The people of St. Croix were hungry. On the hurricane-ravaged island in the Caribbean, they were hungry for hope and food and holiday cheer. And so they came by the thousands, some from far away, to receive an early Thanksgiving treat from their native son, Tim Duncan.
The line in the parking lot of an old supermarket formed before dawn last Friday. Hours later, the line reached around the block and down the street for a mile.
Duncan, the retired Spurs legend, and a team of volunteers distributed ham, cornbread mix, stuffing and cans of green beans, cranberry sauce and yams to more than 5,000 islanders. The distribution was as smooth and efficient as old No. 21 himself: The team handed bags of food to 21 people per minute.
Two days later, the volunteers weathered heat, intermittent downpours, and stifling humidity while giving food bags to more than 5,000 on the island of St. Thomas.
“It felt wonderful to bring a sense of something normal to people during this holiday season,” Duncan said in a phone interview with the Rivard Report Wednesday.
Two Category 5 hurricanes – Irma and Maria – devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands in September. The storms destroyed houses, leveled hotels, wrecked hospitals, flooded buildings, and decimated the island’s communications and power grid.
In response, Duncan raised more than $1 million in hurricane relief, matched the amount, and made multiple trips to deliver food, generators, and medical supplies to the islands. At his own expense, Duncan filled four MD-80 cargo planes with 160,000 pounds of Thanksgiving fare last week. Two planes went to St. Croix and two to St. Thomas.
One 80-year-old woman walked two miles to receive a bag of food in St. Thomas. She sobbed in disbelief at the offering and expressed gratitude to volunteer Michael Guerra.
“She said, ‘I never thought I would be able to have Thanksgiving for my family,” recalled Guerra, the San Antonio Food Bank chief development office. “Everything’s gone, but Timmy brought us Thanksgiving.’ She leaned on my shoulder and kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.’”
As he distributed food, Duncan recognized a number of faces, people who endured the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo with him in 1989. The Category 4 storm struck his native St. Croix when he was 13.
“I got to help out family and friends I went through Hurricane Hugo with,” Duncan said. “I got to see a lot of kids come through with their parents and families and they gave me a hug. That was a big highlight – just being in that reverse role of helping out instead of getting help.”
As he drove across the island last week, memories returned in waves. The first boom from Hugo that blew out windows in his house. Sitting on the bathroom floor with his mother and sister, eyes wide with fear. His father watching a crack in a ceiling beam grow larger and praying.
The Duncans did not lose their roof or home back then. But their neighborhood was demolished. Hugo destroyed the island’s only swimming pool, which forced Duncan, a promising swimmer, to take up another sport. Eight years later, he joined the Spurs as the No. 1 pick in the 1997 NBA draft.
“Driving around and seeing the power lines down and homes without roofs and blue tarps on roofs and people in yards trying to clean things up brought back a lot of memories,” Duncan said.
In St. Croix, he wore a dark island hat, dark sunglasses, a yellow sleeveless T-shirt, and camo shorts. Some people came just to shake his hand.
“He is loved on the island,” Guerra said. “Some people said, ‘I don’t need food. I just want to see Tim.’ … I watched him time and again look out for other people and not himself. If it started to rain, he’d look around and find the island guy who was working a forklift and gave him a poncho. He has a real affection in his heart for the people. To parents and aunts and so many, he’s family on St. Croix.”
In September, Duncan wrote a piece for The Players Tribune (which was published in the Rivard Report) and made an appeal for donations. “Right now as I type this, the U.S. Virgin Islands — the place where I was born and where I grew up – has been badly damaged by Hurricane Irma. The people there, many of whom are old friends of mine, are suffering.”
Duncan wrote that he had given $250,000 toward relief efforts and pledged to match donations up to the first $1 million.
“We surpassed that number,” he said Wednesday. “I think we’re at $3 million something. It’s been amazing. Unbelievable. Donations have come from all over – from teammates, ex-teammates, people who weren’t teammates, and coaches.”
The outpouring of support has moved him. The islanders have moved him more. In the St. Croix parking lot, at the end of the food line, an elderly woman in a purple shirt approached Duncan and lifted her arms. As he reached down, a smile wide and bright lit up the woman’s face. Thanksgiving had arrived in a warm and unexpected embrace.