Don't Forget About the Islands

Hey, it’s Tim.

I’m not normally one to speak directly in the media, or write stuff publicly. So I’m a little out of my comfort zone here. I don’t use Twitter. I don’t have a Facebook. Interviews are O.K., I guess, but I prefer when they’re on the shorter side.  

But here I am, talking right to you, asking you for a favor. I promise I wouldn’t be asking if it didn’t matter so much. The basketball community has already given so much to me over the years. But right now I need your attention for a couple of minutes.

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. Weather reports say that another Category 5 storm, Hurricane Jose, is close behind. No one knows what the place will look like when the rain stops.

Now time is of the essence.

I’m donating $250,000 immediately — tonight — to the storm relief efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands. And going forward, I pledge to match your donations up to the first $1 million. That’s where you come in: You can go here to make a donation. I’ve included more information at the end of this article, too.

I know not everyone can give, and that’s O.K. — after all, a lot of you just got done giving financial support to the victims of Hurricane Harvey and the fires on the West Coast. But if you’re able, here’s what I can promise: Every dollar donated will go directly to relief efforts on the ground. Starting as soon as the weather permits, I’ll be chartering an airplane full of supplies from San Antonio to St. Croix, the biggest town in the Virgin Islands. And I’m already busy putting together a team — some from the Virgin Islands and some who will fly in from elsewhere — to help manage the relief effort.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my old neighborhood in St. Croix, where I recently took my kids. I showed them where I used to play with my friends when I was their age. I showed them my high school. Now I’m asking myself, What will still be there after the storms?

We can pray. Then we must act.

Right now you — we — can really, really make a difference.

Tim Duncan

Coach Pop has always been a “say less, do more” kind of person, and I’ve always admired that in him and tried my best to follow his example. But Pop also knows when it’s time to talk, so in that spirit I want to take a moment to tell you why my home is so special, and why it needs your help so urgently right now. I’ll even try to work in a lesson I learned about Chef Boyardee somewhere if I can.

See, the thing that’s really hard to get your head around when someone in a faraway land is asking for relief money after a disaster is … well, it’s hard to imagine how it’ll help. I mean, how exactly it’ll help. And I don’t think that’s anybody’s fault because it’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s experience if you’ve only see it on TV or read about it in the news. It’s easy to imagine the funds being wasted — or worse, never spent on what was intended.

But I’ve lived through a hurricane before. I’ve seen its destruction. I’ve seen why getting help — immediate and sustained help — is so vital.

The biggest storm to ever hit the Virgin Islands was Hurricane Hugo. Hugo was a Category 5, just like Irma. It was 1989 and I was 13 years old. I’d just started back to school. People still talk about Hugo. Some people even say that the island never really returned to normal. That’s how bad the damage was. They talk about the lag in relief efforts in the critical days and weeks after the disaster, which was mostly due to the island’s small size and distance from big cities.

Hugo hit at night. The first thing I remember is a loud boom from the windows blowing out of our house. My mother and sister burst into my bedroom and led me by the hand into another room. We spent the rest of the night sitting in a small bathroom, our eyes wide open. None of us could sleep. We heard the bangs and booms of debris. Once in a while, I’d peek down the hallway at my dad, who was watching our ceiling. One of the beams had a crack in it, and the crack slowly grew bigger throughout the night. I think my dad was praying.

Our roof stayed on, but others were not so lucky. Some people died and many were injured. Those of us who survived woke up to find our neighborhood destroyed. Many houses on our block were missing roofs, or entire walls. Our next-door neighbors lost their house. They had spent the night hiding in their kitchen cabinets. They ended up moving in with us for a while after that.

Hugo crippled the economy. People lost their businesses. Food prices went way, way up. For the next six months, parts of the island didn’t have power, and school was canceled for almost two months. We had to boil water to drink or cook. I got good at showering with a bucket. Without electricity, we had to get crafty to keep food and drinks cold. I remember tying ropes to jugs of milk or orange juice and then lowering them down into a cistern, which collects rainwater. The water was a lot cooler in there. I learned to adapt, like everyone else.

Every once in a while, people would get a generator and each family would take turns using it for a few hours at a time. The priority was always powering the lights and the fridge. As a kid I wanted to watch TV or play video games. (I had the original Nintendo, and Zelda had just come out.) But we knew we had to focus on what we needed, not on what we wanted.

Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated/Getty Im

Looking back now, I’m so impressed by how calmly my parents got my family through it. We did get through it. Not every family’s home or job was safe, but we were lucky.

Now that I’m older, I also know how important it is to get relief and to get it quickly — and how easily a small island can be forgotten. I can’t let that happen again.

Which is why I mentioned Chef Boyardee earlier.

I lived off that stuff after Hugo. Chef Boyardee was my guy. A distribution center was set up in our neighborhood, and cans of Chef Boyardee were some of the only meals available to us. Tang was a treat, as well, if they had it in the latest shipment — we’d boil water to make sure it was clean, and then mix in the Tang powder.

So this week I’ve been thinking a lot about those cans. Because they were a godsend. They were like magic to me. Someone had sent them — I don’t know who, or what organization, but someone had sent them. And I was so happy and grateful. Not because I loved them — I’ve probably haven’t had Chef Boyardee since — but because that food was a necessity. It got us through.

Islands like ours tend to get forgotten after storms. We’re remote, which makes it hard to deliver supplies quickly, cheaply and adequately. A lot of people don’t think of the Virgin Islands as someone’s home, but as more of a getaway — it was only when I got older that I figured that out. I remember the cruise ships. They’d come to the island. Groups of people would stroll downtown to check out the shops. They’d hang out at the beach or charter ships to nearby islands. It was always cool that all these strangers wanted to visit my faraway little island. After a few days, the cruise ships would leave.

After Hugo, the cruise ships didn’t come back for a long time.

Tim Duncan

I’m writing this to ask for your help in the relief efforts, but I’m also asking you not to forget about the Virgin Islands — and others in the Caribbean.

The news of the storm may fade from the headlines, but there are still real people there — good people — who need your goodwill, and who will never forget your generosity.

To join my effort, go to my Virgin Islands Hurricane Relief Page here.

I will match your financial donations up to the first $1 million. I’ve just started things off with my initial $250,000 contribution. 

And if you’re interested in contributing material goods, we’re setting up two drop off locations in San Antonio on Monday and Tuesday from 7am-7pm:

H-E-B Grocery Store
17238 Bulverde Rd, San Antonio, TX


H-E-B Grocery Store
4100 S New Braunfels, San Antonio, TX 78223

Thank you, again.