An island paradise

Duncan: Showing little emotion but the most talent in the NBA, the `strange bird' from the Virgin Islands has the Spurs three wins from a championship.

June 18, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- It's Tim Duncan's lack of emotion that stands out most, a personality that never appears to change. Rarely on the court will he smile, yell or display any type of passion. That's true whether he's dunking on Shaquille O'Neal, hitting a jumper from the top of the key or blocking a shot.

"He's a strange bird in that sense," said San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "He's got this natural disposition. I always say he's on island time, where nothing fazes this guy. He doesn't get excited about anything. He just competes."

In two short seasons, Duncan has emerged as the best player in the NBA. Never mind that Karl Malone was voted the league's MVP this season. In offensive ability, defensive presence and overall court awareness, Duncan is the best player in the NBA, and he proved it during Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Duncan's line on Wednesday was 33 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks as the Spurs defeated the New York Knicks, 89-77. And the 23-year-old power forward/center did it all, scoring from everywhere on the court and being a big reason the already short-handed New York front line was in foul trouble throughout the game.

"The way Duncan's playing right now, there's not one man on the planet that can stop him," said New York coach Jeff Van Gundy. "I've been watching this year, and he's the best player in the NBA.

"If you play behind him, he can keep post position because he's so strong. And if you front him, he's got great strength and hands. He is tough to guard."

And for the Knicks to have any chance in this series, they must devise a way to guard Duncan, 7 feet, 255 pounds, who was the only player to finish the regular season ranked in the Top 10 in scoring (21.7), rebounding (11.4), blocked shots (2.52) and field-goal percentage (.495).

Playing in a small media market didn't help his MVP chances, as Duncan finished third behind Malone and Miami's Alonzo Mourning. But Duncan has been named to the All-NBA first team his first two seasons. When he earned that honor last season -- when he was also Rookie of the Year -- Duncan was the ninth rookie in league history to accomplish the feat.

That Duncan has dominated the league in just two seasons is somewhat of a surprise. That he has excelled in the NBA was not unexpected from a guy who won just about every top honor in college basketball during his four seasons at Wake Forest.

The 1997 NBA draft lottery became the Tim Duncan Sweepstakes, and the Spurs, after a horrible season when injuries limited David Robinson to six games, won his draft rights.

That proved to be a godsend for the U.S. Virgin Islands native. Most top picks play for struggling teams, but Duncan got a chance as a rookie to play alongside Robinson, one of the NBA's 50 greatest players, in an environment void of pressure.

"It's been a blessing the situation I've been put into with the players that are here," Duncan said. "We had a chance to win early on, where other people really don't. We have a chance to win a title in my second year, and that's incredible."

And it's been a plus that Robinson quickly embraced Duncan, even with the prospect that the nine-year NBA veteran's role as the team's main offensive threat would be diminished. Robinson said he knew from Day One that his new teammate would be a special player.

"A lot of people see that laid-back demeanor and they think he doesn't have that kind of competitiveness," Robinson said. "The first summer I played with him, we went at each other. From then, I knew that he would show up every night. He's just that type of person and that kind of player."

And he benefits from being incredibly versatile. When New York's Kurt Thomas tried to front him early in Wednesday's game, Duncan was strong enough to hold the Knicks forward off when the ball was reversed, getting in position to accept passes for easy scores. He also scored with an array of low-post moves, on drives to the lane and on jump shots from the top of the key.

"He is definitely a different player than when I saw him in college," said New York forward Marcus Camby, who played at Massachusetts. "Now, he's the guy that gets the ball every trip downcourt. We try to run the break, and he's athletic enough that he's right there with me. He does it all. He's definitely a terrific player."

And the people in the Virgin Islands apparently think so. About 150 of his fellow islanders were on hand for Wednesday's Game 1, waving flags and banners in tribute of their native son. The group arrived on a chartered flight from St. Croix, and plans to return should the series come back to San Antonio for a Game 6.

"Our island is so small that we all know one another," said Mario Moorhouse, a member of the group, identifiable in the Alamodome by its yellow T-shirts with the Virgin Islands flag on front. "We're all supportive of [Duncan]."

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