CHICAGO - If he never scores another point, Tim Duncan is college basketball's player of the year.
Duncan's Tuesday night tally: 19 points, 17 rebounds, four blocks
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He is the senior who stayed, the big-time player who couldn't be bought, the poster boy for patience, the very model of a modern student-athlete.
Wake Forest's All-America center could have declared for the NBA draft last spring, and probably would have been the first player picked. He could have cashed in for - pick a number - many millions of dollars.
He didn't. Imagine that.
''We have a chance to be special,'' Duncan says. ''I'm having fun in college, and I wanted to keep having fun. The money will be there. So I might get hurt. So I might not be No. 1. So what? Que sera. Basically, I asked myself why should I do something now that I'll be better prepared to do in the future?''
Put 100 college basketball players in Duncan's shoes last spring, and 99 of them would probably have walked. Forty-two non-seniors declared for the NBA draft last spring; seven of them accounted for the first seven selections. Yet only a couple of them were anywhere close to Duncan's level of readiness. They were seduced by the prospect of sudden riches, and by the opportunity to put an end to the charade that they were actual students.
''I wondered,'' Duncan said, ''if there'd be anybody left to play against.''
In the main, you can't really blame kids from cashing in. Nothing motivates like fast money, and the typical pro basketball player earns more in a single season than most of us will in our lives. Some college players could make even more if they polished their games for another year or two on campus - Dontonio Wingfield comes to mind here - but it is easier to take the long view in economics when you have the means to go to the movies.
''I've done some research,'' says Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, ''and I found that 1 million people got their college degrees last year, and there were only 500,000 jobs out there. I don't know of any job better than the NBA.''
Still, in the face of temptation that would have made most of us just say yes, Tim Duncan said no. He has cited dozens of reasons since making his decision, but says the strongest one is a promise his father made to his mother that he would graduate. Delysia Duncan died a day before her son's 14th birthday. Tim Duncan is scheduled to redeem his dad's promise by graduating in May with a degree in psychology.
Unlike many of his contemporaries in college hoops, Tim Duncan did not grow up dreaming of an NBA career. He was an aspiring swimmer until 1989, when Hurricane Hugo wrecked the pool where he practiced in the Virgin Islands. He remained such an unknown quantity as a basketball player that Wake Forest's Dave Odom was one of the few mainland coaches who took the trouble to see him play.
''It was like a treasure hunt,'' Odom says, ''and I was Long John Silver discovering a golden nugget.''
Tuesday night's Great Eight game against Mississippi State was Duncan's 102nd at Wake Forest. He has blocked at least one shot in every one of them. He entered Tuesday's game averaging 18.3 points, 14.5 rebounds and a modest 31.5 minutes per game. Duncan would surely have done more, but the second-ranked Demon Deacons have not seen much need for him in the second half. Their average margin of victory has been 28 points.
''I think he's taken his game to a new level,'' Odom said of his star. ''It's changed because we decided this summer we wanted him to expand his game more defensively. He's handling the ball farther out, and he's able to go farther out and guard people. That was a weakness for him, as it is for all taller kids.''
Duncan could also improve on his turnaround jump shot, his footwork, and his tendency for turnovers. Yet compared to the rest of the package, these are trivial concerns.
Tim Duncan did not stay in school because he had anything left to prove.
Published Dec. 4, 1996.