Tim Duncan's Wake Forest teammates reflect on superstar's journey
JUN 16, 2014 9:32a ET
With Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs locking up their fifth NBA title on their home court Sunday night, the man who is arguably best power forward in league history cemented his legacy and celebrated with his two children in his arms, a touching display of emotion outsiders don't often see from the supposed stoic, expressionless superstar.
He might be "boring," but consistency often is. Duncan has been so good throughout his 17-year career that it almost seems like he has the cheat code.
Well, yes, at basketball.
But also at Mortal Kombat in the video game's heyday back in the late 1990s.
"You had different hit combos, where it was like nine-hit combos, and Tim took it upon himself that he knew every combo on every person in that game," former Wake Forest teammate Tony Rutland said. "If you beat Tim, then it was like you beat the best. That was the battle that we all had because Tim, with those big hands, knew how to punch all the buttons and do all the combos. So we were just like, it wasn't fair.
"He knew every hit combo for every person that was on that game. I think there was a button where you can press and it would randomly pick your own guy. He would just randomly pick any person and beat all of us most of the time."
Just as in basketball, Duncan's Mortal Kombat prowess wasn't the result of pure luck. And, for the record, he didn't have the cheat code. He had to work at it.
Former Wake Forest walk-on Ken Herbst, now a business professor at the school, used to room with Duncan during road trips.
"Lights off at 11 or 11:30, and I remember several times just kind of rolling over in the middle of the night, and he'd be up at 3, 3:30 and just kind of continuing to play his game in front of the TV. I never really asked him if that was the way he maybe handled any nerves that he felt. To me, he never came across as a guy who got nervous before a game," Herbst said. "But he would be up playing his game or whatever, and I would kind of watch. It was just kind of fun. We'd laugh. It was 4:30 in the morning, but oh well.
"At the end of the day, the story was that it doesn't matter whether I was ready to play or not. The key is whatever he needed to do to feel good enough and have the energy and be at that right level of focus and energy to play. That was what he did. I just always thought that was kind of interesting. I don't know if I was the guy that was going to be expected 40 minutes on national TV and do all the things that he has to do. He's Tim."
And Tim is not, nor has he ever been, typical. Those who know him know he's far from the bland personality he's portrayed as.
A psychology major, he contributed to a chapter of a book called "Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors" while he was in college. His chapter was called "Blowhards, snobs and narcissists: Interpersonal reactions to excessive egotism".
As Herbst knows well, Duncan is neither a blowhard nor a snob nor a narcissist. He's the guy who not only befriended the walk-on but also gave him one of his own T-shirts as a sweet gesture to help Herbst deal with his fear of airplanes.
"He sensed my fear of flying and he gave me a shirt that was near and dear to his heart, and it was a 'No Fear' shirt," Herbst said. "Tim always cut off the sleeves of his shirts. So it was more than a tank top, but a T-shirt without the sleeves. He gave me that shirt. I still have that shirt today.
"It's something that I thought was just really thoughtful. I was a walk-on, so it's not somebody that was on the team playing with him down in the trenches for 30 to 40 minutes a game. I was lower on the totem pole. I don't think he sensed rank. I think he sensed friends. I think he sensed teammates. And I think he sensed that somebody had some anxiety or whatever else."
In a lot of ways, it's as through time stopped and froze for Duncan sometime in the late 1990s, back when things like Mortal Kombat and "No Fear" shirts were popular. It's like that in every aspect of Duncan, from his relatively unchanged face to his relatively unchanged game -- not to mention his relatively unchanged wardrobe.
"I knew he wasn't going to wear a tuxedo (when he married his now ex-wife Amy in 2001)," Rutland said. "I was never surprised that he didn't do that. For us, if it had to be dress up, it was Tim in a pair of pants and a button-up flannel, and that was it. The only difference now is he can afford to buy shoes that are just like tennis shoes but look casual. It doesn't have to be dress shoes."
Herbst recalled running into Duncan on campus during a summer not long ago. He had just finished up a run and gave his former teammate a big hug.
There Duncan was in a T-shirt, shorts and his now-infamous backpack.
"He's the same guy, wearing a T-shirt and shorts and a backpack," Herbst said. "Since we graduated, it had been almost two decades. I'm like, 'Wow.' I'm thrown right back into us walking into the locker room after practice, just Tim and Kenny."
Rutland knew Duncan wasn't going to be what he expected once he met the big man during his official visit to Wake Forest. The NBA playoffs were going on, and Rutland was walking around one of the coed dorms in Winston-Salem. He spotted Duncan in the lobby by himself with a gallon of ice cream, watching the playoffs by himself in a community lounge.
He assumed that Duncan was shy, or at least a solitary type of person. Just like a lot of people assume that about Duncan, even to this day.
He quickly found out he was mistaken.
"Once you knew him, he wasn't shy. He would just open up, and he would just talk. You would see the true Timmy," Rutland said. "What you see is what you get most of the time, but at the same time, he's a joker. Likes to laugh, joke, play games and all that stuff."
To Herbst, it's that sense of humor that stands out. But it's also another part of Duncan's personality, the part that would lead him to contribute to a book on psychology while in college and actually want to stay four years to get his degree.
"I think he's a thinker. He's sensitive," Herbst said. "He's got a warmth about him and a level of empathy and concern for others that ... don't know that every person I've met has those qualities. I think the neat thing here is we're not talking about somebody who stands out necessarily as a professional athlete. He stands out as a person. That's something I think that people may not realize."
Rutland saw plenty of Duncan's goofy side, though. When wrestler Ric Flair was a guest coach for one of Wake's games against Clemson (yes, this really happened), Duncan got an and-one and did the Ric Flair strut. It wasn't on TV, so none of the thousands that had started to call the stoic Duncan "Dr. Spock" could see that, yes, he actually did have a personality.
Duncan struggled to shoot free throws throughout his college career, so at one point, he asked Rutland to tell him something crazy before he shot a free throw so that it would take his mind off of it.
"I said something to the effect of, 'a fly is on your hot dog.' He started laughing, and he made his free throws," Rutland said. "Those are the type of things that you don't really see unless you know that he's doing it."
Rutland, like many of Duncan's teammates both past and present, spent time playing professionally overseas. But an ACL tear his sophomore year in college ensured his professional career would probably be a short one. He graduated with a sociology degree from Wake Forest and is now a supervisor of other probation officers in the state of Georgia. He still plays in law enforcement leagues in the Atlanta area, but he marvels at what his old teammate has been able to do.
"For him to do it the way he is and as a (big man), and one of the best I think, is amazing," Rutland said. "I don't think I could do it as a guard."
Herbst became known as "Intense Wake Fan" on Twitter as he's been one of the programs most visible (and supportive) fans during the team's recent down years. He has been back at Wake now for seven years and is an associate professor of marketing in the School of Business.
Duncan is not far from the end of his career. But in the world of academia, Herbst is just getting started.
"One of the things that's fun to think about -- fun, and I guess a little bit sad ... my career, though I'm a couple decades into it, I kind of feel like I'm in the early stages to the middle stages of my career. Yet one of my teammates ... he's at the end of his career," Herbst said. "But then I capture that and I say, 'No, he's at the end of his first career.' Tim will do something else to make a difference in people's lives.
"Whether that's back home in the Virgin Islands or something else, my hunch is this will be a first career and Tim will do some other things that help people."