Original Old School: Flowin’ On ‘Em
SLAM 86: Before he was the Nets coach, before he was Denver’s GM, Kiki Vandeweghe filled up baskets as a player.
In our effort to post every single Old School feature to ever run in SLAM, this week we bring you a Q and A from SLAM 86 with current Nets’ coach, Kiki Vandweghe. Contrary to what some young, uneducated New Jersey fans may think, Vandeweghe knows his hoops, as he’s proven both as a player and a GM. If you’re knowledge of Kiki is limited, best read this here. And if he’s one of your favs of all-time, still a worthwhile read for you.
by Alan Paul
One of these days, Carmelo Anthony might just develop into the offensive force his boss once was. After all, Melo’s average is only 7 or 8 points away from the 29.4 ppg Kiki Vandeweghe put up for the same Denver Nuggets 21 years ago. Although he’s now known mainly for his managerial skills as Denver’s move-making GM, the 6-8 Vandeweghe was a fill-it-up scoring machine for much of his playing career, averaging better than 20 ppg seven straight seasons, from 1981-88, until a back injury began sapping his strength.
Vandeweghe starred at UCLA, earning all-NCAA Tournament honors and leading the Larry Brown-coached Bruins to the 1980 national title game, a 5-point loss to Louisville. The Dallas Mavericks chose him 11th in that year’s Draft but eventually shipped him to Denver, where Doug Moe’s high-octane, run-and-gun offense proved a perfect fit. Along with smooth-shooting wing Alex English, Kiki was at the core of one of the greatest offensive juggernauts in NBA history: The Nugs averaged better than 121 ppg in each of Vandeweghe’s four seasons there. In ’82-83, the pair finished 1-2 in the League in scoring, with English dropping 28.4 ppg while Kiki poured in 26.7. The following season, Kiki averaged that career-best 29.4 while English went for 26.4.
Kiki continued scoring in bunches after being dealt to Portland in ’84, teaming with Clyde Drexler for four-plus seasons. By the time Vandeweghe got to New York City in ’88-89, his back was causing him problems and he never regained his real punch, though he did score 16.3 ppg in ’90-91. When he finally retired in 1993, he owned a 13-year average of 19.7 ppg on a stellar 53 percent from the floor, while his 87.2 percent from the free-throw line ranked him among the top 10 in NBA history.
SLAM: How quickly did you realize Denver was going to be a really good fit for you?
KV: Pretty quickly. I liked the way Doug Moe coached and the fact that you had a lot of freedom. In my opinion, it was a system that showed very quickly whether or not you could really play basketball. It really displayed your weaknesses and strengths very clearly. When you have freedom, you also have responsibility and you must be able to make good decisions. It was not easy to play that way because it took a lot of effort to learn the motion passing game, and you had to be willing to run and put forth effort at all times. It depended on everyone going all out and everyone being able to read and react.
SLAM: You and Alex English both averaged more than 25 points for several straight years. Was there any competition for shots?
KV: Really, not at all. And remember, we also had Dan Issel scoring a lot of points, and the great David Thompson was also there my first two years—and we still never had a problem sharing the ball. I was extremely lucky because they were all older than me, already well established when I arrived. I was a young player who took a lot of shots and they accepted me, which is highly unusual.
SLAM: Not to mention, you and Alex played the same position. How did that work?
KV: Not always well, frankly [laughs]. Sometimes we had matchups with a big power forward that neither one of us could do much with, but the way we looked at it was we played attack basketball, so they had to adjust to us as well. That was really our whole philosophy: make them adjust to us. Also, we played the position very differently. Alex was mostly a postup player who also had a midrange game, while I was much more of a slasher-cutter and long-range shooter. I liked to set up and either shoot or force my man to come out and then drive. But he was a remarkable player, and I think you had to see him day in and day out to fully appreciate what he was doing. I just kind of shake my head when I think back to the many times he’d get on a roll and we just kept giving him the ball and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him. And his game was so unorthodox—he’d shoot awkwardly off the wrong foot and from bizarre angles and they’d go in. How do you defend that?
SLAM: What kind of conditioning did you do to prepare for all that high-altitude running?
KV: Doug Moe’s practices were not long—an hour and a half at most—but they were always pure running. Every drill, everything we did, was running up and down the court so you were just in very good condition all season long. I also spent a lot of time in the offseason working out. I truly loved being in the gym.
SLAM: Your father and uncle both played in the NBA. Did it feel like a family tradition or obligation to at least pursue the dream?
KV: No. My dad actually told me he didn’t want me to play basketball. He thought it would be too difficult to make it, and I really wasn’t that good. I was actually a really good swimmer and he encouraged me to stay with it because I did not have natural basketball ability, but I was kind of stubborn, and I decided I wanted to play when I was 13. That’s sort of late, but I just loved it. Once I got involved, I played as much as I could.
SLAM: Looking back, what are your happiest memories of your playing days?
KV: I really enjoyed the end of close games. That’s what gives you the excitement—a possession with the game on the line and someone has to take the make-or-break shot. I took a lot of those, and while I certainly missed more than I made, I always enjoyed them. I was often nervous before the games, but once they were happening, I was in the flow…Actually, though, I think more of the people and of the relationships I made. Some of the friendships you make are tremendous, and I was lucky to play in three great cities, all of which were fantastic experiences.
SLAM: In ’86-87, you shot 48 percent from three. Did it start to feel like a layup?
KV: Sort of. I spent a lot of time practicing it, and it wasn’t that long or difficult of a shot to me. I probably could have continued hitting them at that rate but I hurt my back, and then I really didn’t have the power from my legs to shoot that well. I couldn’t get the lift and base strength I needed.
SLAM: Did playing with Clyde Drexler in Portland help you get open shots?
KV: Oh sure. We spent a lot of time working out together, and that’s something people don’t realize about him. Clyde was such a phenomenal athlete that people assumed everything came naturally and he just ran out and played, but Clyde worked very, very hard on his game. He shot a lot and he became a very good shooter to complement his phenomenal driving ability. I think some of the things I did may have helped Clyde, but I can tell you for sure that playing and practicing with him helped me a lot.
SLAM: You were one of the first guys to start working with Pete Newell in the offseason. When and why did you start doing that?
KV: I started working with him when I was a sophomore in college because I felt I needed help with post moves, and boy did I get it. Last year was one of the first years I’ve missed going to his camp in 25 years. I couldn’t go because of family stuff, and it felt odd to not be there. I’ve learned an awful lot from him.
SLAM: And you developed some patented moves, at least one of which is still being taught as the “Kiki move.”
KV: Right. It’s a move you can make coming from the low post to the high, and it will either give you an open jumper or allow you to drive to the hoop. That came from not being very strong or fast, but being able to shoot. I needed some way to get my shot off, so I developed that move and worked on perfecting it until it became very effective.
SLAM: What are your memories of the highest-scoring game in NBA history, when the Nuggets lost to Detroit 186-184 in triple OT, even though you scored 51 and Alex had 47?
KV: What I mostly remember was that the next five games, I was so tired I could barely move. Just raising my arms felt like a chore. I think both teams lost their next four or five games because we left it all out on the floor. It was a fun game, back and forth the whole time and had a million little dramas and lead changes. It was the two highest-scoring teams in the League, and it wasn’t that no defense was played. It was just that shots were taken very quickly and both teams had guys filling it up.
SLAM: Carmelo reminds me of some of the great small forwards of that era.
KV: I agree. When I played, there were five or six small forwards who could get you 25 or 30 a night, plus 8 or 9 rebounds and 3 or 4 assists. It was a very strong position, and I think Carmelo is that type of player. He would have fit in, no problem. It’s very interesting because he surprises you by doing everything just a little better than you think. He shoots a little better, rebounds a little better, passes a little better. He’s a little stronger and a little quicker. He’s one of the few guys who can really elevate their game when it’s on the line. Very few guys can do that consistently, and it’s a key trait for all truly great players.
SLAM: In 1980, your senior year at UCLA, the team got off to a bad start but made a great run to the title game.
KV: That was a great season. We started off 8-6, which was terrible for us. We had a team meeting and re-dedicated ourselves to the team and the tradition of UCLA basketball, and then we took off. I had a lot of fun all year and I learned a lot from Larry Brown, who I still say was the best coach I ever had. His knowledge was vast, and that helped make the whole year a great, great basketball experience.
SLAM: Twenty years ago, your Nuggets scored 123 points per game, and two others topped 117—which the Pistons didn’t achieve once last year. What happened to offense?
KV: I think the defenses have gotten better and the coaching has gotten better, while the style of play has changed and teams favor a more controlled offense. Also, the scouting is so much more advanced than it was, so teams are better prepared for whatever you like to do. But I also believe it’s a cycle and it will cycle back. Last year, we pushed the ball more and I saw a few other teams doing so as well, and I’m seeing even a few more teams doing so this year, which is great.
SLAM: Given all that, could you average 26 or 27 if your prime was right now?
KV: You always think you could, but the game is so different now. It would really depend where I was playing. Even in my era, I was very lucky to play in the systems that I did. I was hurt when I got to New York and never really played to the level I would have liked, but we also pushed it there, with Rick Pitino in his first years. We kept it flowing, and that’s what I needed—to play in a system where the ball was pushed and the game was based on reactions. I didn’t think I was good enough to play at a high level if I had to stand still. I needed to move to be effective.