All-around play, soundness put Vandeweghe among NBA's top forwards

Somewhere out there among the Julius Ervings, George Gervins, and Magic Johnsons in the National Basketball Association is a kid named Kiki Vandeweghe, who plays the game like it says in the textbook.

Vandeweghe, a 6 ft. 7 in., 229-lb. forward with the Denver Nuggets, doesn't skywalk to the basket; dribble behind his back; or slamdunk the ball as though he's angry at his broker. He just comes to play every night, and last year his work resulted in a 21.5 scoring average. He's about as showy as the rubber boots on a fisherman.

Often when rookie players come into the league they don't need just a training camp with their new team to get ready, they need a whole season. Vandeweghe came in almost three months late two years ago, but with his values straight; his defense in place; and the stamina to play 40 minutes a game without burning out.

Yet for a while after his graduation from UCLA in 1980, it didn't look as though he was going to play at all.

Vandeweghe was drafted all right, but by the expansion Dallas Mavericks, the wrong team as far as he was concerned. Where he wanted to perform was either on the West Coast or with the New York Knicks, where his father, Ernie, had played years before.

What happened is that the NBA went on without him, although Kiki stayed in shape by getting then UCLA coach Larry Brown's permission to practice regularly with his former Bruin teammates.

However, Vandeweghe's road to the NBA didn't become free of barriers until two of Brown's former assistant coaches who had gone on to the Nuggets (Donnie Walsh and Doug Moe), happened to drop in on a UCLA practice. They not only liked what they saw of Kiki, but did something about it. And Vandeweghe, for his part, decided he'd be willing to play in Denver.

Although their negotiations with Dallas were lengthy and complex, the Nuggets finally obtained the rights to Kiki by giving the Mavericks their first-round draft picks in both 1981 and 1985.

Denver signed Kiki to a multiyear contract on Dec. 10, 1980. They played him that same night - against Dallas, ironically enough. And for the season they ended up getting 51 strong games out of a rookie whose training camp had consisted of 11 handshakes with his new teammates.

Last year, in what was his first full season in the NBA, Vandeweghe was the league's sixth highest scoring forward. Boston's Larry Bird, for example, outscored him by a total of one point.

Opposing forwards who tried to overplay Kiki to his strong side discovered early the folly of that strategy. Opposing rebounders who tried to block him off the boards also got little satisfaction for their efforts. And opposing coaches who tried to stop him with smaller, quicker players, found out they were giving up too much at the other end of the court.

What was beating Vandeweghe's opponents was a very sound and fundamental player who was willing to work for his shots; who didn't necessarily need the ball inside to score; and who was just as tough to defend in the fourth period as he had been in the first.

Asked how much Vandeweghe has improved since coming into the league, Denver coach Doug Moe replied: ''What you have to remember is that Kiki was pretty good to begin with. If I tell you he hasn't improved much, without explaining what I mean, people are going to get the wrong idea.

''So let me put it this way - he's done what a lot of fine young players never do, and that's make continued progress at a very high level of competition. Probably the best part of Vandeweghe's game is that he doesn't force things. Once he gets into the flow of the game you can see it coming - the smart moves that either result in a basket for himself or for one of his teammates.''

Vandeweghe, and this has been documented many times before, comes from a family of super athletes and well known personalities. His father, after making All-America at Colgate, was a guard with the New York Knicks. His uncle, Mel Hutchins, also played with several NBA teams. His sister, Tauna, was a member of the 1976 US Olympic swimming team. And his mother, Colleen, is a former Miss America.

Born in Germany in 1958, where his father was stationed as a captain in the US Air Force, Vandeweghe was named Ernest Maurice. A nursemaid captivated by his curly hair gave him the nickname, and it stuck with him.

The most intriguing story about Kiki, though, concerns the transatlantic phone call his father made to relatives in the United States when his son was born.

The response to that news from the proud paternal grandfather on the other end of the line included orders to ''buy my grandson the best carriage you can find in Germany, and send the bill to me.''

Kiki's father promptly went out and purchased a four-door Mercedes Benz!

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