McDuffie, chasing NBA dream, still haunted by Lewis' death

August 06, 1994|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,Sun Staff Writer

At 6 feet 7, 235 pounds, power forward Kevin McDuffie is built like something out of a Michelangelo work. McDuffie's chest sticks out about two inches more than his flat, hard stomach, and his shoulders are reminiscent of those on a linebacker. His powerful legs provide him with the jump he needs to grab the ball as it comes off the boards.

But beneath his muscular exterior, McDuffie continues to be haunted by the sudden death of one of his closest childhood buddies, Reggie Lewis, the former Dunbar High and Boston Celtics star and McDuffie's Northeastern University teammate who collapsed and died of cardiac arrest last July.

"It's a very hurt feeling," McDuffie said at the Columbia Association Basketball Camp at the Supreme Sports Club, where he is a co-director. "It hurts at home. It hurts in the heart. I still can't believe it.

"I really miss him."

But Lewis' death has not prevented McDuffie from trying to make an NBA team -- a dream of his since he started dribbling a basketball at the age of 8. With his banger-type body and three years of basketball experience in Europe, McDuffie says he is "just itching" to join any NBA franchise.

"I just need that opportunity to get in that door," McDuffie said. "Then I'll take care of the rest."

Taking care of business has been McDuffie's mantra on life. As an 8-year-old at the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center in East Baltimore, McDuffie more than held his own against the likes of Lewis, Reggie Williams, Sam Cassell and other players from Baltimore in lively pickup games. At Lake Clifton High, McDuffie's body developed to match his thirst for success, and he became the Lakers' starting power forward.

Sought by Kansas and Missouri, McDuffie chose Northeastern, where Lewis was a rising star. Lewis told McDuffie that he would start for the Huskies if he joined the team. McDuffie became the No. 1 power forward as a freshman and was named top rookie of the North Atlantic Conference.

During his sophomore and junior years, McDuffie's offensive production increased slightly, and Northeastern went to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament in 1986.

"I was a role player," McDuffie said. "I was a rebounder and a banger, and my job was to get Reggie the ball for open shots. . . . I played my role so that we could win."

But after Lewis was drafted by the Celtics in 1987, McDuffie was asked to score, and he averaged 19.0 points and 9.0 rebounds as a center, not his favorite position.

After the 1988 season, there were rumors that McDuffie was going to be chosen in the fourth round. But that year the NBA draft was cut to three rounds, and McDuffie was not taken.

Instead, he was drafted by the Wichita Falls of the Continental Basketball Association. He lasted two months before returning to Northeastern to finish his degree in communications broadcasting in 1989. The next year, McDuffie married fellow Northeastern student Tequila Funderburke -- a second cousin of Lawrence Funderburke, who was drafted by the Sacramento Kings last June.

It was around that time that McDuffie was approached by a scout from France's Toulouse team about playing there. McDuffie saw the move as a chance to impress NBA scouts in Europe.

During the 1991-92 season, McDuffie averaged 20.0 points and 10.0 rebounds as Toulouse's center. The next year, he left Toulouse for Belgium's Willowbrook squad, where he averaged 28.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists.

But his season with Willowbrook became secondary when McDuffie heard about Lewis' first "fainting spell" in the first game the Celtics' opening-round playoff. McDuffie said he talked to Lewis' wife Donna the night of the incident and to Lewis two days later.

"I told him: 'Reggie, you're all set. You're a young guy. You have a family; you have money. Life is more important than basketball,' " McDuffie recalled. "[But] when you're in love with basketball, you want to be going out there to do it."

McDuffie said there was a sense of loss among some of the

Baltimore basketball players who gathered in Boston for Lewis' funeral.

"Very shocked, very surprised," McDuffie said. "We were all wondering why now -- when he started playing so well?"

McDuffie got his first break a couple of weeks later, when he was invited to the Philadelphia 76ers' training camp. But the Sixers never called him, and McDuffie moved back to Europe to play for Donar of the Netherlands, where he averaged 28.0 points, 12.0 rebounds 8.0 assists and 3.0 steals. McDuffie was named Most Valuable Player of the 1994 All-Star Game and led Donar to the championship finals.

McDuffie said there is a major difference between basketball in the United States and in Europe.

"They're very physical over there," he said. "[The referees] let you play. . . . That's all part of my game. I'm a very physical, wide-body player who likes to bang on the inside for rebounds. I really enjoyed it."

McDuffie also said he enjoyed the enthusiasm of the fans.

"For me, the European crowd is more into the game, because over here, if you play bad, you're going to hear the boos," McDuffie said. "Over there, if you play bad, they're still cheering for you and they're still behind you."

But nothing will be more satisfying to McDuffie, who contacted all 27 teams, than joining the NBA.

"I hope I can get the opportunity to get a shot at the NBA," he said. "I'm not going to stop until I do."

McDuffie said he still thinks about his friend Reggie Lewis and what he might say to McDuffie if he were alive.

"He'd say, 'Keep up the good work. . . . Keep fighting for your goals. Keep trying for the NBA. And don't forget to call,' " McDuffie said softly. "I guess he'd be one of the first ones to call if I made a team. It's a family thing."

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