Tim Duncan of St. Croix

Tim Duncan

Virgin Islands Hero

Spurs' Duncan remains a local hero in Virgin Islands
October 10, 2005
From the San Antonio Express-News

CHRISTIANSTED, U.S. Virgin Islands Shaquille O'Neal nicknamed him Big Fundamental. Tony Parker's French-inflected title of choice remains the endearing Timm-eee.

To Sarah Harvey, however, Tim Duncan will always be Fishandfungi Man.

In between sweeping the floor and waiting tables at Harvey's self-named restaurant here in the main town of St. Croix, Duncan regularly helped himself to the proprietor's fish and fungi, a cornmeal dumpling made with okra and "just the right amount of love."

"If you don't eat the fungi," Harvey said with a smile, "you're not in St. Croix."

Harvey still serves up plenty of fungi, along with conch soup, goat stew and the other local favorites that make up her daily list of chalkboard specials. But her restaurant, long home to some of the island's best Caribbean cooking, also serves as a shrine to her former helper.

Visitors are greeted by a portrait of Duncan painted on the building's stone exterior. Inside, amid the red-and-white plastic tablecloths and paper placemats, is a giant autographed photo of Duncan taken from his days at Wake Forest. Stories about playoff victories and the Spurs' first championship hang on another wall, along with a team photo.

"I said all along he's got places to go," Harvey said. "One friend of mine said after Timmy's first game at Wake Forest, 'Oh, he's not going to make it.' I told him, 'You'll see. He's going to make it to the top.'"

Having won three NBA championships in seven years, during which he established himself as one of the game's best players, Duncan has made good on Harvey's vow. His homeland, it seems, continues to celebrate his success.

Duncan's return to the U.S. Virgin Islands was front-page news each day last week. More than 3,000 fans, many of whom paid more than $100 for a ticket, crammed into the Sport and Fitness Center on the University of the Virgin Islands' St. Thomas campus Friday night to watch the Spurs scrimmage.

During a visit to a local elementary school Friday afternoon, Duncan was greeted by more than 300 screaming students. Many of the fans at Friday's game wore his No. 21 jersey. One woman carried a handmade sign that read "Duncan 4 Governor."

"He's our greatest hero," said Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, the U.S. Virgin Islands' highest-ranking elected official. "The children respect him, and many would like to be like him. He's a true role model."

Duncan's only disappointment is that the Spurs weren't able to train in St. Croix. The islands' best gym is in St. Thomas, where the team has remained during its weeklong stay.

"I wish we were another 40 miles away," Duncan said. "But it's nice being this close."

Although both of Duncan's parents have passed away and his two sisters live in North Carolina, he tries to return to St. Croix each offseason. Only the Olympics and the birth of his first child have kept him away in recent years.

Through his foundation, Duncan purchased and installed the first wooden basketball court in St. Croix. He's provided grants to buy equipment for a local hospital; re-establish a Red Cross chapter in St. Croix; and aid the United Nations in restoring Virgin Islands communities damaged by hurricanes.

For three years, Duncan also has funded a program in St. Croix that rewards grade-school children for exhibiting strong character traits. Unable to visit St. Croix this week, he paid to have two boats bring 800 islanders to Friday's game.

Duncan re-established residency in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1999 so he could pay income tax from his multimillion dollar NBA contracts to the island government. Two summers ago, he opted not to join his U.S. teammates in playing against the Virgin Islands in the Olympic qualifying tournament.

"He's kind of put the islands on the map, athletically," said Phoenix Suns guard Raja Bell, who also grew up in St. Croix. "He's the pride of the islands. I just don't think people understand how much he's done for the area."

St. Croix is the largest of the four U.S. Virgin Islands, measuring 84 square miles. Christopher Columbus nicknamed the island Santa Cruz when he landed there in 1493, though the sharp-tipped weapons of the local Carib Indians convinced him to quickly head to Puerto Rico.

It was here, amid St. Croix's pristine beaches, rolling hills and lush vegetation, that Duncan grew up among the 50,000 inhabitants. His mother, Ione, died from breast cancer the day before his 14th birthday. His father, Bill, worked at a hotel and helped support the family with an assortment of other maintenance jobs.

Bill was "very stern, but loving," said Harvey, who lived across the street from the Duncans' single-story stucco house. "He made sure he had his kids in order."

Duncan was not unlike most boys his age. He had a Doberman pincher named Boss. On Sundays, after attending service at St. John's, an Anglican church founded in 1760, he rode his bike or played video games.

Duncan also liked to swim. His sister, Tricia, was a member of the Virgin Islands' 1988 Olympic swim team, and Duncan showed great promise as well.

"Swimming is a great learning tool," Duncan said. "I loved it when I was in it, and I love seeing kids involved in it now."

As a student, Duncan was "quiet, but not shy," said Joelynn Grace, who taught him computer programming at St. Dunstan's Episcopal School.

"He always participated in everything," she said. Duncan, Grace recalled, started a fad at school by wearing his backpack on his chest. At Wake Forest, he also began wearing his practice shorts backward.

Duncan was 13 when Hurricane Hugo hammered St. Croix on Sept. 17, 1989. After the eye of the ferocious storm passed over the island, nearly 90 percent of the buildings were damaged. Thousands of people were left homeless, and the U.S. government dispatched military police to help restore order to the island.

Parts of St. Croix took a year to rebuild. Reported damages totaled close to $2 billion, and the physical destruction was not unlike what the U.S. Gulf Coast suffered last month from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Duncan weathered the storm in a cinderblock bathroom at home. The house's corrugated metal roof, built by his father, miraculously remained intact.

"Having been through that and having lived through six months without power and rebuilding a community and being a part of that," Duncan said, "I see what other people are going through now and I sympathize with them."

The Country Day School pool where Duncan trained with the Dolphins Swim Team was destroyed by Hugo.

"He tried to continue swimming in open waters," said Rashidi Clenance, Duncan's closest friend since childhood. "But with the currents it just became frustrating to him, I guess."

As a result, Clenance recruited Duncan to play basketball.

"I was about business back then, so I wanted Tim on my team," he said. "He was always taller than the rest of us. I really pushed him, and once we got to know each other, we started to develop our games together.

"We got better together. But he just never stopped getting better."

Duncan played pick-up games with Clenance and other friends on the island's outdoor courts. His brother-in-law, Ricky Lowery, helped hone his skills enough that he impressed college recruiters during an exhibition against a talented U.S. touring team.

"He already had the discipline and the work ethic from swimming," Clenance said. "He just transferred that from the pool to the court."

A dozen years later, Duncan has returned as the island's most famous product. Harvey, for one, wasn't surprised.

"If you feed him well, he will play well," she said. "That's why we have strong Duncan."

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