With a little less than eight minutes left and Wake Forest clinging to a one-point lead in its NCAA second-round matchup with Saint Louis yesterday, team captain Randolph Childress slowed his dribble just long enough to shout three times to forward Ricky Peral: "Get the ball to Timmy! Get the ball to Timmy! Get the ball to Timmy!"
Timmy, of course, was center Tim Duncan, the gifted 6-foot-10 sophomore center who managed to keep a surprisingly low profile in the first half. Playing against swarming Billikens defenders, all at least 5 inches shorter, Duncan took five shots and had nine points at halftime.
But everything changed after Childress' clarion call. Duncan turned from reluctant dragon to tiger, scoring nine of the Deacons' last 11 points in their difficult 64-59 victory at the Baltimore Arena. Duncan finished with 25 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots.
"The way I was feeling, I knew I couldn't carry the load today," said the cold-ridden Childress, the MVP in Wake Forest's run to the ACC tournament championship. "I told Timmy we'd do a better job of getting him the ball, but he had to step up and be more aggressive."
The two distinct sides Duncan exhibited before a national TV audience yesterday underline the reason the Virgin Islands native has opted to remain in school rather than be a certain NBA lottery pick this June.
"It's my decision, I'm definitely staying," he said. "I'm only 18, and I'm not ready for the pros. I've got to get stronger and more fluid. The NBA is a different world. I'm sure I could survive, but I've got time on my side. I don't need to be playing in the pros at 19."
His coach, Dave Odom, who, of course, will benefit greatly by Duncan's decision to remain in school, said Duncan has just scratched the surface of his basketball potential.
"You could see some of his inexperience in this game," said Odom. "He showed his youth playing against smaller guys. He was trying to use dipsy-do moves instead of just catching the pTC ball and shooting over them."
"Timmy just needs time to play and build up his speed and endurance. But he already has the work ethic and perfect attitude."
Finding fault with Duncan's game may sound like nit-picking after he totaled 46 points and 21 rebounds in the tournament victories over North Carolina A&T and Saint Louis. Especially considering that he preferred swimming to playing basketball while growing up in St. Croix.
It was his inaccessibility to the scouts that kept him a relative secret. He averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds his senior year in prep school, but only Providence and Wake Forest showed genuine interest in offering a scholarship.
Dennis Felton, then an assistant at Providence, said Duncan was the big fish that got away.
"Every time I see him play now, my heart breaks," said Felton, now an assistant at Clemson.
Odom said Duncan is using each game as a learning experience.
"For Tim, it's like a trip down the yellow brick road. He's seeing and doing new things all the time."
The yellow brick road leads to East Rutherford, N.J., on Friday and a showdown in the Sweet 16 with Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, Oklahoma State's 7-foot, 292-pound center.
"I'm a lot more comfortable playing big centers," said Duncan, who has battled Eric Montross, Joe Smith and Rasheed Wallace in the ACC. "At least I can look Reeves in the eye."