Pay attention when this man has the ball. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Pay attention when this man has the ball. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Tim Duncan will try to lead his San Antonio Spurs this week to a fifth National Basketball Association championship. The greatest power forward in basketball history owes it all to Hurricane Hugo.

It was 1989 and Duncan, a 13--year-old swimmer in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, had his sights on the 1992 Olympics. Then the hurricane devastated the island, wiping out the swimming pool. Duncan didn't like training in the ocean so he turned to a new sport: basketball.

Fast-forward three years to Dave Odom, the head basketball coach at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. One of his former players, Chris King, went on an NBA tour of the Caribbean islands to drum up interest in the game. Upon returning, he told Odom there might be a prospect down there, some skinny, 6-foot-8-inch kid but he couldn't remember the name or even which island.

Odom, who was looking to recruit big men, mentioned this to an assistant: "I told him to follow up but wasn't that excited."

During a foreign recruiting trip, Odom decided to stop by the Virgins Islands to check it out. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the 16-year-old Duncan met him and took him to a round robin of playground games slated after the local oil-refinery workers got off their shift. The first game started and Duncan sat next to the coach, the only non-Island person there. Odom asked him why he wasn't playing. Duncan explained he would play with a stronger team in the second round, giving the coach a better opportunity to see him in action.

"This was the first time I knew this was a really thoughtful kid," Odom says.

Duncan had big hands and good feet, the coach recalls, essential for a pivot player, but he was "a true diamond in the rough." Nevertheless, Odom decided to offer him a scholarship. He was only lightly recruited by a few other schools; there was no real competition.

When he arrived in the late summer of 1993 one of the college basketball recruiting gurus appraised the Wake Forest recruits and, as an afterthought, added there also was "some kid named Duncan who could be the best player in the world but nobody's seen him."

The plan was for Duncan to redshirt, or sit out a year. Only when another player was declared ineligible right before the first game did Odom decide to play the 17-year-old project from the Virgin Islands.

Duncan started slowly but developed swiftly. No one, Odom remembers, ever worked harder or studied the game more closely: "He was like a Caribbean sponge soaking in everything."

By the end of his sophomore year he would have been the top pick in the NBA draft; he didn't even consider it. It was the same after his junior year as the pressure intensified. Odom spelled out the options, left on a recruiting trip and said he would call the next day. When he did, Duncan immediately declared: "I'm not going anywhere."

In part, the coach notes, it was a tribute to Duncan's mother who died just before his 14th birthday and told him he must get a college degree. Also, the budding superstar told his mentor: "I love college life," noting the joy of tossing Frisbees, the charms of female students and taking interesting classes. He then added: "Why should I try to do today what I'll be better prepared to do in another year." Duncan had just turned 20.

He was the top selection after his senior year; no player in the history of Wake Forest, and arguably the tough Atlantic Coast Conference, left a bigger mark. A two-time first team All-American, he guided the Demon Deacons to two ACC championships -- their first in 33 years -- and four NCAA tournament appearances. Oh yes, he led Wake Forest to eight consecutive victories over Duke University.

He has risen to greater heights as a pro. Rookie of the Year, twice the league's Most Valuable Player, three times the MVP in the NBA finals, a 14 time All-Star and the only player ever selected to the All-NBA and the All-Defensive team his first 13 years.

Dave Odom revels in this glory and stays in touch with that skinny kid without a name from one of the Islands, the most unheralded player ever bestowed upon him and the game. "My wife never lets me forget Timmy made me the luckiest man around."

To contact the writer of this article: Al Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.