Bring ’Em Back: Keith Balderston
"Bring 'Em Back" is a series of features on Oregon alumni who played important roles in UO athletics history, but who may not have received the attention their contributions merit. Listen to "Duck Insider" each week for more interviews with deserving Ducks from years past. To nominate a former UO student-athlete for the series, click here.
He was the in-state prospect who arrived at Oregon with little fanfare, worked himself into a prominent role on the team and did it all while balancing a course load that served as the foundation for medical school.
All that describes former Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, yes. But it also describes former UO men's basketball player Keith Balderston, now a practicing physician in Eugene, and one of few who could watch Herbert's career at Oregon unfold and appreciate much of what he went through.
"Justin was a Heisman-quality player; I was never at that level athletically," said Balderston, who played for the Ducks from 1984-88. "Yet I think the 'Oregon kid, hard worker, good student, not really sought after coming out of high school' — there certainly were a lot of similarities there."
Balderston grew up in Portland, and graduated from Wilson High. Like Herbert, he knew from an early age he wanted to pursue medicine. He was intent on balancing a rigorous academic schedule with athletics at Oregon.
Overlooked a bit in his own recruiting class, due to the presence of fellow Portland native Anthony Taylor, Balderston was driven to prove he could be a contributor for the Ducks — and driven to prove as well that he could do so while staying on track academically.
When he first arrived in Eugene, an academic advisor found out Balderston was a basketball player and scoffed at his intention to take pre-med classes. For the rest of his time in Eugene, Balderston relished stopping by her office once a year to drop off his grades, certifying his progress toward a degree and proving her initial skepticism wrong.
"It's tough to do -- that's the bottom line," Balderston said. "But it's not that you can't. It literally comes down to, I'm doing this no matter what anybody says. I think that's what life is all about, and really what being an athlete is all about."
Balderston understood doubts about his ability to impact the basketball team. He was a lightly recruited prospect who spent most of his youth at a small Christian school before transferring to Wilson High as a senior. And he laughs about an early indoctrination at Oregon.
"It might have been my very first practice, in a little scrimmage or something, and I'm shooting up by the elbow, inside the top of the key," Balderston recalled. "Jerry Adams blocks a shot that goes probably to the other end of the floor. And then I hear a coach's voice: 'You're not in high school anymore, Balderston.' "
A member of the staff leveled with him — he wasn't the caliber of fellow recruits like Taylor and Rick Osborn, whose son Luke is now a walk-on with the Ducks. Thus, Balderston probably wouldn't see much of the floor.
To kick off the 1984-85 season, Oregon opened with an exhibition game. As a freshman, Balderston didn't make it into the game until the Ducks were comfortably ahead. Fueled by doubts about his ability to contribute, he made the most of it.
"I played 10 minutes, scored 13 points — and I fouled out," Balderston said with a laugh. "The crowd went crazy, because it was like back to the Kamikaze Kids days. I'm diving everywhere, knocking people over, and I fouled out in 10 minutes."
By the next year, Balderston was starting alongside his more high-profile classmates, Taylor and Osborn. And also alongside Adams, who had so unceremoniously blocked his shot all the way across the court in Balderston's first practice.
After four seasons, Balderston was a three-year starter, and a three-time academic all-American. He won the Higdon Award as the outstanding sophomore in the UO athletic department for 1985-86, and the Emerald Award as the outstanding senior male in the department for 1987-88.
Balderston was a hard worker who was fueled by doubts. But those weren't the only factors in his success. He credits help he received along the way, too.
As a player, Balderston considered himself "the perfect fit" for Don Monson, his head coach at Oregon. Monson loved blue-collar kids willing to work hard, and Balderston was all of that.
He also benefited from working in practice as a freshman against 7-foot senior Blair Rasmussen, the future NBA regular who left Oregon in 1985 as the program's all-time leader in blocked shots.
"As a 6-7 kid who couldn't jump, I really had to learn how to use my body, to use positioning, just to be able to guard him," said Balderston, whose career field-goal percentage of .531 is still in the top-10 all-time for the Ducks. "That helped me be the kind of player I became. I was a little undersized, but Monson was a matchup-zone guy and I was kind of the quarterback of those defenses, calling out a little bit of where to go and when to rotate.
"It was kind of a thinking man's position, and I think it was just a perfect storm for me to play for Monson in that system."
Off the court, Balderston had help as well. He had to formulate some "goofy class schedules" in order to make a pre-med program work, but he only recalls missing one practice for class, thanks to Monson's respect for his dual pursuits.
And Balderston had a small group of fellow students in the same program who helped him stay on track in classes like organic chemistry and biochemistry. All of them went on to med school, and all are now practicing doctors in Oregon.
"Those guys would catch me up on what I missed," said Balderston, who got his medical degree at OHSU and practices maternal-fetal medicine in Eugene. "I was just fortunate to have this group of buddies who were really bright."
Fortunate, yes, but also dedicated, and hard-working, and driven to prove he could excel both on and off the court. The recipe worked for Balderston, as it worked three decades later for Herbert, and for other unsung Ducks over the years who've proven they can become elite in both athletics and academics.