DENVER — At times, the Denver Nuggets were easy – sometimes, too easy – to love, with their rainbow uniforms, their rumpled grumposaurus of a coach and a defense-optional game plan that kept the scoreboard clicking into the 120s and 130s night after night.
At other times, loving them was more difficult, say, during those 50, 60 and 70-loss seasons in the '90s that installed a revolving door on the coach's office, or even during a decade-long resurgence in the 2000s when they were led by a fickle superstar who ultimately bailed for New York City.
And even now, with the Nuggets the top seed in the Western Conference, Denver has yet to be mistaken for much beyond an NBA novelty. Such is life in a league driven by superstars who are on a first-name basis with fans — Magic, Michael, LeBron and Steph — but never by a team that doesn't win titles, doesn't even play for them, and doesn't get much love even when the two-maybe-three-time MVP is on its roster.
And yet, as any Denver fan of a certain age will tell you, there is something special about the Nuggets. While Denver may obsess over the Broncos, love the Avalanche and tolerate the Rockies, only one team really placed this dusty old cowtown on the map. That's the basketball franchise the NBA plucked from the dying ABA in 1976 to officially turn Denver into not just a major-league city, but a winning one.
"There was always a sense of pride that that was the other professional sports franchise in town," said Ron Zappolo, the longtime Denver sports and news anchor, in recalling a long stretch when Denver's big-league teams were the Broncos and the Nuggets. "And they never took a back seat to too much. And, yeah, they weren't champions, but they won a ton of games in the '80s, and they made it entertaining for everybody.'"
Their welcome to the NBA came a year before the Broncos — still B-listers at best and seven years from landing John Elway — made their first Super Bowl. Denver's biggest sports star at that time: a gap-toothed undersized center with an awkward-but-effective head fake named Dan Issel.
Issel, Bobby Jones and the Skywalker, David Thompson, lost to the Blazers and Bill Walton in the conference semifinals that season. Ever since, part of the price of loving the Nuggets is that the fun always ends early. The Nuggets have been to the playoffs 29 times in their 47 years in the league. They have never played in the NBA Finals.
The player who could change that is Nikola Jokic, a 6-foot-11 force of nature from Serbia who finished 0.2 assists short of averaging a triple-double this season – something only guards Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson have done.
Yet, the national debate this season centers around whether the Lakers, Warriors or Denver's next opponent, the Suns, will win the West. Those discussions feel more like a rite of passage than a true insult in Denver.
"I've been here since the '70s, and there's always been a national feeling that what happens in Denver, it's in the Rocky Mountain time zone out there, it's kind of quirky, it's kind of crazy, but, ehhh," Zappolo said.
By 1980, Doug Moe had returned to Denver to take Larry Brown's spot on the sideline. He, along with high-scoring Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe, made the Nuggets eminently watchable. They averaged more than 120 points a game for five straight seasons. They traded in their '70s logo — a gold-digging mountain man named Maxie Miner — for those multi-colored rainbow threads with the outline of the Denver skyline. Today, those are among America's favorite throwback unis.
Moe was worth watching all by himself — a coach whose wry basketball brilliance was on par with his need of a good dry cleaner for his sports coats and a bar of soap for his mouth. Ten years into the gig, he popped champagne at the news conference on the day he was fired. He is still the team's most successful coach, with 432 wins.
What his team could never overcome was the unfortunate fate of sharing the Western Conference with the Lakers. The best Denver team of that era was the 1984-85 squad that fell 4-1 to Magic and Showtime in the conference finals.
Moe's firing led to the indignities of irrelevance that, it could be argued, have bled into today.
There were 12 coaches over the next 14 years. Twice, Issel manned the bench. The first time, Dikembe Mutombo helped the Nuggets rally from 0-2 against Seattle to become the first 8 seed to beat a 1.
George Karl, like Moe and Brown before him a product of the Dean Smith-North Carolina motion system, coached the Nuggets from 2005-13 and made the playoffs every year, including in 2009. That season, they lost to the Lakers and Kobe Bryant in Denver's third trip to the West finals.
Karl's tenure was marked by an uneasy alliance with Carmelo Anthony -- with Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups and even Allen Iverson making appearances in attempts to get the Nuggets over the hump. That group made news, but not the finals, and 'Melo eventually forced his way to the Knicks.
What put the Nuggets in the headlines again is a second-round draft pick whose selection barely registered across basketball or in Denver.
Title or no, the selection of Jokic — a two-time league MVP and a finalist for a third award — already goes down as one of the best personnel moves in the history of the league. Still, the Nuggets have won five and lost four playoff series since Jokic started taking the Nuggets to the playoffs in 2019.
So, as Denver prepares for Kevin Durant and Phoenix, some Colorado natives might be bracing for the worst. Few, however, will turn their backs completely.
"There has always been a soft spot for this team," Zappolo said.
And if, after all these years, there really is gold at the end of all those rainbows, a real Nuggets fan would have to see it to believe it.
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