Tim Duncan will have to be satisfied with just five NBA Championship rings. He retired this week.
One of the game’s all-time greats, Duncan began his basketball career well under the radar of most college basketball recruiters. He grew up in St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was a big kid, but who was going to see him there?
Not, as it turns out, a coach. And the discovery might not have happened at all were it not for Chris King.
King played his college basketball at Wake Forest. But after college, in 1992, his agent put together a team of his clients for a goodwill tour meant to address violence in the Virgin Islands. At the very least, games between the U.S. players and the locals would be entertaining.
"They had a lot of talent on the island, so they put together their local teams," King said. "A lot of 'em were raw, but we just did it to stay in shape and just to have fun on the island."
Okay. Fun is good. That’s probably what NBA star Alonzo Mourning was thinking when one particular game began. Chris King will never forget it:
"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "We were just getting ready to play that night, just a fun exhibition game. I mean, it was crowded, and here comes this kid. I thought he was about 6’8”, 6’9”, long, skinny kid, comes out, comes in the door, and then everyone’s like, ‘Oh, that’s Tim Duncan. He’s a swimmer.’ So I’m like, ‘This kid ain’t going to be able to play basketball if he spends a lot of time swimming.’"
Duncan started playing basketball when a hurricane destroyed the only regulation pool on the island. He told his coaches he’d prefer to avoid training in the ocean, where he’d heard there were sharks. Anyway, back to the game:
"I think around the third quarter he’s just starting to really get warmed up. And, you know, Alonzo [Mourning] was like the big name on the team, and they’re playing, both, the same position. And they’re guarding each other. And I remember Alonzo coming across the middle with his little patented sky hook, and Tim blocks it, runs the floor and Alonzo’s trying to trail him to see if he can get the block from behind. And this 16-year-old kid just bangs all on top of him, and everybody starts jumping up and screaming. And man, I mean, it’s like the whole game just came to a pause. And then I just remember everybody surrounded Tim after the game and not Alonzo."
After he’d watched Duncan dunk on future NBA Hall-of-Famer Alonzo Mourning, Chris King went back to Wake Forest to work out. His former head coach was there.
"Coach Odom happened to see me one day and he says, 'Chris, I heard you went to the Virgin Islands.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Did you see anybody over there that can probably play here for the program?' And I was like, 'There was a kid over there…' I didn't really remember his last name. I just remembered 'Tim.' 'You have to go over there and see this kid. He had great hands. He ran the floor like a gazelle, and he was just impressive to me, but he was a little raw.' Coach Odom was like, 'OK. I'll look into it.' And I guess the rest is history from there."
At Wake Forest, Duncan was twice named a first team All-American. As a senior he was the National Player of the Year. And in 1997, the Spurs drafted him with the number one overall pick. For a while, he and Chris King stayed in touch.
"Well, I used to see him when he was with the Spurs," King said. "He used to come back in the summer, and we stayed in touch. We would play pick-up ball together. We became friends. We'd sit down after the pick-up games, and we'd talk. And I would say to him, 'Man, I can't believe, man, that you went to Wake Forest. You really proved me to be right about you.' And he was just always a shy kid and would smile at me and grin and be like, 'Yeah, Chris.'"
King went on to play for several NBA teams and in Europe, where he learned at least some of several languages. But his one foray into scouting landed Tim Duncan at Wake Forest. Not too shabby. Had King ever considered scouting as a career?
"It's hard to go from there. I don't think there will never be another Tim Duncan. I think the thing I want to do now is coach."
Good point, I guess. Everything after Duncan would have been anti-climactic. Where does a scout go after finding one of the all-time greats on an island where nobody else was even looking?
This segment aired on July 16, 2016.