Wednesday, August 27, 2008

I'm Still Stunned To Hear About It.

It's ironic that Kevin Duckworth died on Monday because of problems with his heart, because people often said he used his heart and passion for people the right way, by giving of himself to the fullest. He was on the Oregon Coast to participate in a free basketball clinic for kids when on Monday night, he had trouble breathing and lost consciousness. Paramedics attempted to revive him, but they were never able to wake the giant, and the Trail Blazers lost one of their special players.

I moved to Portland in 1989 after graduating from college, but had followed enough sports to know about the Trail Blazers history and key players. When I had decided to move here, one of the key reasons I came was to watch the NBA in person, and I even worked out a plan with my boss at the time to leave early from work to go get tickets to a couple of games in exchange for working through a few lunch hours. It was worth it to get to see a couple of games that year in the Memorial Coliseum, and as the year rolled on, the team continued to win and won the right to play for the NBA Title. I was amazed at how crazy this town got with Blazer Mania, and I fed into every bit of it I could. But it was not only because of the greatness on the court, but the passion and sense of community off the court that impressed me. I heard of many stories of people interacting with the players, saying how nice these guys were and how they took time from their days to give something back. Kevin Duckworth was the person I heard about the most in this respect.

He was our starting center, all 7 foot 1 inch of person, wearing double zero. While he seemed to be at the right place to pick up rebounds and tap ins for points, he also dealt effectively with opposing centers in blocking shots and being a general nuisance. He wasn't the key cog of our offense, we had players that could fill those roles, but Duckworth filled the unsung role of stopper and rebounder while other players took headlines with their spectacular plays. You never heard him complain about it, the only criticisms he took in were the ones where he had off nights in shooting and he resolved himself to do better. He struck me as a very sensitive, heady player, as evidenced by some slumps in his career that seemed to take him longer to ride out than most. Being a sensitive type myself, I can relate to the fact that we sensitive folks are often harder on ourselves that we need to be, which seemed to fit his persona. But Duckworth did his job, made a few All-Star teams, and was a key component to the Trail Blazer runs in the early 90's.

What you also saw from him was numerous community appearances and engagements. He seemed to be everywhere to help anyone that needed it. He forged a special relationship with the children at William Walker Elementary school in Beaverton near his house, often visiting them during the school year to speak. When he retired from playing, you still saw Duckworth making appearances, working at his restaurant in Vancouver WA, and being visible around town. He was at many Trail Blazer games, watching the next generation take the torch, and appearing for the team as an alumni ambassador. He seemed to relish in his role as a spokesperson, touching people with his stories, demeanor, and smile. When you read the words and stories told by his coaches and teammates, they all talk about his engaging personality and ability to make people feel comfortable.

But all was not quite right with Kevin, as evidenced in recent appearances where he had gained a tremendous amount of weight. He was never the smallest guy about, but it was obvious that he had been putting on some weight recently. But he seemed to be as active and busy as ever, until Monday when trouble developed. I don't know much about his medical history except for what I read today after his autopsy, but I know enough about health and exercise to know that if you gain a lot of weight and don't get a lot of exercise, that's not good for your body. And the autopsy released today indicated that the cause of death was congestive heart failure combined with high blood pressure and other factors. Doesn't take a rocket scientist to put the pieces together and figure out what happened. You wonder if the people around him had said something out of concern or love to watch what he ate, or to get more exercise, or to just watch himself. It's hard to know even if there were those conversations if anything would have changed, but what's true is that a legend has been lost.

People have been asking what is the best way to honor Duckworth's memory. The team is holding a memorial service for him on Saturday at the Memorial Coliseum, the home of many of his great games. I think that's a great start, but I think the team has a chance to do something really special here. Duck's career numbers probably don't warrant retiring his number, and I'm sure the team will don special patches for him this season, but my suggestion is to rename the community service award given by the team in Duckworth's honor. For a guy that gave so freely of himself and represented the town and the team in such a positive way for so many years, I think it's a truly fitting way to honor him in a way that I think he'd appreciate.

It's rather difficult for me to even talk about death still, as the topic still reminds me of the loss of my mom back in 2005. I was called out of the blue to come visit her in the hospital and a week later, I'm planning her funeral. We can't choose how we die, we can only build the memories of a lifetime to share with the people around us. While my mom's death was difficult for me to deal with, I learned a lot about myself and the people around me. I had dozens of friends pick me up and keep me propped up and doing things, even if my instinct was to just hide from the world. I found the love of my life amongst these amazing friends, and we were just married this past April. I've changed my life in numerous positive ways, and honestly, I'm not sure if I'd have done this otherwise. What death did for me was made me realize how important people are to me, and how important it is to them that I'm happy in whatever it is I do. I found peace, love, and acceptance from a group of soccer fans in Portland, and I can never thank them enough for what they gave me.

My hope is that while Duckworth's death is seen as a tragedy, it is also viewed as inspiration for people to live their lives to the happiest because it is truly a gift. It might inspire change, passion, or tears, but as in his life, Duckworth's presence inspires us all to be better people and give of ourselves to make our little part of the world a better place. Even though I never met him personally, I feel like I've lost a brother but I've also gained an appreciation of what life has to offer.

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