Between dragging off debris, bending back gnarled fences and stabbing through cellophane packaging on cases of Ranch Style Beans with a pocket knife, Tim Duncan stops every now and then to smother a smiling Virgin Islander in the embrace of his 7-foot-5 wingspan.
It's here, in this parking lot in St. Thomas outside the Win Mill 2.O sports bar, owned by Duncan's best friend, Rashidi Clenance, that the U.S. Virgin Islands' most recognizable sports figure embarks on perhaps the most important undertaking of his life: initial delivery of what to date has been nearly 500,000 pounds of food and 200,000 pounds of generators to his home, which was destroyed by Category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria.
In the States, Duncan maintains a strict no-photographs policy. But here, it's the opposite, with the greatest power forward of all time -- reeking from a cocktail of mosquito spray, sunscreen and sweat -- snapping more selfies with strangers than the multitude of photos and memorabilia featuring his likeness inside the bar just feet away.
"If it brings hope, if it brings help, if it brings a smile, or if I can take a picture and it helps somebody, at this point I'm all for that," Duncan said. "I'm absolutely a fish out of water. But you've gotta be what you've gotta be when you've gotta be it, right?"
"Tim couldn't have been who he was in this situation without him playing for the Spurs."Rashidi Clenance
Sort of. The reality is that in this case, Duncan is being what he has always been: the consummate leader.
If Duncan learned anything from 19 seasons leading an NBA dynasty under coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford, it's how to put together and carry a motivated, selfless squad. That's a task he has completed the past couple of months with what he calls a "mishmash of folks" who share the goal of restoring normalcy to the U.S. Virgin Islands, especially St. Thomas and Duncan's hometown of St. Croix.
"Tim couldn't have been who he was in this situation without him playing for the Spurs and being a part of that incredible organization," Clenance said. "I think it's because of that incredible organization he was able to put together a unit like this.
"Every now and again, you'll talk to Tim, and he'll say things like, 'I want to do this the right way,' which is something I'm sure Pop pounded in his head for two decades. To see his approach and sense of team ... in 2014, he won that teammate award [the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award], which is selected by the NBA players. That is what he embodied here. It was never a sense of, 'Me, me, me. Look at what I did.' It was more about putting together a team that could accomplish something like this."
With country music superstar Kenny Chesney, actor Matt Damon's personal protection team, a Grammy-award-winning female artist, a 180-pound junior linebacker and his financial planner, Wendy Kowalik, among several others, Duncan assembled a squad as committed to relief efforts on the Virgin Islands as he was to winning titles in San Antonio.
Team Duncan: "Timmy drafted us"
Having lived through Hurricane Hugo nearly 30 years ago, Duncan knew what was coming and communicated with Clenance, who texted U.S. Virgin Islands governor Kenneth E. Mapp and contacts at the police department to let them know that his best friend from childhood was interested in assisting with relief.
In San Antonio, meanwhile, Duncan called his financial adviser, Kowalik. With the devastation from Hurricane Harvey in nearby Houston lingering, Duncan was hesitant to ask the public to help.
Instead, Duncan penned a letter to various national corporations requesting assistance. That, on advice from Meredith Geisler at Tandem Sports, morphed into Duncan's heartfelt piece published Sept. 9 in The Players Tribune.
"After the article ran, the response was just amazing," Kowalik said.
That's when Duncan and Kowalik knew they needed to put together a team: a group of professionals with varying skill sets who would form a virtual Voltron for relief efforts quickly after Irma -- one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century -- ripped through the Virgin Islands on Sept. 6 and caused catastrophic damage.
Internal documents tab the squad's name as 21 USVI Hurricane Help, but the group also goes by 21 U.S. Virgin Islands Relief, Duncan Relief, On the Ground, No Red Tape and Duncan's favorite: The Bad News Bears. (He's a lifelong Chicago Bears fan).
The money poured in immediately after Duncan's piece in the Players Tribune, with the former Spur making an initial contribution of $250,000 that swelled to an additional $1 million. The total now nears $2.7 million.
But cash alone doesn't fill hungry bellies or provide medical supplies and other necessities to a place where material goods are inaccessible. The easy solution would have been to send a check somewhere near the Virgin Islands, such as Florida or Puerto Rico, to fund delivery of the goods. The problem was that both Florida and Puerto Rico suffered devastating infrastructure damage from the storms, too.
"So, we're like, 'OK, now how do we feed people?'" Kowalik said.
"For somebody who really does dislike being the front man or in front of the camera, he took the lead solely for the good of other people."Gregg Popovich
Throughout their search for an answer to that question, Kowalik and Duncan approached grocery store chain H-E-B, which is a major sponsor of the Spurs. H-E-B directed them to the San Antonio Food Bank, a frequent partner of the chain that serves 58,000 meals per week locally and distributes 74 million meals annually.
The food bank helped Duncan's team source the food through a couple food drives in San Antonio at H-E-B locations. Michael Guerra, chief development officer at the food bank, and Richard Plumlee, the inventory and food safety manager, showed them what types of goods they would need to put on planes and how to organize for distribution after landing. The San Antonio Food Bank basically lent all 210 of its employees to help collect and store truckloads of donations for Duncan in a 210,000-square-foot warehouse on its 40-acre campus.
Then there was the matter of securing the planes. Kowalik called former colleague Jim Perschbach, now the executive vice president for business development at the Port of San Antonio. Perschbach taught Kowalik how to charter cargo planes.
It took the team less than a week to collect the 170,000 pounds of food it delivered on four B-727s that landed on Sept. 14 at Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas. The planes were also chock-full of thousands of medical supplies, including insulin and antibiotics secured through the help of Dr. Stephen Ponder in Temple, Texas.
"Timmy drafted us," Guerra said. "We didn't all know each other before, and it took a little while to get into a groove. We tried not to be too hierarchical, and everybody just tried to do a bit of everything. But as a leader, Tim set the tone. He just treated people like they were family."
The branches of this family tree extend wide. In addition to Duncan, Clenance and Tim's older brother Scott Duncan, a videographer and the group's official photographer, the team includes Mark Assad, David Birch and Jake Rogers, who serve as security for Spurs games with the main job of protecting Oscar-winning actor Matt Damon. (They've also protected Johnny Depp.) The security detail knows its way around crowd control, which is crucial to maintaining order in stressful conditions while keeping the line moving as quickly as possible and minimizing frustrations among the survivors.
"The thing we are most proud of is the last event we did [Oct. 7 through Oct. 10 on St. Croix], we had multiple organizations from FEMA, Red Cross, the National Guard and the police coming up and saying, 'I've never seen anything in our relief efforts run as efficiently as this does,'" Kowalik said.
Eric Barbosa works logistics with Kowalik, and -- when he wasn't at his 9-to-5 job at nonprofit government contractor PCSI, which transports six million pounds of cargo per year -- he taught her and the team how to move product on trucks once it hits the ground. Kowalik's son Rowdy, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound junior linebacker at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, handles all of the team's social media accounts and maintains its website.
Then there's the extended team that includes Chesney, whose home on St. John, Virgin Islands, was destroyed. He has been instrumental to the team in the distribution of medical supplies. Billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's group has provided much of the additional infrastructure on the ground in the Virgin Islands. In addition, a Grammy-award-winning singer and currently one of the world's most popular artists, whose reps asked that she not be named, has stepped in to help raise funds for Duncan's team through her foundation.
Even the Memphis Grizzlies have helped. Hurricane Maria swept through the Virgin Islands just two weeks after Irma hit, leaving Kowalik scrambling to charter more planes to deliver 250,000 pounds of food and 20,000 pounds of generators from the San Antonio Food Bank. Virtually every plane available was reserved for deliveries to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
The team considered shipping the goods on boats out of Houston, but that would've taken two weeks. In other words, too long.
"That's two weeks of people living without what you have here to give them," Duncan said. "So we've gone every route possible to try to get it there as soon as possible."
Duncan's agent, Jim Tanner, caught wind of the team's plight and contacted the Grizzlies, who play at FedExForum. The Grizzlies connected the Duncan team with FedEx, and on Oct. 7, the first of two MD-11s landed at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport in St. Croix.
"I had no idea how overwhelming it would be," Duncan said. "Luckily in my little bubble, I was like, 'All right, yeah, I can help do this.' I didn't realize what the feat of what I was getting into was. But I found some really good people, who in certain respects have kind of done this, and just kind of threw it together. Ever since then, we kind of make it up on the fly."
'Things don't happen at 5G speeds on the Virgin Islands'
Two steps into the doorway at BlackJack Speed Shop lies a pile of dusty boxes full of diabetic supplies -- meters, braces, canes, band aids and ointment -- stacked alongside bedding, paper plates, canned goods and pillowcases, crammed next to a full car chassis and a motor suspended by chains, near a display of gargantuan truck rims.
Through the showroom, out the back door and up a flight of stairs sits Tim Duncan's office, with a wall-to-wall window displaying a shop area below littered with a gaggle of tricked-out cars under construction. Duncan devotes the majority of his post-retirement life to his children, Draven, Sydney and new daughter Quill, but his car customization business helps feed his passion for speed.
In here, the only mementos of a 19-year Hall of Fame career with the San Antonio Spurs, including five titles and two MVP awards, are a couple of paintings leaning against the wall on the floor next to tool boxes, headers, pipes, racing seats, a turbo assembly, bumpers, performance billet oil filters and dozens of boxes from Amazon, which no doubt contain even more auto parts.
Yet none of the performance parts on the floor can accelerate Duncan's race against time the way the ones stacked in the doorway do, with the help of his team.
"Our pros that were running things found out quickly that things don't happen at internet or 5G speeds on the Virgin Islands," Duncan said with a laugh.
That didn't stop them from working with a frantic sense of urgency.
"We had three or four people who had lost their homes totally. ... They were like, 'Yeah, we're here to help.' So I think of how strong people are. It's been amazing."Tim Duncan
Just a week after Irma wreaked havoc on the Virgin Islands, Duncan and the team, over a span of four days, made their first delivery to more than 6,500 hurricane survivors. Nineteen days later, after Maria hit, they brought more than double the amount of the first distribution.
Keep in mind that these deliveries don't take place without several "of these little miracles that happened so many times along the way," Guerra said. When the team made its first deliveries, it operated on a strict government curfew of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in an already gridlocked territory, weaving through St. Thomas in trucks filled with goods on roads littered with debris and power lines, with no streetlights or signals regulating traffic flow.
Complicating distribution was the fact that most of the thousands of survivors were walking to the lines set up by the Duncan team. The group needed to deliver the goods quickly enough for survivors to vacate the streets by curfew. On the first trip to St. Thomas, the team handed out nearly 30 pounds of food per person to 6,500 people, and on trip No. 2, they gave 10,500 hurricane victims 24 pounds of food per person over two-and-a-half days.
That's where the varying skill sets of the team members came into play -- not to mention all the assistance from volunteers on the ground, many of whom had lost their homes, as well as the National Guard, Red Cross, FEMA, the U.S. Air Force and the police department.
Scott Duncan said the team plans to deliver "every week or two weeks" or as soon as the group receives access to more donated planes because "our pile of donations is huge," he said.
Guerra has taken two days off in the past five weeks. Kowalik calls the current undertaking "gratifying" but more time-consuming than a full-time job. Duncan says his first four trips to the Virgin Islands were just the start, and he's in it for the long haul -- "months and years," he said.
The San Antonio Food Bank has told Duncan it is there "as long as he needs," according to Guerra. The secretive Spurs are committed, too. Duncan acknowledged that the organization has given "whatever I asked for," including "sizable contributions" from Popovich and Buford.
"That's why we were the Bad News Bears -- just a mishmash crew of people that made it work," Duncan said. "We needed the logistical people. We needed people who have done this before. We needed the people who are gonna push timelines, people who are impatient and frustrated. But at the same time, we needed the people from the island that understood that, 'Hey, this is how it works.' With all that, we're trying to make it work."
They're succeeding. Duncan marvels at the strength of his team of volunteers, especially the Virgin Islands natives toiling in the sun to help the territory's native son, despite having lost their homes.
"We had three or four people who had lost their homes totally -- lost their homes," Duncan said. "I didn't even know for a day and a half because they were just there. They were in the mix, and they were helping. And it wasn't like [anybody said], 'Hey, I've got to go.' Or, 'Hey, this is what happened to me.' They were like, 'Yeah, we're here to help.' So I think of how strong people are. It's been amazing."
Hoops and hope
Back at Win Mill 2.O on Oct. 17, Clenance sat at the bar staring at the TV as he viewed the NBA's slate of games on opening night. On the broadcasts, commentators discussed hurricane relief efforts, focusing on Puerto Rico. Not once did Clenance hear the Virgin Islands mentioned, which he "thought was weird," considering that one of the NBA's brightest stars hails from the U.S. territory.
"We're overshadowed for whatever reason. Puerto Rico has more people, yes, but we're all dealing with the same devastation," Clenance said. "Puerto Rico's gonna bounce back, and so are we. Every day, you wake up in a disaster area. Every night, you go to sleep with a generator buzzing in the background. After a while, people just want some normalcy. Sometimes, after a fire is when the pasture is at its greenest."
That's why Duncan stepped out of his comfort zone of silence and reclusiveness to conduct arguably as many interviews these past two months as he did during his entire final season with the Spurs.
"I've learned a lot about myself through this process, how gratifying it is to be out there and to help people, to step out of my little shell that I really enjoy being in for the good of my hometown and my people, how truly good people can be when people are in a time of need," Duncan said. "When you can kind of cut through the red tape and cut through all the politics and kind of be face-to-face with people, [you realize] people are really good."
Now folks in the Virgin Islands get to see what Popovich enjoyed up close for 19 NBA seasons.
"For somebody who really does dislike being the front man or in front of the camera," Popovich said, "he took the lead solely for the good of other people, and was willing to quote-unquote eat it and do what he needed to do to help a large group of people."
Hurricane Hugo shattered Duncan's dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer back in 1989 by destroying the local pool, but that pushed him into a life of basketball. Clenance hopes to see a similar story of triumph from tragedy unfold in the wake of Irma and Maria. His bar, after all, took its name "to embody the fact the Virgin Islands produces WINNERS," according to a posting on the spot's Facebook page.
When Win Mill 2.O first opened in Frenchtown Plaza the night of Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals, they put up a hoop approximately 100 feet from the bar. Before the storms rocked the region, Clenance never saw kids playing basketball there. But with electricity down and mostly generators governing the use of energy, Playstations, Xboxes and the like fall low on the list of priorities.
"After these storms, they've been out there playing basketball, and I can't help every time I see them or I walk past that hoop, I think, 'That's how it started for Tim,'" Clenance said. "So amidst all this, there's going to be somebody bored, and they're going to go out there and shoot some hoops and work on their game. And you never know where that's going to take them. We saw what it did for Tim. Every now and again, it takes something bad for something good to happen."