LANDOVER -- Two years ago, when his Portland Trail Blazers were on the brink of elimination by the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Western Conference finals, center Kevin Duckworth, the scapegoat for the Blazers' problems, said he might pursue a career as a worm farmer.
"I was looking for a stress-free environment," Duckworth said yesterday while being introduced by his new employers, the Washington Bullets, who acquired him Thursday in a trade for forward Harvey Grant. "Actually, I was joking, but a lot of people apparently took me seriously."
Duckworth, 29, at a crossroads in his basketball career, finds himself smack in the middle of another stressful situation. The Bullets are looking for the 7-foot, 280-pound veteran to fill a gaping hole in the middle, literally and figuratively.
Washington has not had a bona fide center since Moses Malone departed for Atlanta in 1988. If Duckworth can regain the form of when he was an integral part of the Blazers offense, it would allow Pervis Ellison to move to power forward.
Bullets management said all the right things in welcoming Duckworth to town with -- what else? -- a chorus of duck calls.
"We feel Kevin will fill a position we sorely need," said Bullets general manager John Nash. "How Wes Unseld uses him is a coach's decision. Wes will have to decide if Pervis can be an effective power forward and whether Tom Gugliotta can play small forward."
Said Unseld: "How we use Kevin is pretty much up to Kevin himself."
Those words led to speculation over whether Duckworth has put his weight problems behind him and will accept the change of scenery as a challenge to prove the contending Blazers made a mistake.
"When I was traveling here from Portland Sunday, I said to myself, 'What a long, long trip,' " said Duckworth, an avid fisherman who plans to retain his Oregon home. "But then I started thinking of the positives -- a new team and a chance to be tutored by Unseld, a great center who understands the big man's game."
There was little positive about Duckworth's final season with the Blazers, when his playing time dipped appreciably as coach Rick Adelman favored a smaller, faster lineup built around emerging star Cliff Robinson. Adelman promoted Mark Bryant to starting center.
"The minutes weren't there, and there were always excuses," said Duckworth, an All-Star in 1989 and 1991. "People tend to forget that when we first went to the finals in 1990, I was strictly a low-post center, and plays were run for me.
"But the way things evolved, I eventually found myself on the perimeter, opening up the middle for Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter. I used to run the pick-and-roll play with Porter all the time. But, in time, I'd stop picking and Terry would stop rolling. He just wanted to shoot the ball. I realized it was time to move on."
Although Duckworth refused to criticize Adelman, his former coach was less kind in parting company.
"Duck wasn't happy in the situation he was in," Adelman said. "He didn't like not starting. He wasn't disruptive, but he could have given us more."
It also was said that Duckworth took criticism too personally.
"He took a lot of heat after we lost to the Lakers in the playoffs two years ago," Adelman said. "The next year, he just didn't have the same confidence, and his physical condition wasn't as good."
But Duckworth says he has learned to deal with criticism, and has tried to keep his weight under control by enrolling at a health club.
"I'll really miss [the fans] and the area," he said. "But I grew up a Baptist with the expression 'You gotta believe!' And, in my heart, I believe something good will definitely come from this trade."