Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
In high school, Calvin Duncan didn’t go to school often and his grades suffered. It hurt his chances of playing basketball at the next level, so something had to change.
Duncan took a trip to Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, during his junior year to visit the school. He met with the president of the school, Robert Isner, who told him that he had a fourth-grade reading level.
The Isners told Duncan three things: They believed he had the aptitude to improve, some people don’t test well, and they were willing to give him an opportunity at the school if he worked for it.
“They were very intelligent individuals, and they were the first to ever tell me that I was smart,” Duncan said. “For somebody intelligent to tell you that you’re intelligent, you just have to work on it, that means the world.”
Duncan’s mother died five days after he was born from a previous illness. His father was never present, so his aunt adopted him as a newborn.
He grew up in Linden, New Jersey, an urban area in the northern part of the state. Duncan said it was the worst area of the city and it would have been easy to be influenced by people on the street selling drugs. Basketball was the thing that kept him out of trouble.
“When I was 12 years old, I played in the PAL, the police athletic league,” Duncan said. “That right there gave me a taste of ‘Wow, I can do something good.’ At that time in my life, basketball meant everything.”
His aunt worked in a factory, so he often skipped school to play basketball outside. When Duncan and Linden High School played against Montclair, college scouts showed up to watch an opposing player.
After the game, the University of Virginia scout was impressed by Duncan’s play, so he called the school. When he heard about Duncan’s grades, he changed his mind, and the program was no longer interested in him. That’s when he transferred to Oak Hill Academy.
‘It saved my life’
Today, Oak Hill Academy is known for producing high-level high school basketball players, sending them to Division I colleges and eventually the NBA. Stars like Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo made their way through the school over the last two decades.
Duncan, who joined the school when the program was in its early years, said he helped build it to what it is now. During his two-year career at the private school near the North Carolina border, Duncan led the team to a 60-1 record and a national ranking his junior season.
During that junior year at Oak Hill, Duncan’s aunt suffered a stroke. A year later, she died. The Isners, the couple who gave him a chance at the school, became his surrogate parents — he was like family to them.
He improved his grades and was able to do well enough on the SAT, the goal he established when he set foot in the school. Duncan then received a scholarship from VCU.
“Basketball became an instrument that gave me a platform for me to display my skills, my ability and my talents to put me in a position to get my education paid for,” Duncan said. “It saved my life.”
In Richmond, Duncan became a centerpiece of the Rams’ lineup after a breakout sophomore season. He averaged 17.4 points and 5.2 rebounds during his second season with the black and gold, leading the Rams to their second NCAA tournament appearance.
Rolando Lamb, a teammate of Duncan’s at VCU for all four years, said that Duncan’s work ethic rubbed off on him and helped him become a better player.
“One of the first things I recognized about him was how hard he worked,” Lamb said. “This guy had a tremendous work ethic and he demanded that of everybody around him.”
During his sophomore campaign, a landmark law was passed in Congress giving Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. The night that was passed, Duncan dedicated his game to King and exploded for a career-high 30-point performance.
“That’s the greatest moment in my life because it was more than just basketball,” Duncan said. “Basketball was just a platform for me to be able to share with other people something that I felt was important.”
Duncan posted similar numbers his senior season playing at the Coliseum — 17.3 points and five rebounds — leading the Rams to another NCAA tournament appearance and a No. 11 final ranking in the AP Top-25 poll.
His jersey is one of the five that have been retired by the program and hangs high above the floor at the Siegel Center.
After graduating from VCU, Duncan was selected as the 30th pick of the 1985 NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. They traded him to the Chicago Bulls, where he signed his contract.
It was his dream growing up, when he played on asphalt courts near his house, to play in the NBA. He even had the opportunity to play with eventual NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.
But Duncan walked away from the NBA to follow his faith.
“To be able to play with such greatness was a phenomenal opportunity,” Duncan said. “But my personal convictions, my spiritual convictions at that point in time pointed me to play with Athletes in Action.”
Athletes in Action was a basketball team that played exhibition games against high-level competition while also spreading the gospel.
Duncan said playing with Athletes in Action instead of the NBA allowed him to be an example by living what he believed in.
“I was the 30th best selection or player in the world at that time,” Duncan said. “What did you do to get to that place? Now, I can share with others because I know what it takes to reach the apex of your career in something. That motivates me.”
In 2004, Duncan founded the Faith and Family Church in Richmond and rented out a church space.
“I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, not just being an entertainer,” Duncan said. “Basketball, that was a chapter in my life. I wanted to be in a position to be able to help people to reach the apex of their career.”
Duncan established the church in the city where he went to college because he had fallen in love with Richmond. He said one reason why he attended VCU was that he could see himself living in Richmond after his basketball career was over.
Now, Faith and Family Church have two buildings: a new church that was built last year and a community center.
Lamb, who moved back to Virginia three years ago after living in Atlanta for 20 years, said when he returned, Duncan asked him to join him at the church.
“It was a no-brainer for me because he was already doing great work building a great church and he’s always been a great leader,” Lamb said. “It was a no-brainer to team back up with him.”
The Portsmouth, Virginia, native did some motivational speaking while living in Atlanta, so when he started working with Duncan as an assistant pastor, he was able to make an impact on people’s lives again.
“We did it on the basketball court, but now we’re doing something for God,” Lamb said. “Helping people grow spiritually and helping people find their purpose is the greatest thing that you can do.”
Working at the church has helped Duncan live his life’s mission: to empower people to reach their God-given potential.
The church works with young men and young women, mentoring them to become better people. It also works with the young boys at Chalkley Elementary School in Chesterfield once a week for an hour during the school day.
“When I see young people, I see me in them,” Duncan said. “I want to leave a mark.”
Duncan knows what it feels like to struggle and work toward a goal.
“What motivates me is there’s a Calvin Duncan, who may not be the best student,” Duncan said, “but there’s somebody out there like the Isners who said you have the aptitude to do this work.”