[This is a story as old as the NBA. A young player rises to the top of the college game. He’s inundated in awards and acclaim. The pros want him—badly—and the good, seven-figure life awaits him at the end of the rainbow. All that remains to be determined is whether his will be a Hall of Fame career, denominated in NBA championship rings and all-star trophies.
This is the story of Ken Durrett. During the 1970-71 season, the 6-foot-7 senior at LaSalle University was a no-brainer on every preseason All-American team. “Kenny can do it all, so easily . . . The sky’s the limit for Kenny . . .” declared the Street and Smith’s College & Pro Yearbook.
Then, on a fluky play at the end of a meaningless midseason game, Durrett blew out a knee. That was it for his college career. The NBA Cincinnati Royals looked past the injury and took Durrett and his “sky-is-the-limit” potential fourth in 1971 draft . . . after Austin Carr, Sidney Wicks, and Elmore Smith.
Early in his rookie season, Durrett blew out his knee again. With sports medicine still in its infancy, the doctors couldn’t help him and may have done harm. Though Durrett rehabbed like a man possessed in hopes of reclaiming his once-preordained spot as an NBA all-star, some in positions of NBA power had already bailed on him. That included Phil Johnson, the new Cincinnati coach, who relegated Durrett to the end of the bench. Mr. The-Sky-is-the-Limit” was now being called “a first-round bust” and “damaged goods.”
Durrett, to his eternal frustration, could never shake these snap judgments. In the fall of 1975, without getting much of a second chance to prove he’d returned to his old college form, Durrett was cut in preseason. His NBA dream now over, Durrett was left to pick up the pieces of his life. He fantasized about turning back the clock and showing the world that he was indeed one of the best players of his generation. And yet, Durrett knew intuitively that it was time to count his many blessings and embrace all that was good in his life off the court.
In this feature, which ran in the Philadelphia Enquirer on January 24, 1978, Durrett opens up in a big way to reporter Skip Myslenski about his bittersweet NBA journey. Durrett seems to have come to terms with the past, ready to rise above it and help others navigate the good and the bad. But Durrett’s adult life would be relatively brief. In January 2001, Durrett suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just 52 years old.]
Now Ken Durrett performs for a phantom audience. He will appear in LaSalle’s gymnasium, cradling a basketball, and he will hesitate momentarily, simply thinking. Then, in his mind, he is no longer alone, he is at center stage in a packed arena, and he is matched against Scott Wedman, a starting forward for the Kansas City Kings, and he is once again magic.
He takes Wedman deep into the corner and shoots over him for a basket, and the announcer that only he can hear shouts his name through a microphone. “Basket by Durrett.” He drives, posting Wedman low, and he stops, spins, twists in a layup through a tangle of outstretched arms. “Durrett again.” He stands at the top of the key, fakes once, fakes twice, he dribbles, he’s up, he’s free this time, another basket. “Dur-reeeeett.”
“Yeah, I dream,” Ken Durrett says. “Every time I go into the gym, I dream. There are days when I walk around, and I’ll just be thinking about what I can do with a basketball. I watch guys who are supposed to be good, Julius Erving, and I always compare myself, because I always thought I was the best.
“I always thought I was the best, I’ll get a lot of arguments, but I wasn’t going to slight myself. Now Julius Erving’s a hell of a basketball player, fantastic, he does phenomenal things. But I dream of how I could have done things like that. I do it every day. I don’t think a day goes past that I don’t think about it.
“I can control it. It’s just a dream. I’m not looking for anything to come out of it. It’s just something to occupy my time. A dream.”
Seven years ago, Ken Durrett heard cheers that were very real. He was then an All-America forward at LaSalle—according to many, the very best forward in all the land—and his future promised boundless feats. But in February of that year, 1971, he took a rebound against Canisius, whirled and headed up the court, repeating a move he had made so often in his career, and he went up and twisted madly to his right and away from the defender, who was cutting in front of him. He could not avoid him fully, though. His foot hit the defender’s head, and Ken Durrett went down in a crumpled mass.
“I can very well remember it,” he recalls. “At first, I thought somebody might have shot me. It was a pain I’d never known before.”
He was carried to the locker room, and his right knee was iced, and he reappeared and made his first shot of the second half There would be no more, the leg would support him no longer. That night, he was taken to a hospital, where they couldn’t examine the damage because the swelling was too severe. It was the first time Ken Durrett ever had to leave a game for an injury, yet he was not worried, he was anticipating a quick return. “I may miss a practice,” he thought. “But I’ll be all right. I’ll be back day-after-tomorrow.”
He would instead miss many days, he would not return until LaSalle went to the National Invitation Tournament a month later, and there he was able to perform, but sporadically and without renown. His teammates looked for him, they continually fed him the ball. But he was not operating with his fullest talents, and they together would eventually lose in the opening round to Georgia Tech. Still, in three years at the school, he was thrice named the Big Five’s Most Valuable Player, and he averaged 23.6 points and 11.9 rebounds per game.
On December 17, 1977, LaSalle played Penn at the Palestra, and Ken Durrett, now 28 and an assistant coach at his alma mater, sat nervously on the bench. He examined the building, he listened to the noise, the music, and his enthusiasm grew. He became vocal, he found himself beginning to stand so he could enter the game. Once, at a tight moment, he thought, “Why isn’t coach putting me in?”
Then he looked down at his lap and thought again: “Oh, I’m not dressed to go in.”
“The Big Five was the highlight of my basketball career,” Ken Durrett says. “So that was tough. Real tough. It was real tough just sitting there and watching and not being able to do something. I’m adjusting, but it’s hard. A lot of times, I want to get in there to get my frustrations off in the game.”
Ken Durrett with the first-round choice of the Cincinnati Royals, the fourth man chosen in the NBA draft, and he signed a million-dollar contract. When Durrett joined them in the fall of 1971, he was fully recovered from the injury that had plagued his final days at LaSalle. His coach was then Bob Cousy, who wanted his players to yell “BALL” after they got a rebound. But one afternoon in a preseason scrimmage, Ken Durrett got a rebound and went to yell “BALL” and was able to exclaim nothing but a frightening wail. “Owwwww!” came from Ken Durrett’s mouth.
He was down once again, flat on the court, and once again there was pain in the knee. This time, he realized it was serious. He began to cry. “He was frightened to death, he was scared stiff,” Cousy said at the time.
“At that point, I knew something was wrong and that I wouldn’t be able to do what I had set out to do,” Ken Durrett recalls. “I’d set goals for myself, I’d worked hard enough, I don’t think anyone had worked harder than I had. I wanted to be rookie of the year. But when I fell that time, I knew it would take a lot to get back. I knew I was going to miss the whole year. That was the hurting part.”
He would have an operation and be active for only one-quarter of that season. Even then, he was not able to play freely, he could merely test himself during isolated interludes of meaningless games. When the year ended, the Royals moved to Kansas City, where they were transformed into Kings. But Durrett and center Sam Lacey remained behind, to work during the summer with the football Bengals. There were whirlpools and endless hours pulling dead weight. It was the most boring kind of activity, yet Ken Durrett persevered and went to camp with a feeling of confidence.
But his legs soon began to betray him once more, and he had yet another examination. This time, he learned the initial operation had been performed incorrectly: the doctor had repaired the cartilage damage but had ignored some torn tendons. “Doc, just fix my leg,” Ken Durrett pleaded. “Just fix my leg. That’s all I want. Just fix it. I can’t do anything without it.”
“I wasn’t so much frightened,” he now recalls, “but I was frustrated. The hardest part I’d found was the mental part, not having my leg together, not being able to go where I wanted to go because of my leg. You see yourself trying to do things, but you just can’t. You feel impotent. It’s an empty feeling. There’s nothing you can do about it.
“I had never thought about it that way until then. I’d seen guys with knee injuries before, but I guess you never know how it feels until you experience it. You sit back and say, ‘I know you really feel bad.’ But there’s no knowing the feeling until you go through it yourself.”
Ken Durrett recently  received a call from Nate Williams, who is getting in touch to say that he had been traded from New Orleans to Golden State. Durrett was happy for his old friend, he told him so, but another consideration immediately danced across his brain. “Wow!” he thought. “Why couldn’t that have been me?”
“I needed a break like that, I needed a change like that when I was playing,” he says. “I went back to my thinking again. I’m happy what I’m doing, I’m real happy. But I did think.”
In 1973, Ken Durrett endured yet another summer of rehabilitation. At the beginning of his third year with the Kings, he seemed destined to receive some reward. He and Ron Behagen were then the team’s starting forwards, but, after 22 games, Cousy resigned and was replaced by Phil Johnson; Johnson, in turn, replaced Durrett and Behagen with Don Kojis and John Block.
“I’d beaten [Kojis] out in camp, but all of a sudden I wasn’t playing at all,” he recalls. “I wasted a year, a big year, since I was coming back and really needed to play. I didn’t get anything, and there was nothing I could do about it. It took me awhile to realize it, but all I could do was work and hope to catch a break.”
He never did, he never would, and soon he was appearing at games neither fully nor mentally prepared to play. “Wonder if we’re going to blow them out, tonight?” he would be thinking. “Wonder if someone’s going to get in foul trouble? Wonder if I’ll get in?”
At home, he and his wife Anna began discussing his situation, then she would probe, then he would attempt to honestly answer all of her questions. “Maybe you’re not working hard enough,” she once said to him.
“I don’t think it’s that,” he answered. “But since you said it, I’ll work a little harder. Then why don’t you come down to practice someday when I’m not expecting you and see if I’m working hard enough?”
She did just that, sneaking a peak one afternoon, and that night she said, “You’re working hard enough. You’re just not getting the chance.”
Ken Durrett began his fourth year as a professional in similar fashion, on the Kings’ bench. And then late in the season, he was traded to the 76ers, who needed a forward to replace the injured Steve Mix. “At that time, I was really frustrated,” he says. “All I asked was that they give me playing time. If I couldn’t do it, I would have been the first one to tell them. But I knew I could do it, though I couldn’t with a minute here, two minutes there, always looking over my shoulder to see if I’m coming out because I’m doing something wrong.
“It was very frustrating. I think I did everything possible to come back. But I needed minutes. I couldn’t do it without minutes, and I never got them.”
Ken Durrett does not now often attend 76er games, and, when he does, he is bad company. While those around him visit, while they applaud the spectaculars that unfold below, he sits mute, his arms folded, his face blank, his mind is a jumble.
“It hurts. It really hurts,” he says. “I worked, I worked 24 hours a day playing basketball. I took no shortcuts, no shortcuts. Whatever had to be endured, I did. Pain. When I worked with the Bengals, I didn’t know what pain was until I worked with them. I strived for it. I strived for it. I thought I’d put in enough time to get my just dues, instead of being shipped down the road somewhere.
“One of the worst things for me to do is watch the Sixers. I see guys out there who shouldn’t be playing, who are getting opportunities to play, and there I am sitting up in the stands. Then I see guys who don’t want to play, who do things that make things worse for their teams, and I did everything I could possibly do to do things right. I never caused any trouble, maybe I should have said something about not getting the opportunity.”
He did have a small opportunity last summer, in an all-star game in Pittsburgh. Charlie Scott was there, and so were Garfield Heard, Clifford Ray, George Gervin, Calvin Murphy, Lou Hudson, Kenny Carr, Billy Knight, Connie Hawkins, and Maurice Lucas. But when the affair ended, Ken Durrett was voted the Most Valuable Player. Later he walked around Pittsburgh, where he grew up and starred while in high school. And once again, people recognized him and heralded his name. “Hey, Kenny, great game, man.” “Hey, Kenny, hey man, you can still jump, you can still shoot, you can still do everything.”
When Ken Durrett heard the last litany, he looked back and said, “Yeah, man, I know. I know I can still do everything.”
The 76ers cut Ken Durrett in the fall of 1975, and he decided then to spend a year playing in the Eastern League. He entered that endeavor with enthusiasm, intent on proving that he had not lost his gifts. But soon he soured, not able to tolerate the minimal efforts of many around him. Some players would not appear for games, and others would appear and perform raggedly, and soon Ken Durrett was going home and thinking, “Is this where I am supposed to be?” This isn’t right. This isn’t what I want to do. I’ve worked hard enough to have more than this. This is no fun. I can’t have fun this way.”
“Deep down inside I guess basketball is still my number one love,” Ken Durrett is saying. “Deep down inside, I still feel I can play today. But it’s just a matter of what’s important to me now. I’ve learned a lot by sitting. I have other people depending on me, I can’t sit around saying, ‘Wow, I want to play.’ They have this new league coming out, do I want to play in that?
“But I have two kids at home, a wife depending on me, I can’t be running around looking for a city, being selfish about it. My kids have to grow up, I have that responsibility. I think that’s what turned my mind around about chasing the dream.
“I have my life patterned for something else now, I don’t want to sit around waiting and, all of a sudden, I’m 35 and still waiting for the same dream. Life moves on. I’ve been very successful in basketball, it’s been good to me, I loved it, I still love it, but I think it’s time for me to do something else.
“I don’t want to be chasing a dream years and years down the road. I could do that if I were a bachelor, I could sit back and take my time and do what I want to do. I could chase it, chase it, chase it. But my kids, if I’m chasing it, they won’t have any concept of what’s going on. They’re depending on me to do something for them, I have to prepare them for the thing I went through, so they can adjust. I have to be a father. If I’m away too long, even now, when I go on a recruiting trip, it’s ‘Daddy, you’ll be back tomorrow, won’t you?’
“I’m not brooding. I can’t complain. It turned out all right. I’m not bitter. Not bitter at all. I’m making more money now than I ever could have working a 9-to-5 job. I’m still getting paid. I know some people who have done as much as I have and got nothing out of it. So, I’m not bitter as far as that is concerned. But I do miss not expressing myself.
“I always thought I did that when I played. I had talent, a God-given talent, and I missed that, expressing myself. When they start naming the great forward of the game, I wanted to play against them. That’s what I wanted to find out: was I in that select group or was I below it? I never found out. I don’t think I’ll ever find it out.
“I thought I was in that select group of great players. That’s tough. When I came out of college in ’71, I knew I was the best forward in college ball. I knew that, the scouts said that. But I never got a chance to prove it. That’s the rough part. That’s the rough part. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s what I wanted to be known as.”
Ken Durrett most clearly remembers a January night in 1971. Jim McDaniels and Western Kentucky were then at the Palestra, and professional scouts were sprinkled through the seats, and there was a not uncertain air of anticipation hovering over this meeting of All-Americans. They themselves were friends, they had gotten to know each other over the years. And so, before the game Ken Durrett caught Jim McDaniels’ eye and said, “Hey, man, what’s happening?”
McDaniels did not answer, he merely stared sullenly, and Ken Durrett began to laugh.
“Why are you doing that?” a teammate asked.
“It’s all right,” he answered. “This is going to be a real good game.”
Jim McDaniels blocked Ken Durrett’s first two shots, he swatted them away with ease, yet Ken Durrett did not waver, the misfortunes merely heightened his fever. “I had him right where I wanted him. When a guy blocks a shot, he’s cocky then, his head is in the air. I was free and easy. I had him.”
Western Kentucky was already pressing, it was a tactic that had been expected, and LaSalle’s coach Paul Westhead, had designed a maneuver to break the press and to give Ken Durrett a chance to face Jim McDaniels alone. It happened then, and Durrett is smiling and nodding at the memory, he goes up with the ball in his right hand, and Jim McDaniels rises to challenge him, and he switches that ball over, into his left hand, and he offers it to the basket, and the basket accepts his offering. “It’s over,” Ken Durrett thought. “This one is over.”
He is animated now, viewing the film only he can see. “I just knew at that point my game was where it was supposed to be,” he says. “I had the feeling that everything I shot would go in. That’s the feeling I had. You can get into your groove, as they say. I play with a lot of rhythm. Come down, bang. Down again, bang. I ended up with 45 points. All kinds of shots. It didn’t matter. I knew it was going in when it left my hand, a player always knows before anyone else. Come down, bang. Bang.
“I see a player like Julius, in the playoffs last year, he was phenomenal. I knew what he was feeling. I knew what he was feeling. There’s no greater feeling than that, when you’re out there and in the groove. It’s something. You just know. Bang, bang, bang. It’s unbelievable.”
Two weeks ago, Ken Durrett received a call from Paul Westhead. The night before, Durrett had scouted Drexel, and Westhead had coached his team to a road victory over Western Kentucky, and now they were discussing plans for that afternoon’s practice. Before he hung up, however, Paul Westhead said, “Oh, by the way, guys down here were asking about you, wanted to know how you were doing.”
Ken Durrett smiled at that message, and, when he put the receiver down, he leaned back in his chair for just a moment. “Yeah,” he thought, “they should have been asking about me.”
Bonus Coverage: Here’s a nice television segment on Durrett that appeared a few years after this article: