Life On The Island
Timothy Theodore Duncan was born on April 25, 1976, on St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, an 82-squaremile island in the eastern Caribbean Sea. He was the third of four children born to William and Ione Duncan. His father, a mason, worked a variety of jobs, and his mother was a midwife. Both Duncan and his sister Tricia were talented swimmers. Tricia represented the Virgin Islands in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke in the 1988 Olympics, and Duncan holds the Virgin Islands record in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events and was a nationally ranked swimmer in the United States in the 400-meter freestyle by the age of thirteen.
Duncan's mother encouraged and supported her children. She attended all Duncan's swim meets, usually yelling loud enough for Duncan to hear her above the crowd. His mother instilled a strong work ethic in her children, and Duncan still repeats her motto to himself: "Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best." Duncan expected to pursue his swimming career to the next Olympics, but Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix in 1989, destroying the only Olympic-sized pool on the island. With no place to train, Duncan tried swimming in the ocean, but was not thrilled with sharing the water with the sharks that inhabited the waters around St. Croix. If the hurricane took away Duncan's place to swim,
his mother's death from breast cancer just one day before his fourteenth birthday took away Duncan's desire to swim. Duncan's older sister, Cheryl, who had been studying nursing in the United States, returned to the island with her husband to help care for the devastated family.
Cheryl's husband, Ricky Lowry, who had played basketball at Capital University, a small college in Ohio, encouraged Duncan to pursue basketball. In 1988 Cheryl had shipped a pole and basketball backboard from Ohio to her younger brother as a Christmas present. Planted deep in the ground by his father, it was one of the few things left standing after Hugo passed through. In the days that followed his mother's death, Duncan's brother-in-law encouraged him to play hoops. Duncan complied, and later told Sports Illustrated, "I remember thinking that after basketball season ended, I'd go back to swimming, but then basketball season never ended." Not knowing that Duncan would grow ten inches in the next few years, Lowry taught his then-six-foot pupil the perimeter game, lessons that provided Duncan with ball-handling skills and a court awareness that set him apart from other big men in the game.
By the time he was a senior, Duncan was averaging twenty-five points, twelve rebounds, and five blocked shots per game at St. Dunstan's Episcopal High School. Despite glowing write-ups in the local St. Croix sports pages, Duncan received relatively little interest from colleges. When a group of NBA rookies toured the Virgin Islands, Chris King, who played college ball at Wake Forest University, was impressed by Duncan's performance against Alonzo Mourning. King called his old coach, Dave Odom, who made the trip to St. Croix to see Duncan play. During the visit, reticent and shy, Duncan watched television as Odom spoke until the coach finally asked if he might turn it off so he could have Duncan's full attention. To Odom's astonishment, Duncan repeated back the entire discussion, making the coach quickly realized that Duncan's distracted look did not translate into distracted attention.