The phone rang Tuesday morning at 6:20 a.m. I saw on the caller-id that it was my son. I went from half asleep to alert in a heartbeat. When he said, "I just heard on the news . . . ."

I found myself relaxing already. I guess its human nature to not be so concerned about someone else's tragedy, no matter how grave it is. He went on, "Kevin Duckworth died yesterday. He was going to put on a free basketball camp in Lincoln City. He was over 400 pounds and it might have been a heart attack."

Duckworth was a Portland Trailblazer from 1986 to 1993 and he retired in 1997 from the NBA. The seven-foot center averaged 18 points and eight rebounds per game his best season as the Blazers lost in the finals to the Pistons. But those sports accomplishments are not why my son called this morning.

It was 22 years ago when he was eight and I was umpiring softball tournaments when I wasn't playing in them. He and I were resting against the fence at Culbertson Field between games when who should walk by, but Kevin Duckworth. Of course we recognized him, even in his make-shift softball uniform.

I nodded and said, "Hi" and my son's face lit up like a Christmas tree. "Duck" as he was known said to my son, "Hey my man, what's happening?" It was those five, unpretentious words to an 8-year-old boy that led my son to call this morning.

Duckworth owned a house in Ocean Park. He was a millionaire and could have built a palace on the ocean front, but Duck's house was actually a small fishing cabin in a quiet neighborhood northeast of the stoplight. One day my family and I were riding our bicycles around OP and there was Duckworth, painting his house a garish pea green. Most people get on the step ladder to paint the soffets, but not Duckworth. When you are seven feet tall all you have to do is reach up and spread on the pea green paint.

Duckworth was the catcher in the next softball game I umpired that day 22 years ago. It was like standing behind a car and trying to read the front license plate number as I tried to see around him. He noticed my vertically-challenged dilemma and stood up and caught side-saddle. "It's easier on my knees anyway," he said graciously.

I've umpired a lot of games in my time, but I never have had a seven-foot, 300 pound giant standing next to me and no one between me and the pitcher either. Duckworth was a perfect gentleman and when a call was close and went against his team, he'd just flick the ball back to the pitcher.

About the fourth inning I thanked him for saying hello to my son and I told him how much we appreciated watching him play. Duckworth seemed genuinely glad to get the compliment, a humble man. Later his NBA career seemed to wane because of his constant battle with being overweight. After Duckworth retired he was often in the news, appearing at charity events and benefits.

I hadn't seen him around Ocean Park and assume he probably sold the pea green cabin years ago. If it was his heart that caused his death Aug. 25, it is indeed ironic because he certainly had a big heart when he lived. My son ended the early morning call with five words of his own, "He was a good guy."

Kevin Heimbigner and his wife live Klipsan, where he writes about sports and local people for the Chinook Observer.

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