NBA WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS : What's a Duckworth? His Value Fluctuates

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tuesday night, when these Western Conference finals were still in Portland, Ore., Kevin Duckworth was surrounded at various times by mobs of fans and mobs of reporters.

This is usually a cause for concern, Duckworth being surrounded by the locals. Some might joke that it is tough to circle him with anything less than the population of the Pacific Northwest, but he has learned that nothing about his stature on the scales or stature in a community that takes its Portland Trail Blazers very seriously is funny.

Fickle, yes. Funny, no. Because on this night, those around Duckworth all wanted to speak of his greatness, the 24 points on 11-of-15 shooting in the Trail Blazers' 127-121 overtime victory over the Utah Jazz. A hero . . . for the moment.

Tonight, when Game 6 is played at the Delta Center?

All bets are off. A bad showing as the Trail Blazers try to clinch a spot in the NBA finals for the second time in three seasons and he goes back to being that too-sensitive-for-his-own-good fat guy.

"I don't care about the fans now," Duckworth said. "I learned a hell of a lot from the ordeal I went through. The fans don't make me. It's what I do and what I contribute to the team. They can talk bad about me all they want to now."

The "ordeal" started with a bad showing against the Lakers in last season's conference finals. When Portland lost, Duckworth, the 7-foot, 280-pound center, got most of the criticism from Blazermaniacs.

The start of the 1991-92 season didn't help. The league's most improved player in 1987-88, he shot 44.3% the first 41 games, and his self-confidence nose-dived. Duckworth is a rare player--a two-time All-Star who has, at best, a minor role in the offense--and he felt left out.

"It's kind of hard to talk to somebody when their job is going well," he said. "They're not going to sit there and take time to understand you. Every now and then, me and Clyde (Drexler) would say some words, and that would leave me this little hope. But things never changed until the end of the year."

That was when Drexler, Terry Porter, Buck Williams and Coach Rick Adelman--the most prominent Trail Blazers--invited Duckworth to Porter's house for a pep talk in early April.

The plan was to pump him up again in time for the stretch drive and the playoffs.

Even though he played nearly 300 minutes fewer than the season before, losing much of the time to Cliff Robinson in the fourth quarter, Duckworth finished the regular season with a 14-point average and shot 49% in April. His playoff numbers are 12.9 and 50.3%--including 14 and 57.1% against the Jazz.

"It just made me understand more," Duckworth said of the April meeting. "I still feel that my role sometimes is questionable. But it makes no difference. I've learned to accept it and play my game."

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