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May 19, 1990. Memorial Coliseum, Portland, Ore. Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers. Series tied at three games. Portland’s home-court advantage has been erased with the injury to Duckworth. The starting center, who broke his right hand in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks, has been out of the lineup since May 1. Still, there are hints he might come back. The Oregonian mentions that the Duck was outfitted with a special lightweight cast. Local TV reports that he took a few shots at a closed-door practice. A pod of whales is sighted near the mouth of the Columbia. Mount St. Helens remains dormant.
Zero hour, and still no word. All eyes are fixed on the stone gray portal out of which the Blazers customarily emerge. And here they are! First Porter. Next Kersey, Williams, Drexler, Cooper, Young, Ainge, the coaches, the bench, and then, dressed in red, white, and black, blinking like a bear emerging from hibernation, his paw wrapped in a maize-colored armature, the Duck. People are actually crying. It is a moment worthy of Willis Reed’s return in the 1970 NBA finals. With number “00” on the floor, there’s no way the team can lose.
And they don’t. Sure, it’s close: 108-105 in overtime. The Blazers also get some help from then-Spurs guard Rod Strickland who, at the end of a fast break, with only seconds left, dumps a two-handed pass over the back of his head that goes straight into the arms of…no one. But it was Duckworth who pulled Portland through, playing 35 minutes and knocking in a crucial jumper at the end.
“I didn’t even know Duck was going to play until I came to the building today,” Drexler said. “We won the game right there. It was such a psychological lift….We saw him play hurt. His hand still hurts a lot, but he played. Someone who will play like that is a real valuable item in today’s society.”
A real valuable item in today’s society—not a phrase we’ve heard from the Bullets with regard to their pivot man, is it? True, the Duck’s anemic performance last year (he started only 52 games, and averaged 6.6 points and 4.7 rebounds, the lowest since his rookie season in San Antonio) might not have merited such extravagant approbation. But did the organization do much to help? Listen to what Bullets General Manager John Nash said about the June 1993 trade that sent Harvey Grant to Portland for Duckworth: “We decided this was the best we could do. We knew we weren’t going to get one of the premier centers. We tried to get Smits and Divac and Rony Seikaly…but we weren’t able to get it done.”
How nice. Imagine what Nash would have said had Duckworth not made it to both the all-star game and the NBA Finals. Twice. Welcome to the metro area, Kev.
Coach Wes Unseld chipped in, too. The former center was obsessed with putting the Duck in the one place he couldn’t fly: the low post. What was Unseld thinking? Had anyone from the Bullets ever watched a video of Duck at work? Duckworth can pop 15-footers all day. He can float his gorgeous quack shot—a sidearm push hook generally initiated with his back to the hoop—from just outside the imaginary half-circle that extends from the middle of the key to both ends of the baseline. He can do all this—and more—but he is never, I repeat: never going to out-jump, out-dunk, or out-rebound the Eastern Conference behemoths.
The off-season was not filled with hope. There was the brush fire over the Duck’s tenure at Duke University’s weight-loss clinic, which the team did little to extinguish. And then, in what was the harshest blow, the Bullets papered the town with ads and media guides decorated with a half-dozen team jerseys: “24” for the late Gugliotta, “4” for Skiles, “3” for Chapman, etc. Missing from the package, however, was Duckworth’s unmissable “00.”
Given the depth of these insults, it’s remarkable that Duckworth showed up at training camp. We can thank incoming Coach Jim Lynam for that. Lynam seems to understand Duckworth. This is something of a feat. The Bullets’ center, in fairness, is not an easy man to fathom.
For starters, aspects of his physique and demeanor have given people the wrong impression. Take his face: the aquiline nose, the gentle eyes, the slightly mournful countenance. These are not features common to NBA centers. But they mask a toughness. The most important fact about Duckworth this year is not that his numbers are up, but that he can have a 16-point, eight-rebound night against the Knicks while playing with a strained groin.
There is also his honesty, rare in an era of Styrofoam sportspeak. “The fans are stupid,” Duckworth told the Washington Post last month. In October, he told the paper, “Washington has always been my least favorite place to play, and I still feel that way.” Equally rare is Duck’s willingness to assess himself critically. “I was doing more harm than good,” he said after a recent Bullets loss. He’s also forthright about his role in last year’s debacle. “I can’t blame anyone but myself,” he told the Post. “I was the one who showed up not ready.” Compare these words to those of a Rodman or a Pippen and we should be grateful that the 30-year-old from Eastern Illinois washed up along the shores of the Potomac.
Certainly there is the issue of his weight. Duckworth ventured into the mid-300s last year, but is his poundage solely a reflection of too little time aboard a StairMaster? I think not. Though the Duck functions best in the high 200s, he’ll always be a sizable fellow. And is the weight his fault? Pick up any newsmagazine this week and you will read: “Obesity Tied to Genes.” As Dr. Michael Hamilton of Duke told Newsweek, “We have a gene we can identify, whose product affects our weight, and we can play with it.”
The Duck plays with it. He has the softest hands of any center in the league. The quack hook’s feather-light, rotationless flight generally plops softly in the bottom of the net, like flannel dropped in a laundry basket. (You can watch David Stern’s signature, branded on the ball, the entire flight.) Duckworth clogs the lane on defense. And he can go with either a set or a fast-break offense. Bullets fans should have been ecstatic watching the team in transition against the Knicks. Butler snatched a rebound and in a flash four white-shirted men darted downcourt. The Duck, who had peeled off into the far left lane, was moving as quickly as Webber. The Washington running game, which last year resembled the traffic on I-66 during leaf season, had turned into I-5. Full lanes; full throttle.
Perhaps it is with his name that Duckworth’s problems lie. The first half of Duckworth brings forth images of waterfowl; the other half dredges up deep questions of value: Is he good enough? What a difference a couple of consonants could make. (Are you listening, Bullet marketeers?) Trade the C for an N and you get “Dunkworth.” A sloppy waddle grows into a rim-shattering slam. Or scrap the lisping “th,” replace it with a K and—voilà—there’s a name that evokes character, fidelity. A whiff of mallard remains, to be sure, but it’s infused with the dockyard grit of the sea eagle.
Somehow, though, it wouldn’t be right. To change the Duck’s name would be to alter forever his uniqueness (he collects reptiles); it would be an act of treason on a par with Unseld’s misguided tutorial. For it is in his name, with all its feathers and its frailties, that Kevin Duckworth’s soul and style are revealed. If we can see this, as Coach Lynam so obviously does, then we can rest assured that we will also see the noble Duck spread his wings and soar, soar, soar.