Carl Hennemann, who is an army lieutenant in Hawaii.

Duncan was a quick study, starting as a quarterback, and showed remarkable stamina that was attributed to his swimming. He was a top U.S. competitor as a teenager in the 400-meter freestyle.

Duncan sharpened his basketball skills and showed promise with graceful jump hooks. He led St. Dunstan's Episcopal High School to an undefeated season in 1992. The year before, the Demons went 0-12.

St. Dunstan's closed after Duncan graduated, but Abraham Perez still cares for the building and was happy to unlock the door of an abandoned computer laboratory to show a newspaper photograph that he posted of Duncan playing in a high school tournament.

Duncan was an honor student, so bright he skipped third grade and graduated among the top five students, former headmistress Catherine Milligan-Terrell said.

But Duncan also was something of a clown, joining classmates to run through the abandoned Salt River Hotel evading paint-ball shots and, at least twice, playing truant for a day of bodysurfing at the beach.

The seven-footer was offered scholarships to Georgetown, Delaware and Providence. But he chose Wake Forest to study psychology.

After his sophomore and junior years, he turned down chances to enter the NBA draft to fulfill a promise to his mother that he earn a college degree. She died of cancer the day before Duncan turned 14.

After earning his degree in 1997, Duncan was voted rookie of the year and made the NBA's first team. He also was named to the first team this season.

"I knew of him always as a quiet fire, a quiet giant. His laid-back attitude is the embodiment of people of St. Croix, doing things without fanfare and hoopla," said Senate President Vargrave Richards, whose daughter attended St. Dunstan's.

"He's an ideal role model for the youngsters," said Maria Heywood of the St. Croix federation of teachers. "He's humble and has a lot of principle. You can see he came from a traditional Virgin Islands upbringing."

Duncan's fame has put St. Croix on the map. The islanders are returning the favor.

As St. Croix airport is renovated, fans erected a massive billboard photograph of the island's favorite son in the parking lot, announcing: "Welcome to St. Croix -- Home of Tim Duncan."

The cash-strapped government hopes to make money from him and is discussing giving a 100 percent tax break to his T.D. Enterprises, which plans several ventures, including a sports bar in St. Croix.

Today, 150 islanders boarded a charter jet bound for tonight's Game 1 in San Antonio against the New York Knicks. Seeing them off was Pamela Richards, the acting commissioner of tourism, who said Duncan's fame had promoted the Virgin Islands more than any advertising the government could dream of buying.

"Timmy has placed St. Croix on the map and we are eternally grateful for that," she said.

CAPTION: Portrait of a player: A painting of Spurs center Tim Duncan hanging outside restaurant in St. Croix reminds visitors of U.S. Virgin Islands's favorite son.