On a September afternoon in 1992, while sitting at his desk, Coach Dave Odom noticed one of his former players bouncing down the hall of Wake Forest’s basketball offices. Chris King had just returned from a charity tour of the Virgin Islands, playing exhibition games against locals in sweaty gyms and hot blacktops. Odom asked him about the trip, and at the end of their chat, Odom grinned and asked, “You didn’t see a kid down there we should be interested in, did you?”
It was mostly a joke, of course — Odom knew the tiny Virgin Islands produced top-shelf college basketball players about as often as Antarctica. Except King didn’t take it as a joke. A gangly, soft-spoken kid with good hands and an expressionless face had stuck with him.
“Actually, there’s this one kid over there,” King said. “His name is Tim Duncan.”
Everybody knows him now, at the end. Duncan announced his retirement Monday morning after a 19-year NBA career that distinguished him as one of the best players in the sport’s history, perhaps the greatest power forward ever. He won five NBA titles and two MVPs and reached the playoffs 19 consecutive years. He led the building of a dynasty in San Antonio, the league’s smallest outpost, with uncommon dignity, a player of perfect fundamentals and pure substance.
At the start, the only person who knew Tim Duncan was Chris King. Duncan’s greatness, his competitive zeal and agile grace, probably would have surfaced no matter the path he took from St. Croix to college basketball to the NBA. But the arc of his career formed because of pure happenstance — because King took that trip, played against Duncan and decided to report back to the Wake Forest basketball offices.
“It’s a true story,” King said. “It’s a great story. And the rest is history.”
After King’s rookie season with the Seattle SuperSonics, his agent, Bob Kingsley, arranged a tour for NBA players to raise money and awareness following a spate of violence in the Virgin Islands. They gathered a ragtag team using any connections they could, and the biggest attraction they landed was Alonzo Mourning, who by that time had become a star.
When the NBA players arrived, word circulated about a 16-year-old, 6-foot-9 center with deft touch who used to be a star swimmer. King grew curious.
“Here comes this long, lanky kid,” King said. “He looked so young.”
Inside a packed gym, Duncan matched up against Mourning. Early on in the game, Duncan caught a pass on the block, turned, squared up and banked a shot in over Mourning. The rest of the night, King said, Duncan “dominated” Mourning. King figured Mourning was going through the motions in a charity game, but Duncan’s performance still blew him away.
“You could see he was a little raw, but you could see he had the touch,” King said. “When I saw him doing that on the low block, it was like, ‘Wow.’ Jump hook. Fade. This one play, I’ll never forget. Alonzo tried to go up. Tim blocked the shot, and he ran the floor like a deer. Someone threw it to him, and he dunked all over Alonzo.
“He’s playing against Alonzo Mourning. He’s 16. He’s dominating this guy. He’s running the floor. He has these great hands. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this kid can play!’ ”
And nobody in big-time college basketball had heard of him. It was 1992, before the Internet shrank the world and recruiting became an industry unto itself. Duncan hadn’t played organized basketball long enough for word to circulate. He had been on an Olympic swimming track until Hurricane Hugo destroyed St. Croix’s lone Olympic-sized pool. Duncan’s fear of sharks prevented him from swimming in the ocean. When his mother died of breast cancer when Duncan was 14, he lost what interest he had in swimming and sought solace in basketball.
King hadn’t learned all of that when he approached Duncan at the end of the NBA trip to the islands. “I was like, ‘I went to Wake, man. It might be a place for you,’ ” King said. “He was so quiet and shy. He kind of smiled.”
When King returned and told his old coach about Duncan, Odom perked up. He respected King’s opinion, and he wanted to know more. Odom asked King which island Duncan lived on.
“I don’t know,” King replied.
“I don’t know.”
How could he get in touch?
“I don’t know.”
Odom met with his staff later that afternoon. Larry Davis, a first-year assistant, had coached at Oak Hill Academy and landed international players there. He thought he could find a lead.
“I didn’t think anything would come of it,” Odom said. Davis talked to an old friend, an assistant coach at Delaware, and later that day, Davis plopped information on Odom’s desk.
Odom arranged a trip to St. Croix to meet Duncan. He might not have been interested at all if Wake Forest didn’t have an extra scholarship, but since it did, Odom viewed Duncan as a possible flier. The Demon Deacons had already drawn commitments from two international big men, Makhtar N’Diaye from France and Ricky Peral from Spain, and Odom was certain both were better than Duncan.
Odom arrived alone on a Sunday afternoon to watch Duncan play pick-up games on an outdoor court. “There must have been 800 people there,” Odom said. As players chose up sides and vied for a spot on the floor, Duncan receded to the sidelines. Odom walked over to him, stupefied.
“Tim, you’re not going to play?” Odom asked him. “I came all this way. Aren’t you going to play?”
Duncan explained he would play, but only after the first game. If he played in the first game, he told Odom, the older players would put him on the worse team, and if he lost it would take all day for him to get back on the court. If he waited, he could pick his teammates, and Odom would have a better chance to evaluate him.
“The best thing about him was he had a sense of awareness that was almost never seen in domestic kids his age,” Odom said. “That’s the biggest compliment I can give him. Other kids, they’re not making that decision. He’s very introspective, and he’s always thinking ahead.”
Duncan proved himself right — once he got on the court, his team won and won, and Odom got to see what he came to St. Croix for. Duncan struck Odom as a “neophyte,” he said, with dexterous feet but a frail frame and natural, but unfinished, skills. Duncan’s seriousness continued to stand out. Between games, Duncan walked over to Odom and asked, “What do you think?”
“I think you’re good,” Odom said. “The only thing I haven’t seen is, you told me you had a jump hook.”
Duncan nodded and went back to the court. The next game, he nailed two or three of them. “He didn’t look refined,” Odom said. “He went out there with a purpose and got it done.”
Odom wasn’t overwhelmed, but he was impressed enough to offer that scholarship and redshirt Duncan, and Duncan accepted the offer.
“I would be less than honest if it ever came to my mind that I had an NBA player on my hands,” Odom said. “Certainly let alone that I had one of the five best basketball players to ever play in my lap.”
Even after fall practice, Odom still planned to redshirt Duncan in favor of N’Diaye and Peral. Wake Forest opened the season in the Great Alaska Shootout. Hours before the tip-off, Wake Forest’s compliance director called Odom, panicked, saying that the NCAA had raised questions about the eligibility of N’Diaye and Peral.
“I said, ‘What? We’re ready to play! ” Odom said. “My compliance guy said, You can’t play them. If you do, you risk forfeiture.’ I called the staff and told them, ‘I think we’re gonna have to play Duncan.’
“He scored maybe one point. But he blocked three or four shots. Got about six rebounds. The next night, a little bit better. Next night, a little bit better. We lost the first game, came back won the next two. We get back to Winston-Salem, and we still hadn’t gotten the eligibility cleared up. I just went with Duncan. We played at Vanderbilt on national TV. He scored nine points, had 11 rebounds and got five blocks. That was the night I said, ‘Don’t worry about the other two guys.’ ”
Everybody started to learn about Duncan, the quiet 7-footer who always made the right play, always found the right spot. His body filled out, his jump shots started falling, and he became the best player in college basketball, then one of the greatest winners in sports history. It started on a tiny island, with an exhibition game.
“I would have never guessed it,” Chris King said. “He was so well-mannered. He was never emotional. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if this kid has got the spunk to get to the NBA.’ I believed with the right coach, the right program, he could be a good college player.
“It’s like a book. Just to see the way he made the transition, and then become one of the best basketball players ever, probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer, it’s just shocking to me. This kid really worked and did what he was supposed to do and went about it in a very quiet and humble way. It’s really like a dream, like a Cinderella story.”
King and Duncan kept touch for years, and worked out together for a time in the offseason, but they’ve fallen out of contact. Duncan created a life in Texas, and King raised a son who is set to play at Wisconsin next season. King is tickled about whatever role he played in Duncan’s story. He still loves to talk about it, and every so often someone will bring it up.
“They’ll be like, ‘You think you can find us a Tim Duncan?’ ” King said. “It’s just hard to do.”