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One For The Books: Opening Night The Vande"way"

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 November 2000 issue of Rip City Magazine where Wayne relives Kiki Vandeweghe's much anticipated debut during the 1985 season. Arguably the biggest trade in franchise history, Kiki's arrival was analyzed every which way. For one night at least, the results were through the roof. Without further ado, enjoy "Opening Night The Vande"way""

By Wayne Thompson

TURN BACK THE PAGES to the summer of '84. All the talk among frantic Trail Blazers' fans that summer was about The Trade -- the controversial June 8 deal that brought Denver scoring machine Kiki Vandeweghe to Portland

At that moment in franchise history, acquiring Vandeweghe was page 1 news, not only in Portland but across the land.

Murmur, murmur, murmur, mutiny, mutiny, mutiny.

Most Blazer fans were skeptical. They adored hard-working Calvin Natt, dependable Lafayette Lever and hustling Wayne Cooper -- the three players Portland gave up for Vandeweghe.

Denver fans weren't that happy about The Trade either. They loved Kiki and they didn't know much about Natt or Lever.

In many ways, the Blazers' brass approached the 1984-85 season, their 14th in the NBA, the same way the current team is looking at year No. 30 with the addition of Shawn Kemp and Dale Davis to the mix.

They believed that Vandeweghe was the missing link needed on a 1983-84 team that finished second in the Pacific Division. He was a guy who would make the fast break click, who would lead the Blazers to the next level -- a chance at an NBA title.

Yet when Blazer general manager Stu Inman pulled the trigger on the deal to get Vandeweghe, it was a departure in Blazers' thinking. They gave up popular over-achievers Natt, Lever, Cooper and two draft choices to get the third leading scorer in the NBA -- a gifted marksman, but not a player marked with many scars from floor burns.

Suffice it to say that Blazer fans were anxious for the season to start to see just what the Trail Blazers architects had wrought.

What heightened anxieties as the opening game at Kansas City loomed was the fact that nobody got to see Vandeweghe play during the exhibition season. He had aggravated a back injury in the opening minutes of the team's first exhibition game at Boise, Idaho and had spent the entire pre-season undergoing therapy in Los Angeles.

So it was anybody's guess how Kiki Vandeweghe would do as Portland's starting small forward, go-to-guy and key to the Blazers' fast break.

Vandeweghe returned to the team for practices on Monday, Oct. 22, five days before the season opener at Kemper Arena against the Kings. He pronounced himself fit.

Fans remained skeptical, but Blazer team officials, according to The Oregonian beat writer Dwight Jaynes, were ready to call the new year book "Great Expectations."

"Optimism is running rampant," Jaynes wrtoe in his advance story from Kansas City.

Against the Kings, The Trade looked like a million dollars. Vandeweghe made 19 of 23 shots from the floor on his way to 47 points in just 38 minutes of playing time as Portland demolished the Kings, 140-119.

The game, which was telecast to an anxious Portland audience, was tantamount to a single-game vindication of Portland's giant summer deal. Indeed, the Blazers ran their fast break better than at any time since the Bill Walton-led championship years.

"I've never seen anybody get 47 points easier than he did," said Portland Coach Jack Ramsay. "It was like there was nobody playing him. Part of it was his ability to get open and part of it was the ability of our other players to get him the ball."

Only one other Blazer, to that time, had scored more points in a game. Geoff Petrie scored 51 on two occasions in 1973. But Petrie played on losing teams. This team, with a starting lineup of Vandeweghe, a young Clyde Drexler, Mychal Thompson, Jim Paxson and Darnell Valentine, with Sam Bowie, Jerome Kersey and Kenny Carr coming off the bench, saw themselves as contenders for the NBA throne.

Ramsay, of course, was gratified that everything was working out as planned after The Trade was made. "This is what we all envisioned," he said. "Not 47 points, of course. But he (Kiki) is very hard to play against."

Portland led through most of this game, but could never put away the Kings until the fourth quarter. Kings' forward Eddie Johnson kept Kansas City in the game by hitting his first 11 shots from the floor en route to a 30-point night.

But every time the Kings made a run at the Blazers, back came Vandeweghe to thwart the uprising.

With 8:28 to play though, the Kings cut Portland's lead to 107-103, with Vandeweghe resting on the bench. As soon as Ramsay put him back on the floor, the Kings' hopes faded, as Kiki scored his final 13 points down the stretch, propelling the Portland route.

Despite his first-game heroics, a closer statistical look at Vandeweghe's totals revealed that 16 of his 19 field goals were layups, some of them scored on a devastating Portland fast break that converted 26 of 35 opportunities.

For the game, the Blazers offense in moving without the ball was as explosive as Ramsay hoped it would be. Of their 55 field goals, 40 of them were layups. Paxson, a master at moving without the ball and getting open for layups on the baseline, was 11 for 16 for 26 points. Drexler added 19 points on 8 of 15 shooting.

Kiki also demonstrated in that game a remarkable ability to drive to the basket with a quick first step after faking a jump shot. Only three of his field goals came on his patented and deadly jumper.

While Vandeweghe's 19 of 23 shots was believed to be (at that time) a team record for shooting percentage in a single game, it didn't approach the league record.

Wilt Chamberlain on three occasions was perfect (18 for 18, 16 for 16 and 15 for 15).

Vandeweghe shrugged off his first-game performance, reminding writers after the game that his role with the Blazers would be different than it was in Denver when he and forward Alex English took all the shots.

"A lot of those points tonight came because the others got me the ball for wide-open shots. I just ran with the offense and the shots were there."

Pressed further about whether he would be able to maintain the 29.4 points per game average he achieved in Denver, Vandeweghe rejected those expectations. "I don't feel my role is is to score a lot," he said. "We have plenty of scorers here and if someone is not shooting or playing well, we have plenty of guys to bring in.

"Here, you run the offense," he pointed out. "Denver isolated players for a lot of one-on-one. Here we don't have to do that. We just run the offense and the points just come with the flow. These are great guys to play with. They can score and pass -- and they want to pass."

Despite Kiki's humility, his opening-game performance both excited and teased Blazer fans watching on television back home. Many of them took notice that in Denver's opening game, Natt, Lever and Cooper together only scored two more points (49) than Kiki got.

"He's an offensive machine," said Paxson, taking note of that fact that Vandeweghe's 47 points were still five short of his personal high of 52. "He runs better than most forwards and you have to respect his outside shot. He's going to open things up for the rest of us." Valentine was awe-struck. "He makes the game so simple, it's primitive. He's so tough to defend."

Vandeweghe, of course, came from solid basketball stock. His father, Ernie Vandeweghe, was a star forward fro New York in the 1940s and '50s, and his sister, Tauna, also played college basketball at a high level and represented the United States in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.

"He's a gym rat," insisted Kansas City Coach Jack McKinney. "Just ask anybody in L.A. If you want to find Kiki, just start your search in all the gyms in town, day or night. Tonight, Vandeweghe was beating us every possible way."

As it turned out, Vandeweghe averaged 22.4 points per game for the Blazers that first year, thought the team didn't reach its goal of contending for the title. It finished a disappointing 42-40, losing to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

Kiki played five seasons with the Blazers, averaging 23.5 points per game, which remains today the best career scoring average in Blazer history.

His days as a Blazer could not be called a disappointment, yet that very first game in Kansas City, Oct. 27, 1984 -- one brimming with promise of greater things to come -- turned out to be his shining hour.
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