NBA

How Tragedy Turned Tim Duncan into an NBA Hall of Famer

No one was surprised to hear Tim Duncan announced as a member of the star-studded 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame class. After a 19-year career in San Antonio, where he won two MVP awards and helped lead the Spurs to five NBA titles, Duncan was a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer. 

What most don’t realize is basketball wasn’t Duncan’s first choice. The star basketball player who competed in the 2004 Olympics for Team USA had dreams of growing up and participating in the Olympics in a totally different sport. That all changed as tragedy struck when Duncan was a teen and turned his world upside down.

Tim Duncan’s Hall of Fame Career

When the San Antonio Spurs selected Tim Duncan as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft out of Wake Forest, the organization knew Duncan could be a special player. When paired up with David Robinson, who was heading into his ninth season, the Spurs figured their big men could lead them to the top of the NBA hierarchy. They were right.

Tim Duncan earned Rookie of the Year honors his first season. In 1999, Duncan and Robinson teamed up to guide the Spurs to their first NBA title. The pair, along with two new fresh faces, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, returned to the top of the NBA in 2003. After that season, Duncan was named league MVP, and The Admiral retired.

Even in Robinson’s absence, the Spurs maintained their dominance with Duncan leading the charge. Over the next 11 seasons the Spurs made the playoffs each season and won three more NBA titles in 2005, 2007, and 2014. After 19 seasons, including being named to the All-NBA team 15 times, Duncan retired in 2016.

Tim Duncan was a top-level swimmer

Growing up in St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, with water all around, Tim Duncan enjoyed swimming. At a young age, Tim’s mother Ione, enrolled him and his sister Tricia into competitive swimming. She was the parent always shuttling the kids to practice, volunteering as a timer, and encouraging her children at every flip turn. She had a mantra for her kids in the pool. 

“Good, better, best/Never let it rest/Until your good is better and your better is your best.” Both kids could hear their mother’s voice cheering them on beneath the surface of the water. 

That encouragement, combined with raw talent, allowed both kids to excel. In 1988, Duncan watched proudly as Tricia competed for the U.S. Virgin Islands in both the 100m and 200m backstroke in the Seoul Olympics. The younger brother aspired to one day do the same and had the talent to do it. He was considered by many to be one of the top U.S. freestylers in his 13-year-old age group.

In September 1989, Duncan’s future plans took a hit when the island took a direct hit from the powerful and deadly Hurricane Hugo. The storm’s force destroyed much of the island including the only Olympic-sized pool Duncan and his sister had trained in for years. 

Tragedy strikes Duncan family

Despite the setback, Duncan still planned on pursuing a career in swimming. It would just have to wait until the power returned to the island. 

Six months later, once the power blackout had been fully lifted, Duncan had hope and could see his future in the pool coming into view. Then the family learned Ione had breast cancer. 

The day before Duncan’s 14th birthday, his mother died. The family was devastated. The young teen didn’t openly mourn. He sat in front of the TV and played video games for hours. The celebration of his birthday replaced by grieving for his mother.

Weeks after his mother’s death, Duncan decided to quit swimming. He never returned to the pool. He never talked about it. The pool was too much a painful reminder of his mother.

In its place, Duncan started playing basketball for the first time with his brother-in-law. Like swimming years earlier, it became evident early on Duncan had talent as a basketball player.

And the rest is history.