The Big Fundamental's Big Future

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In college, the laid-back big man from the U.S. Virgin Islands displayed so little emotion on the court that opposing fans derisively called him Spock. But after defeating the New Jersey Nets and leading his San Antonio Spurs to their second NBA championship in five years, perennial All-Star power forward Tim Duncan, 27, has been starting to act a little more like Captain Kirk. There he was in the opening two games of the NBA Finals, shouting instructions at and cajoling his teammates, giving an encouraging smack to his mentor and teammate David Robinson, and even screaming after throwing down a slam dunk in the fourth quarter. Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier watched in awe as the 7-foot Duncan took over Game 1 against the Nets, scoring 32 points, grabbing 20 rebounds, recording six assists and blocking seven shots in a 101-89 victory. "Tim isn't that demonstrative," Lanier says. "But he is intense."

It's a crucial distinction, and one that has often been lost on fans and media alike, who have steadily constructed and bought into an image of Duncan as the most indifferent, boring superstar in all of professional sports. Sure, Duncan may not scowl and talk trash, lose his cool, get in his coach's face, or skip practice. But as unassuming and stoic as he sometimes appears, Duncan has emerged this year as a vocal leader as passionate and confident about winning as legends like Michael Jordan or Larry Bird. After the Spurs lost to the Lakers in last season's playoffs for the second year in a row, Duncan himself admitted that he "should have been a little more selfish" and taken control of more games. This year, he's done that, and the impact has been clear: Duncan isn't the biggest, strongest, or quickest player in the NBA, but now the two-time reigning Most Valuable Player is considered by many to be the flat-out best. "Bill Russell is the only guy who could guard him," says Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer.

The man Shaquille O'Neal dubbed "The Big Fundamental" is a throwback to another, less flashy era. Despite the lure of riches, Duncan fulfilled his dying mother's wish by staying all four years at Wake Forest University to earn his degree in psychology. He turns down most endorsement deals and almost all media requests. With his soft shooting touch, long arms and great passing, the 7-footer dominates the low post like no one else, swatting away shots on defense and nailing baby hooks and his signature bank shots with an almost effortless ease.

Born and raised on the sunbaked Caribbean island of St. Croix, where his smiling visage now adorns a giant billboard at the airport, Duncan's first sport was swimming, not hoops. Like his older sister Tricia, who swam backstroke in the 1988 Olympics, he was a high ranked amateur in the 400 meter freestyle. But after Hurricane Hugo destroyed the island's only Olympic pool in the fall of 1989 — and his mother Ione died of breast cancer several months later — Duncan never again competed in the water. He only started playing organized basketball in high school, but as a senior Duncan caught the attention of Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, who had been tipped off by one of his players traveling through the region on a collegiate goodwill tour. What most impressed Odom was the gangly teenager's patience, a by-product of his island upbringing. "He didn't play hurried, and that's been the keynote of his entire career," says Odom.

As a youngster, Duncan collected comic books like The Fantastic Four, and his fascination with superheroes and action stars has continued into adulthood. His new home in San Antonio is filled with a collection of replica knives from the action and kung fu movies that he loves, like "Blade." He proudly sports two big tattoos on his torso: depictions of Merlin the Wizard and a Joker. Like many pro athletes, he's superstitious — he wears his practice shorts backwards — and loves to play video games like John Madden Football.

Away from the game, the shy Duncan is actually known as a bit of a wisecracker amongst his close friends and family, often muttering sarcastic asides under his breath or poking fun at himself on the golf course. Still, more often than not, he lets others do the joking, while he concentrates on the laughing. As his wife Amy says, "Tim's never the center of attention off the court." After winning the second championship of his young career, Duncan is likely to be one on the court for a longtime to come.