The passing of Kevin Duckworth at only 44 years old should serve as yet another cautionary tale for the health of all Americans. Medical examiners have concluded that Duckworth died of “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy with congestive heart failure.” The initial report from The Oregonian indicated that Duckworth appeared to have gone into cardiac arrest, according to fire rescue officials on the scene.
We are all aware of the weigh problems Duckworth dealt with throughout his career and more so into his retirement. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy involves the thickening of the heart muscle, thought to be primarily caused by genetics, but could be affected by non-genetic factors. There is no definitive connection between Duckworth’s heart problems and being overweight, but an easy conclusion to make would be that the latter certainly did not help the former, especially since his high blood pressure played a role in his heart failure.
Memories of Duckworth have focused on his positive contributions, especially those of his days with the Portland Trailblazers, the team he was most associated with. True Hoop’s Henry Abbott and Wayne Thompson of Blazers.com will recall his performance in a Portland game 7 win over the San Antonio Spurs in the 2nd round of the 1990 NBA Playoffs. Current Blazers team president, Larry Miller, remembers Duckworth “as one of the warmest and biggest- hearted.” Duckworth was in Lincoln City, OR to host a free clinic for kids.
My memories will, of course, stem from Duckworth’s days as a Bullet. While the on-court recollections weren’t always fond, I do remember the big fella having a smile on his face, for the most part.
After sending notice of his death to a couple people, my friend Chris reminded me of the day we were on the court with Big Duck back in late ’93/early ’94 for a post-game clinic on the floor of the Capital Centre/USAir Arena.
As arduous as it may be, here’s to remembering Kevin Duckworth as a Washington Bullet.
When the Bullets acquired Duckworth a day before my 13th birthday, I thought he’d be the big man the Bullets needed to compete with the Shaqs, Ewings and Alonzo Mournings of the Eastern Conference. Pervis Ellison was still around to help down low (when healthy), and ’93-94 was big Gheorghe Muresan’s rookie year…..a three-headed monster indeed.
Similar to the Scott Skiles trade, the acquisition for Duckworth wasn’t the worst idea in the world. Albeit, the Bullets gave up a lot more in Harvey Grant, and didn’t receive a 1st round pick in return. But many reports of the day had Grant ready to exercise an opt-out clause after the ’93-94 season in order to play for a winner. So, it behooved GM John Nash to get something for Grant now, rather than risk losing him for nothing later.
Duckworth wasn’t Nash’s first through fourth options, as he had his sights set on trying to trade for Rik Smits (Indiana), Dikembe Mutombo (Denver), Vlade Divac (LA Lakers), and Michael Cage (Seattle) before finally settling for the Duck.
Nash and the Bullets had been backed into a corner. Harvey Grant, who had a trade-approval clause in his contract, already nixed deals to Denver and Dallas. Portland had become malcontent with Duckworth’s dwindling scoring average and increasing weight. It had come to the point where Duckworth actually requested a trade because he had grown weary of inquiries about his girth from Portland management, and increasingly frustrated from being left out of the Portland offense.
Much like an arranged marriage is an option-less fate, Kevin Duckworth and the Washington Bullets were not a match made in heaven. He showed up at training camp out of shape and far from his “listed” weight of 275 lbs. with Portland. At the beginning of the season, his points and rebounds numbers were similar to those diminishing stats from his last year in Portland (14.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg), which was pretty much expected. However, with the Bullets, Duck’s FG% was horrid (40.7% in November ’93), and his lack of conditioning led to slow defensive rotations and easy baskets for the opposition.
December gave way to a 2-14 record for the month as opponents scored 105.8 points per game on 43.6 FG%, while the Bullets scored 96.1 ppg on 37.4 FG%. Coach Wes Unseld removed Duckworth from the starting lineup for a brief time, and his presence on the court was sporadic for the rest of the season. Attempts to trade him before the late February deadline were futile.
Bullets fans showed no mercy on Duck, showering him with boos for the duration of the season. Their expectations of an NBA player with a $2.2 million salary led to the impatience that dehumanized Duckworth’s existence on the team and compounded the problems. Duckworth struggled with his self-confidence and his game drastically suffered. He realized that he had to do something to quell his ballooning weight, but no one really knew if his lack of morale consumed his ability to exert the effort needed to overcome his rotund demons.
Ultimately, Duckworth’s 6.6 points and 4.7 rebounds averages were not the sole reason for a disastrous 24-58 season. Rex Chapman only appeared in 60 games, rookie Calbert Cheaney only in 65, and Out-of-Service Pervis Ellison only in 47. The only future hope was the NBA draft lottery and dreams of selecting Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd, or Grant Hill. With the fifth worst record in the league, the Bullets ended up with the 5th pick and Juwan Howard.
By training camp in October, Duckworth showed renewed vigor and love for the game, having considered hanging up his high-tops after his catastrophic first season with the team. Duck was still a hefty triple hundo, but he was down 40 pounds shed over the summer. He’d attended the famed Duke Weight-Loss Clinic, albeit only opting for a two week stay when he probably needed a five week program. New head coach, Jim Lynam, also offered more positive reinforcement than Wes Unseld, who had moved to the front office to assist with the planning for the new arena.
Optimism was short-lived. As the season went through it’s first month and a half, Duckworth’s play was riddled with inconsistency. He started the first 18 games of the season. In half of those games, Duck scored in double figures, averaging 16 per. In the other half of those games, he failed
to reach double figures, averaging 5.6 per. After a mid-December game against the Utah Jazz, Duckworth began experiencing issues with his Achilles tendon; he was still not at the desired playing weight of 280. His hesitancy to play on the sore Achilles all but killed a possible deal to the Clippers, in addition to saying that he’d have a problem with a trade to Los Angeles, not wanting to go back to the Western Conference.
By January, Duckworth’s minutes per game, in the five he played that month, were down to 17.8. John Nash, with the emergence of Muresan as a valid option a center, continued to explore trades for Duck. One such rumored deal would have sent him to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Xavier McDaniel, but the Celtics backed off as Duckworth’s unhappiness with his team role and poor conditioning proved to be a reoccurring theme. Duck also publicly expressed that he didn’t want to play in Boston.
February was even worse as the team entered the month with an 11-29 record. The Bullets would only win two out of 14 games that month and Duckworth would only play 55 minutes over five games. His absence from many games was the result of a suspension, his weight had inflated to 326 pounds. Duckworth insisted that he was trying to get back into shape after the Achilles setback, which contradicted statements that he wouldn’t play until it got better, which further contradicted statements that he would play if he knew that he’d get more minutes. John Nash was exasperated.
Duckworth and his agent filed a grievance over the suspension, and won when a physician declared him able to play. Duckworth was reinstated, but when March came around, and he weighed in at 317, Nash suspended him again. By the end of the month, Duckworth shut it down for the year in order to have calcium deposits surgically removed from his Achilles.
After the season, the Bullets left Duckworth unprotected in the expansion draft, even offering to pay most of his salary should Vancouver or Toronto select him. However, the Grizzlies opted for Larry Stewart. Nash did manage to pawn him off to Milwaukee for Bob McCann in October 1995. Luckily, the Bucks didn’t void the trade after discovering that Duckworth needed his knee scoped. The Bullets had also agreed to pay a portion of Duckworth’s remaining $2.75 million salary. He appeared in eight games for the Bucks, and 26 the next season for the Clippers, before retiring at the age of 32.
With his passing, many people are remembering Kevin Duckworth. Most Blazers fans are reminiscing with a wink and a smile. Bullets fans, for the reasons above, perhaps not so fondly. But that’s not a knock against Duck and the type of person he was. It simply comes with the territory of rooting for a playoff perennial versus a cursed franchise.
Ivan Carter of the Washington Post is shocked, as am I, that Duck passed away at such a young age. Jaime Mottram of Mister Irrelevant provides us with heyday cardboard memories. Jarrett Carter of Stet Sports reminds us all that Kevin wasn’t necessarily a knucklehead, but perhaps just misunderstood, dealing with issues of which us outsiders weren’t aware.
The guys of We Rite Goode, in their FanShot on Bullets Forever, reminded me that Duckworth, while the victim of DC scorn back in the early 90s, and perhaps rightfully so, is now entrenched as part of our franchise’s hapless history which we should embrace in order to appreciate the team we have today.
It was just over a year ago that JakeTheSnake of Bullets Forever discovered an Eastern Illinois (the alma mater of Duckworth) site, which has since been taken off the world wide web, that came to a staunch defense against anyone who would ever bash the Duck.
Now that the memories are out and past Duckworth bashing has been officially laid to rest, we should not to forget the overall lesson of appreciating our own lives, and encouraging a healthy lifestyle for ourselves, and our loved ones. Rest in peace Kevin Duckworth.
- “Bullets Trade Grant To Get Duckworth; Blazers’ 7-Foot Center Fills Need for Size,” The Washington Post (Jun. 25, 1993) David Aldridge.
- “For Bullets, Center Is a Pivotal Issue; Kevin Duckworth; A Season Of Hopes Gone Bad,” The Washington Post (April 12, 1994)
- “Bullets’ Duckworth In Camp and in Shape; Slimmer Center Relishes New Start With Lynam,” The Washington Post (Oct. 6, 1994) Richard Justice.
- “Duckworth Is at Center Of Bullets’ Latest Problem,” The Washington Post (Dec. 17, 1994) Jim Brady.
- “Celtics won’t go after Duckworth Unhappy Bullet center not interested, either,” The Boston Globe (Jan. 20, 1995) Jackie MacMullan.
- “Duckworth Suspended; Bullets Cite Center’s Weight,” The Washington Post (Feb. 4, 1995) Richard Justice.
- “BULLETS NOTEBOOK; Overweight Duckworth Suspended,” The Washington Post (Mar. 1, 1995) Richard Justice.
- “Plan wasn’t bulletproof,” The Boston Globe (Oct. 29, 1995) Jackie MacMullan.