'We'll Figure This Out': A Trip with Tim Duncan to Help Save the Virgin Islands

photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterIn The U.S. Virgin IslandsOctober 13, 2017

It's not even 10 a.m. and already Tim Duncan is sweating. At a community ballpark not 10 minutes from his childhood home here in Christiansted, St. Croix, Duncan and his retinue have been erecting barriers, unfolding tables and unloading pallets of food for the past two hours. Behind them, in a line bending around the park, more than 500 people wait for their chance to stock up on much-needed supplies and snap a selfie with their hometown hero.

This is Duncan's third trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands since September, when two Category 5 hurricanes slammed onto their shores. When he first started tracking the storms, he didn't know the kind of damage they would do. He didn't know that Irma and Maria would rip open homes, hospitals and churches, damaging more than 13,000 structures in total. He didn't know that tens of thousands—more than 90 percent of St. Croix—would lose electricity, likely for months. He didn't know that hundreds would have to relocate to shelters. No one knows the number of lives lost.

What he did know was how easy it would be for folks to forget about these islands before they had even begun to recover.

"It's so hard to keep your attention on any one thing," Duncan says. "I was following what was happening in Houston because it was so close to me. And then of course, there are fires out west. And now Puerto Rico is getting a lot of headlines. I knew people wouldn't be focused on these islands. And I know I'm the most recognizable person here, so it's my responsibility to be that lightning rod for attention."

So on this Columbus Day morning, 16 months after he retired, he finds himself surrounded by volunteers and local police, the National Guard, the Red Cross and FEMA, setting up eight tables with shelf-stable foods ranging from infant formula to tuna. He's hot. He's hungry. He's exhausted. He's also happy and fulfilled. More than anything, he feels deeply that he's right where he's supposed to be. He's home.

Photo by David Gardner

For the next three hours, Duncan elicits a range of reactions from the people who encounter him. Some school-age children can only manage to stare in awe at his stature. Some adults call him "Mr. Duncan," but most seem to feel comfortable with "Timmy." At least a half-dozen people ask some version of, "Remember me?" Duncan replies honestly each time; he says yes only once. Some ask for autographs; nearly everyone wants a picture. Duncan mostly just wants to make sure the line keeps moving and folks get fed.

"I really hate taking pictures. I have ever since I was a little kid. But," he jokes, "I've learned to take selfies as a means of survival."

Even after two decades in the public eye as the stoic face of the San Antonio Spurs, Duncan still finds celebrity culture strange. But he knows that, for whatever reason, just seeing him brightens some people's days, so he obliges almost every request. Before the day is done, he takes at least 100 photos and signs everything from shirts to mini-basketballs to boxes of Slam Duncan-O's, a cereal by Texas-based grocery chain H-E-B. As a result, the crowd at the stations before his stalls like traffic behind a car accident. After his station, the congestion clears.

Photo by David Gardner

After about an hour of handing out carrots, Duncan slips away from the service line to meet an old friend, Sarah Harvey, a middle-aged woman wearing a 2014 Spurs championship T-shirt. He gives her a big hug and, after a few minutes, promises to come by her house as soon as he can. He's been through a hurricane with her before.

In 1989, when Duncan was 13, Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix as a Category 4 storm. He spent the night in the bathroom with his mother, Ione, and sister Cheryl. His father, who had built their home himself, watched from down the hallway, hoping his handiwork would hold. It did. (In fact, the home has survived every storm since, and Duncan still owns it.)

Hugo changed so much in Duncan's life. In the immediate aftermath, it meant that he and his family—and most of the islands—were forced to accept the generosity of strangers and aid from the government as they attempted to rebuild their businesses, homes and lives. They also learned to lean on each other in ways they hadn't before. Harvey and her family lent their generator to the Duncans, a gift he's grateful for even now.

Before Hugo, Duncan had hoped to become an Olympic swimmer, but the hurricane destroyed the only Olympic-sized pool on the island. He tried training in the ocean for a while, but he was scared of being attacked by sharks. Shortly thereafter, he switched to basketball and eventually became one of the most successful players of his generation and one of the greatest power forwards of all time.

During his NBA career, his desire to maintain a low profile meant turning down millions of dollars in potential endorsements and shoe deals. After he retired, he relished living the low-key life he'd grown up with and remembered covetously. Although it's been busier than he expected—"Too many people found out I had extra time on my hands," he jokes—he's been able to spend more time doing what he loves.

Photo by David Gardner

He and his longtime girlfriend, Vanessa Macias, welcomed a baby girl, Quill, into the world in March. (She is named after Guardians of the Galaxy character Peter Quill.) He works at his custom car shop, Black Jack, most days. And in his spare time, he travels with his older brother, Scott Duncan, a jet-setting videographer. In the spring, they hopscotched around South America. In the summer, as the NBA playoffs were beginning, Tim began to feel a slight regret about retiring.

"Up here," he says, pointing to his head, "I can still play." Then he points to his knees: "It's these that don't agree with me."

To cheer him up, Scott flew him to Fiji and showed him some secret spots he's found in his years of travels. "Tim is just starting his adventure," Scott says. But as Tim watched Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and then saw the reports of even more devastating storms setting in on the Caribbean, he knew it was time to get back to work.

At the ballpark where all the tables are set up, after he says bye to his former neighbor, two women behind Duncan ask if he wants them to be his stand-ins for future photos. "Please!" he replies. His security guard, Mark Assad, who works road games for the Spurs, asks if he wants a break—or a Red Bull. "I'm good," Duncan says. Then, channeling his inner Kobe Bryant, he adds: "I'm gonna Mamba."

Photo by David Gardner

They had originally planned to serve food to 500 people, but they ended up with enough to feed 2,200, so Duncan begins going through the line himself to fill bags for delivery to the elderly and homebound. The other members of his team can carry about three bags using both hands; Duncan takes four on his left arm so he can keep his right hand free for pictures and autographs. Watching him from close behind, Assad chuckles to himself.

"That man right there is a gentle, gentle, gentle giant," he says. "That's just a big, giant teddy bear right there. He lives to do stuff like this. He loves it."

Along the way, Duncan listens intently as people tell him their stories. One woman approaches in a surgical mask, because she fears carbon monoxide poisoning from the hole in her generator. She walks away weeping. Another woman hands her phone to Duncan so her two children can tell him how they raised $50 each for the cause by selling lemonade. Members of the military and even the St. Croix chief of police, Winsbut McFarland, thank him for his continued work in the community.

"I wouldn't have wanted any of this to happen," Duncan says, "but it's been a good thing for me to come here and give back. Without what happened—without the storms—I probably would have just stayed in my little shell. There was no way around it though: Helping had to mean stepping out of my comfort zone."

Photo by David Gardner

After the food distribution, Duncan and his team take off for the airport, where they're expecting another shipment of supplies. The flight had been scheduled for the day prior, but St. Croix's airport had lost power so the plane was grounded in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the night. Driving around St. Croix now, Duncan eyes the devastation all around him anew.

He sees members of the military setting up floodlights. He sees aluminum siding stacked up in front of houses, buildings missing walls and FEMA-stamped blue tarps hanging on those that lack roofs. He sees hospitals shuttered—the Department of Defense is setting up field facilities to assist until the medical centers are restored. Street lights are out and driving would be more dangerous if so many cars weren't stalled on roadsides, rusting idly or damaged by debris. Portions of roads are like swimming pools. If they are still standing, trees resemble battered fighters in the final round of a championship bout: battered and bruised. Businesses offer hand-written signs like "We have ice" or simply, "We open." The Home Depot's marquee has been reduced to THE OME DE. A church sign warns: "Repent. Sin no more. Jesus is coming soon."

And even though this is all happening on U.S. territory and to U.S. citizens, the outcry has been faint.

Photo by David Gardner

Duncan didn't need to see the devastation to know what was coming; he'd lived it before. Deciding to give was the easy part. The hard part was figuring out how to do it. Without social media accounts, he lacked an organic way to get the word out, until someone suggested publishing a piece in the Players' Tribune. Although he does pride himself on having contributed a chapter to a psychology textbook years ago, he admits he was a rusty writer. It took him a few drafts to find the tone he was looking for.    

Since he published the piece on Sept. 9, more than 21,000 people have donated to his YouCaring page, with the total exceeding $2.6 million so far. Duncan has contributed an additional $1 million.

"I don't have a Facebook or a Twitter or anything," Duncan says, "but holy s--t if social media isn't the way to go."

"Who else does something like this?" asks Assad. "Who else gives away a million dollars without blinking? It's only because of Tim that we are all here and any of this is happening."

After establishing the fund, Duncan and Wendy Kowalik, his financial advisor, began a frantic study in how to deliver emergency relief. Duncan trusts Kowalik implicitly. It was during his divorce that he hired her, and she was the one who discovered that his previous advisor, Charles Banks, had mishandled more than $20 million of his money. (Banks has since pleaded guilty for fraud and was sentenced to four years in prison.) Kowalik, who learned to fly planes when she was 16, knew transportation would be the toughest challenge.

They first called Jim Perschbach, an executive vice president at the Port Authority of San Antonio, to learn how to schedule charters. Then they called the San Antonio Food Bank to learn everything from what supplies to buy, to how to store, ship and distribute them. And they called big companies like H-E-B and FedEx to get what they needed—and get it to the islands.

Photo by David Gardner

Initially, Duncan didn't want to attach his name to the effort at all. He just wanted to call it a U.S. Virgin Islands relief effort, but everyone they spoke to advised him to use his name for good. He relented at first by allowing it to be called 21 U.S. Virgin Islands Relief and then, eventually, Duncan Relief.

"I've never really used my name in this way," Duncan says, "but I'm happy to do it for these people. It's one of the rare times in my life where I'm grateful for fame."

By Sept. 15, a week after Irma had hit the Islands, Duncan was down in St. Thomas and distributing 170,000 pounds of food and 6,000 pounds of medical supplies. He returned home days before Maria made landfall. Although Irma had largely missed Duncan's home island of St. Croix, Maria hit every island—St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas—on Sept. 18.

Because of airport closures, he and his team couldn't get to St. Croix until Oct. 2. On his first trip down, he took a small team and mostly medical supplies. On this current trip, he's already helped distribute 120,000 pounds of food and 35,000 pounds of generators. And now back at the airport, he meets a FedEx charter with another 135,000 pounds of food and 10,000 pounds of generators. Duncan marvels at the size of the jet.

"The need is so much greater than we even realized," he says.

Photo by David Gardner

At the airport, Duncan watches from the tarmac as one of the pallets of food flips off a forklift. He calmly alerts his team and begins walking over to the plane. With help from the FedEx flight crew, airport staff and an Air Force battalion from Missouri, he cleans up the trash, restacks and reshrink-wraps the supplies.

"S--t happens," he says, "and you fix it."

In situations like these, it's easy to see why Duncan was such an effective teammate. He doesn't beg anyone to help him, but his quiet and unassuming way of going about his work leaves you embarrassed if you're not contributing. Scott Duncan says every one of their siblings learned that ethic from their father, Bill, a builder who lived by simple mottos like "Do your job" and "Do your best."

Photo by David Gardner

On Wednesday, Duncan returns to the airport to head back to San Antonio after having helped feed more than 10,000 of the island's 50,000 inhabitants. He doesn't know when he'll be back, but he knows it won't be long. He has no plans to leave his homeland behind.

"It's only been a month and already people are forgetting about Harvey and what happened to Houston," Duncan says. "Six months from now, people will forget about what happened here, even if there's still no power on the islands. People have lost their homes and they've lost their shops. They've lost everything. Buildings are damaged and roads are ruined. I don't know how to fix those things, but I didn't know how to raise money or do food distribution or charter jets, and we figured all that out. We'll figure this out, too. We'll figure out how to rebuild the islands."