Gavin Duncan, pictured above from his days on the Science Hill High School boys' varsity basketball team, died on Sunday, Aug. 24, after succumbing to injuries he suffered during an excursion to a national park. (Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
Members of the 2010 Science Hill High School boys’ basketball team are in mourning after the loss of one of their former teammates and friends.
On Sunday, 25-year-old John “Gavin” Duncan died of injuries he sustained while swimming in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Oneida, Tennessee on Saturday.
Park staff told members of the media that, while swimming in the Clear Fork River with a group of friends, Duncan went underwater for several minutes before he was eventually pulled out by friends. He was then airlifted to University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, where he underwent treatment until his death Sunday evening.
Duncan was a Johnson City native who earned local attention as the starting point guard for the 2010 Hilltopper team, which would go on to win the Big Eight Conference Championship that year. According to Head Coach Ken Cutlip, throughout the course of his career, Duncan was the kind of player every coach wants on his team.
“It was a coach’s dream,” Cutlip said. “He was a hard worker, but a great teammate. He cared more about other people than he did himself. If you talk to any of his teammates or people who played with him, they would say the same thing.”
Former Topper Chris Smith, who was a year ahead of Duncan in school, agreed with Cutlip’s assessment, adding that Duncan seemed to have no difficulty uniting those around him.
“When you’re dealing with any team and having a mesh of different personalities, you need someone who’s always going to be and stay positive,” Smith said. “Gavin was always able to do that.”
While Smith watched Duncan grow as a leader and a player, others, like C.J. Good — who joined the 2010 championship team as a freshman — had a chance to experience Duncan’s leadership firsthand.
“When he was a senior, we had a bunch of freshmen and sophomores come and play varsity,” Good said. “He just took us under his wing and pretty much led the team. He just showed us how to do things, and the right way to do them. We really respected him a lot.”
Watching Duncan mentor and shape his younger teammates, Cutlip said he saw the perfect example of how he wanted his players to conduct themselves.
“He really set an example for what we wanted our kids to emulate when they were in our program.” Cutlip said. “Gavin was instrumental in providing that kind of leadership.”
In addition to his leadership on the court, Duncan is also remembered as being one of the team’s spiritual leaders, as well.
“He was a really good Christian guy,” Good said. “Whenever we got prayers, he was the leader.”
Cutlip added that Duncan’s activity in the church continued into his time at UT, where he attended school after his graduation from SHHS.
“He had just graduated this summer and finished up his degree in engineering,” Cutlip said. “But he told me he just felt like, this time, the Lord was calling him to do something else. He had taken a job with the campus ministry there at UT and was going to do that for the next year.”
Cutlip learned that from Duncan firsthand, as the two shared a lunch with Cutlip’s family after a Sunday church service almost a month ago.
“I was fortunate enough to stay in contact with him over the last several years,” Cutlip said. “(At lunch) he was sharing everything that was going on in his life. He was full of life, and was really excited about the plans he had.”
Those plans would be forever changed, however, on Saturday evening. That night, Cutlip said he received a text message from a former player that Duncan had been in an accident and that he was in “bad shape.”
“On Sunday, my wife and I went down just to see him,” he said. “Once we had an opportunity to get down there and see him, we knew the prognosis.
“Just coming to grips with him probably not going to make it, I would say I was in shock and devastated ... from a selfish point-of-view. That was, in my opinion, one of God’s special men that was doing tremendous things.”
While Cutlip had one last chance to see his friend and former player, Smith said he learned the news via text message, as well, on Sunday. Smith said he remembered hearing only that Duncan had been gravely injured, and that the outlook was grim.
“At the time, I wasn’t sure on the details and didn’t know what his condition was,” Smith said. “You get chills. You just get kind of sick to your stomach and hope for the best.”
The best did not come, however, as Duncan died later that evening. Though Duncan is gone, Smith said the impression he left on the living will be remembered.
“It’s pretty obvious that he had a pretty lasting impact on everybody who got to know him, in Johnson City and in Knoxville and everywhere and everything else he has ever been involved in,” Smith said. “It’s a big loss to both communities.”
Cutlip agreed, adding that the sort of charisma and leadership Duncan displayed was rare.
“The influence he had on people in the short time that he had been here is just amazing,” Cutlip said.
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