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One For The Books: Career Game For 'Duck' Carries Blazers

Wayne Thompson, the original beat-writer for the Portland Trail Blazers takes the fans back to an important point in team history and brings that game back to life with his "One For The Books" articles, which go beyond the box score. This installment of "One For The Books" was taken from the May 2001 issue of Rip City Magazine where Wayne relives how Kevin Duckworth had the last laugh in Salt Lake City against the Jazz. Duck's 30 points silenced the Salt Palace as the Trail Blazers left town with a 3-1 series lead in the '91 Western Conference semifinals. Without further ado, enjoy "Career game For "Duck" Carries Blazers"

By Wayne Thompson

Big guys in the National Basketball Association who don’t answer to the nickname, “The Franchise,” don’t get much respect.

Just ask Arvydas Sabonis of this year’s Blazers.

Then there is the case of Kevin Duckworth, perhaps the most maligned big man ever to play on a championship-caliber team.

What’s a ‘Duck’ worth?” That question was shouted at the seven-foot Duckworth often. The comment usually came from front-row wise guys in arenas hostile to the winning Blazers.

Unfair? Sure. But the then 285-pound Duckworth, the hub of those early 1990s Portland title contenders, was a conspicuous target for verbal abuse. Very large and sensitive, “you could get to him sometimes,” recalled teammate Terry Porter.

An easy mark, you might say.

But on a Sunday night in May of 1991, Duckworth had the last word in the fourth game of a Western Conference semifinal playoff series against Portland’s perennial playoff rival – the Utah Jazz.

He answered his harassers by scoring 30 points and hauling in 11 rebounds to lead the Blazers to a surprising 104-101 victory. He did all of this, despite playing with a very bad cold.

The emotional win gave the Blazers a commanding three games to one lead in the series – a series they were to clinch two nights later.

During his seven-year Blazers’ career, Duckworth was worth a great deal more to the Blazers than most fans realized.

For one thing he set the best picks of any Blazer in memory (with the possible exception of Maurice Lucas). And he executed the pick-and-roll with Porter as effectively as Karl Malone does it with John Stockton.

“It’s the little things that win games,” said Blazer coach Rick Adelman at the time. “Kevin does those little things very well.”

In this pivotal playoff game with the Jazz, Duckworth did a lot more than the little things. None of it expected, however.

Duckworth came into the game in a playoff-long slump, shooting .388 from the field and averaging only 10.8 points in eight previous playoff games against Seattle and Utah.

But in this one, he scored 15 points in each half and hit for six points in a row to keep the Blazers afloat at crunch time.

Through all of these heroics, Duckworth endured constant taunting from a fan in the front row of the Salt Palace, across from the Portland bench.

As the Oregonian’s Terry Frei reported, “The fan kept saying things to Kevin Duckworth that are worthy of a longshoreman. He wasn’t alone; he was only the worst of the boisterous baiters.” Duckworth has delicate hearing and he doesn’t shut it out.

Asked about it later, Kevin pointed out “The crowd here is rougher on me than anywhere else in the league. Other places, there might be four or five people on me. I tell you, the people here talk about me like a dog. They’re bad enough things that I’m just shocked!”

Duckworth, though, had all the answers on this night, handling the crowd the way comedian Don Rickles used to handle hecklers in a Las Vegas club act – embarrassing them. Finally, when Jerome Kersey fed Duckworth for a dunk midway through the third quarter, putting the Trail Blazers ahead by 13 points, the Portland center glanced at the Jazz fan as he ran down the court.

“I gave him a little wink. That’s usually not my nature, but that time, I couldn’t resist,” Duckworth said.

Time after time down the stretch, it was as if Duckworth pulled the plug on loudspeakers at a heavy metal rock show. He induced silence at the Salt Palace.

Five times in one crucial stretch, when a scoreless Portland possession might have been the beginning of the end, Duckworth put the Blazers back ahead. His baseline jumper made it 86-85. His little flip after a spin move away from 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton made it 88-87. His two free throws made it 96-95. Another baseline jumper made it 98-97. Two more free throws made it 100-99.

In the last seven minutes of this game, there were 18 lead changes, a bunch of clutch shots, fan noise, and hope rising and falling as the teams traded heroics.

Drexler, who recorded his 17th career triple-double – 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists – despite hobbling with a severe case of turf toe, finally hit the game-winning shot.

Terry Porter helped put it away with two free throws, but Duckworth was the silencer – the player that Utah hadn’t counted on to pull the trigger on their season.

“I was into the flow of the game, and I didn’t really think about it,” Duckworth said afterwards. “I just got the ball and I shot it. It was as simple as that. Rick (Adelman) ran some plays for me, isolated for me. I was able to get some easy shots.”

Getting Duckworth more involved in the offense was the Blazers’ game plan all along.

In earlier games, Duckworth would lounge outside away from the two-man plays, but Utah’s giant shot-blocking machine Mark Eaton, not fearing Kevin’s perimeter game, was able to zone the middle without drawing illegal-defense calls.

So Adelman called some plays for Duck. “He told me not to stand around. They weren’t calling it (illegal defense) on Mark. So tonight, when he was in there defensively, I ran in there, too.”

“We needed to go inside to put pressure on them,” Adelman said. “I was so glad to see Duck get off. He really established himself in there. He worked hard and rebounded well.”

Portland guard Danny Ainge complimented Adelman’s strategy. “Instead of floating around the perimeter, like he had done the first three games to draw Eaton out, he went inside. You can’t draw Mark Eaton out,” Ainge said.

It was a typical Blazer-Jazz game. Portland led 82-66 and had the game seemingly in control late in the third quarter, thanks to Duckworth’s dominance, when Utah climbed off the canvas to set up a wild finish.

The Jazz, behind the Malones, Karl and Jeff, went on a 19-2 scoring binge that turned the Salt Palace into a sea of sound. The Jazz grabbed the lead at 85-84, but Duckworth answered with a 15-footer.

Portland scored on its final eight possessions down the stretch. But the Jazz, with John Stockton finally getting untracked and Karl Malone proving again he’s the best power forward in the game, matched the Blazers step for step until the end.

Then came the play that turned the game. Trailing 102-101, Utah was working the ball for a shot with 25 seconds to go when Malone spotted Thurl Bailey flashing through the middle and launched a pass.

Drexler, however, stepped in for the interception and got the ball to Terry Porter, who was fouled with 13 seconds left.

Porter made both free throws to up the lead to 104-101. The Jazz pushed the ball up court and Stockton got one last open look at a 3-pointer with about five seconds left. The shot bounced off the rim, and after a scramble, Jeff Malone came up with the ball and kicked it out to Karl Malone, who let fly from behind the 3-point line just before the buzzer sounded, but his shot went awry, too.

“That’s a classic game,” Adelman said later. “You can’t say enough about both teams. Both teams wouldn’t die, wouldn’t break, and we finally got the breaks at the end.”

No Trail Blazer felt better about this win than Duckworth, who was using sore-throat spray to chase away a cold and looking forward to a day back in Portland away from the Utah hecklers.

“All I had when the game was over was a great feeling that I had finally come through for my team. I had the feel for the ball tonight. I hustled. Good things happened to me.”

On this the last-ever game played at the famed Salt Lake City Palace – May 12, 1991 – Kevin Duckworth showed Jazz fans and critics everywhere just exactly what a ‘Duck’ was worth.
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