Although the NBA doesn't permit zones, Portland's Kiki Vandeweghe seems to live in one just the same. He appears so unemotional and distracted that, even as he sinks a three-point jump shot, one is tempted to wave a hand in front of his eyes and yell, "Yoo-hoo! Anyone home?"
Then again, Kiki—whose given name, Ernest, was last uttered by his junior high school French teacher—has plenty to be distracted about. These days he might be pondering why, with a 26.5 scoring average through Sunday, fifth in the league and second in the Western Conference, he didn't make the All-Star team. Or he might be thinking about the 50 racehorses he owns a piece of or the latest science fiction he has been reading. Or his mind may be on the rare ancient coins he collects and trades, or, perhaps, on the beloved sports cars he buys and sells.
"I'm just not the emotional, cheerleader type," Vandeweghe said last week. "A lot of UCLA guys—Bill Walton being an exception, of course—are like that. When I play basketball, my mind's on basketball."
It is certainly on the basket, anyway. Kiki has scored fewer than 20 points in only 7 of Portland's 47 games and more than 30 in 17 of them. He's shooting .520 from the floor, .896 from the free throw line (fourth-best in the NBA) and .525 from three-point range (behind only Detlef Schrempf of Dallas). "There is simply no way to stop him," says his teammate and close friend Clyde Drexler. If the defender crowds him, Vandeweghe will drive to the basket with a quick first step in either direction that belies his reputation for being superglued to the floor on defense. Give him room and he'll shoot you dead with his outside shot, an amalgam of modern-day jumper and old-fashioned one-hander. He's effective on the break (where he's one of the most underrated dunkers in the league), and he moves intelligently without the ball in the half-court offense.
"You use him like you use a home run hitter in baseball," said Utah coach Frank Layden after Vandeweghe scored 33 points (including four of four three-pointers) in a 120-114 Jazz win last Thursday. "The rest of his game is only adequate, but so what?" That's not just idle talk, either. Layden tried to trade Adrian Dantley for Vandeweghe last year, but Portland turned him down.
"Vandeweghe has replaced Jamaal Wilkes as the game's Silent Assassin," says Portland player-turned-TV-man Steve Jones. And his relentless offensive consistency is a primary reason the Trail Blazers are back among the Western Conference elite after last season's mystifying mediocrity (40-42) led to the dismissal of veteran coach Jack Ramsay. The 28-19 Blazers are still several levels below the Lakers, who have beaten them 10 straight, but as long as they maintain their defensive intensity, they have a chance to finish the regular season with the second-best record in the West.
That's a surprising showing by a team that started the season with a new coach (former Milwaukee assistant Mike Schuler), a new defense (the Bucks' help-oriented switching system), a new low-post player (Steve Johnson, for whom the Blazers traded Mychal Thompson) and no help from one of the most eclectic collections of draft picks in recent years. The Trail Blazers got absolutely nothing from a draft that included St. John's Walter Berry, the Soviet Union's Arvidas Sabonis and North Carolina State's Panagiotis Fasoulas. Berry is in San Antonio (he was traded on Dec. 18 for 7-foot, 280-pound center Kevin Duckworth), Sabonis is still in the U.S.S.R., and Fasoulas is back in his native Greece. Tack on the annual injury to center Sam Bowie, who broke his right tibia in Portland's fifth game, and the Blazers seemed certain to repeat last season's struggles.
"Last year we played tentatively," said Jim Paxson, an eight-year Blazer now splitting time at both guard positions. "We were playing not to lose rather than to win." This is frequently true of "soft" teams, which is what the Trail Blazers were often called before Schuler took over in May. A proponent of Milwaukee coach Don Nelson's defensive philosophy, he set out to change the team's image. "We needed to do the tough things" is the way Schuler put it.
Vandeweghe isn't exactly known for his toughness, as his anemic 3.0 rebounding average would suggest. "We call him the Animal," Drexler says slyly. And Vandeweghe allows that he may not be the world's most aggressive 6'8" small forward. But he also feels that his defensive liabilities have been vastly overplayed. "At UCLA I won my job with defense," says Vandeweghe, who led the Bruins to the NCAA championship game as a senior in 1980. "There weren't enough basketballs for all the scorers we already had there. In the NBA I got the no-defense rap early in my career, in Denver, when I was scoring a lot and we were giving up a lot. [He was the NBA's second-leading scorer with 26.7 in 1982-83 and was third with 29.4 the next season.] That was Doug Moe's system. And Doug used to kid me about my defense all the time. I think some of that stuck." But his teammates now say that since he's switching more and having to fight through fewer picks, his defense has improved.
His infamous wardrobe, regrettably, has not. It is nonpareil in its bland consistency (his gold corduroys are ready to post up by themselves), and there is no question that he deserved his inclusion in GQ's "Five Worst-Dressed Athletes" last year.
But there obviously is more to Vandeweghe than meets the eye. His stoic demeanor—he has received only one technical foul in his seven seasons—hides an active, restless nature. One of the horses in which he has an interest, Dahar, was a top-class turf performer in California. His knowledge of sports cars is far-ranging; he once prevented his brother, Brük, from being swindled on a deal when he recognized that the car Brük was about to buy lacked a set of rivets that would certify its authenticity. He says he likes collecting coins because they give him "a piece of history."
The Vandeweghe family has a proud history of its own. His father, Ernie, a pediatrician, played in the NBA with the Knicks while attending medical school. An uncle, Mel Hutchins, was a BYU basketball star whose promising NBA career was cut short by a knee injury. Kiki's mother, Colleen, was Miss America in 1952. His younger sister Tauna was an Olympic swimmer in 1976. And Kiki himself was a national age-group swimming champion at 8 and continued to set records until he was 13.
Though he says basketball came hard for him, it certainly doesn't anymore. During last Friday's 125-107 win over New Jersey, Vandeweghe drove the lane with two Nets in tow. Turning his back to the basket, he drew the foul while spinning a shot off the backboard. It went in. The crowd went crazy and his teammates high-fived him, but as he walked to the line, Vandeweghe looked to be in a zone of his own. Then, as usual, he made the free throw.