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Blazers Top 100: The Answer at Center

A look at the 100 players and personnel who have influenced the Trail Blazers’ 50-year history.

Portland Trail Blazers v Washington Bullets

The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.

No. 28 | Kevin Duckworth

Games Played with Blazers: 527 Regular Season, 67 Postseason

*PTS: 13.6 | REB: 6.3 | OREB: 2.2 | FG%: 47.5%

*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland

Joined Club: December 1986, acquired from the San Antonio Spurs for Walter Berry

Departed Club: June 1993, traded to the Washington Bullets for Harvey Grant

Place in History: Since practically the dawn of the franchise, the Riddle of the Sphinx for the Portland Trail Blazers has been, “Who is going to play center?” Forget walking on four legs, two legs, then three legs...all too often the question has been resolved by, “Who can even walk?” Bill Walton, LaRue Martin, Sam Bowie, Steve Johnson... all of them were supposed to be the answer. None of them could provide it for long.

For an extended, shining period in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the Blazers finally had their man. He stood 7 feet tall. Don’t ask about the weight; it fluctuated. But for the better part of seven seasons, Kevin Duckworth manned the middle, eating space and sinking sweet baseline jumpers, helping his team to the longest sustained run of success in their history.

The story didn’t start out that way. Duckworth was acquired from the San Antonio Spurs in the middle of the 1986-87 season. He was immediately tabbed as a “project”. Roughly translated, that meant, “We just got this seven-footer for Walter Berry. We couldn’t stand Berry for much more than two months. If we get more than seven useful games out of Duckworth, we’ll be ahead.”

They were throwing spaghetti against a wall to see what stuck.

As turned out, Duck did.

Duckworth’s start was modest. He played reserve minutes behind Steve Johnson his first year in Portland. He showed scoring ability. Nobody could argue with his size. Once he started to get his post footwork down, he was legitimately hard to stop.

The Blazers saw enough in Duck to start him in 1987-88. Their first plan was to use him alongside Johnson in a Twin Towers system. Johnson’s health declined, so they threw in Caldwell Jones instead. It wasn’t terrible. The team won 53 with Clyde Drexler, Kiki Vandeweghe, and Jerome Kersey handling most of the scoring. But Project and Pops weren’t going to be Portland’s frontcourt duo of the future.

A funny thing happened as the year, progressed, though. Duck became a regular outlet, courtesy of the attention defenders were paying to other scorers. When called upon, he could deliver. He raised eyebrows with a 21-point performance on January 16th against the Spurs. From that point on, he’d finish 50 of 52 games in double figures. He pasted 28 on the Jazz on February 4th, then gave them 31 more on the 15th. The Bulls would get 32, the Rockets and Hawks 30 each. What was happening here? Dude could play, sure, but he wasn’t supposed to be a star, especially not that quickly.

As it turned out, nobody was going to tell Kevin Duckworth what he could do or not do. You could make whatever comments you wanted on weight, rebounding, or defense. He was going to go out there and do his job. You were going to pass him the ball and he was going to give you production. End of story.

Duckworth’s transition from featured player to full cast member was cemented during the 1988 NBA Playoffs. The Blazers fell to the Jazz in four games, but Duck averaged 21.5 points and 11.0 rebounds in the series. His Game 4 finale was a 33-point, 10-rebound performance in which he hit 14 of 20 shots. Portland’s center had arrived.

To his immense credit, Duckworth worked with the coaching staff to improve his game during the entire stretch between 1987 and 1989. He could have cruised on 20-point production. Instead he took the “project” label personally, then worked to banish it. His footwork and offensive efficiency soared during this period. He would never be a great defender or shot-blocker, but he learned how to use his body and keep opponents from going crazy in the lane.

Portland’s coaching staff helped in Duckworth’s growth as well. In those days, seven-footers weighing two hundred and (*merf merf*) pounds scanned as post players, period. At first, the Blazers had him down low, back to the basket all the time. Duck could do that, but he liked the mid-range game as well. He wasn’t a contact guy. Catching, taking a dribble, and putting up a baby hook every time down the court wasn’t his style.

As time passed, Rick Adelman and company put Duckworth on the baseline, 10-12 feet away. Most centers could spin either way for the layup. Duck could hit the jumper spinning either direction, from either side of the hoop. His shooting proficiency cleared space in the lane for Portland’s driving wings and their new arrival, power forward Buck Williams. By the way, Duck could still hit the hook or shimmy in the post whenever needed. He had the Golden Corral offense...it wasn’t going to make the cover of the Gourmet Magazine, but there sure was a lot of it.

An enormous amount of credit is given to Williams for Portland’s metamorphosis from 50-win team to championship contender in the early ‘90’s. Appropriately so. But Duckworth’s development was a large piece of the puzzle too. He refused to be the fifth wheel. He thought he could play with these guys, providing as much of a boost as Buck, Clyde, or Kersey did. In his own way, he did.

Duckworth’s most memorable moment came in the second round of the 1990 NBA Playoffs. Unable to play because of a broken hand, he watched his team battle the San Antonio Spurs to a 3-3 tie headed into Game 7. After a sub-par Game 1, rookie David Robinson had given the Blazers fits, scoring 21, 24, 27, 28, and 31 on 58% shooting from the field. The Spurs had won 3 of the last 4 games too, all by double digits. Even though it was in Portland, the Admiral and company looked to have the edge in the final game.

When Duckworth walked out of the tunnel that day, in uniform, hand bandaged and ready to play, the same people who had asked a hundred questions about him caught their breath, then rose as one to applaud. All across Portland, in front of TV sets and radios, fans were cheered wildly, “He’s dressed! He’s wearing warm-ups!” It was Portland’s own Willis Reed moment, played out two decades later.

The Blazers prevailed by three in overtime, advancing to the Conference Finals. It remains one of the most hotly-contested, amazingly fun, and critically important contests in franchise history. Robinson scored 20 and grabbed 16 rebounds, but shot 7-21, 33.3%. Had he hit one more bucket in regulation, there would have been no Portland Finals appearance that year. Duckworth did his job.

Duck would play with the team through the 1990 NBA Finals, through the 63-win season in 1990-91, in the 1992 NBA Finals as well. Between 1988 and 1992, from the ages of 24-27, he averaged 15.2 points and 6.7 rebounds (2.3 offensive). He was twice named an NBA All-Star.

As Drexler’s health faltered, so did the Blazers’ chances of success. Duckworth was an important piece of the puzzle, but neither he nor any of his teammates could compensate for a broken Clyde. Though his production remained steady, Duckworth’s weaknesses began to tell as much as his strengths when his team was exposed. In 1993, knowing that the end was nigh, the Blazers traded their center to the Washington Bullets for a 28-year-old, 19-point-scoring forward named Harvey Grant.

Neither Grant’s career nor Duckworth’s prospered after. Duck would play 143 games over the next four seasons for the Bullets, Bucks, and Clippers before hanging up the sneakers. At that point he was 32, with 684 regular season games behind him, 67 more in the playoffs. Nearly 600 of those appearances came in Portland’s red and black.

Not bad for a project center picked up for a cast-off draft pick.

Duckworth remained part of the Portland community until his death in August of 2008 from congestive heart failure. He died while visiting the Oregon Coast for a free basketball clinic. He was 44.

For the hard work, for the “project” to All-Star story, for the Finals runs, for the big comeback, for all the points, and for finally giving Portland an answer to, “Who’s going to be our center?”, Kevin Duckworth earns the 28th spot in our Top 100 list of Portland Trail Blazers players and influencers.

Blessings, Duck. We miss you.

Share your memories of Kevin Duckworth below, and stick with us as we continue onward towards the #1 spot.