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WORKING OVERTIME

For a time this month, your Denver Nuggets became America's Denver Nuggets--the fulfillment of underdog dreams, the hope of every factory worker who ever fantasized about playing in the bigs, wowing the Grand Ole Opry or sailing a yacht in Monte Carlo. Hey, nice piece in Sports Illustrated. Ain't that the Holy Grail.

Your Denver Nuggets also drove Seattle coach George Karl a step closer to the loony bin. "I'm basically embarrassed by what happened," he burbled to a TNT interviewer. "I'm humbled. I'm dead. I don't know where to go to hang out. I don't know what to do...We were passive. We were scared. We were not ourselves."

Get a grip, George. Just because the young-and-restless Nuggets became the first eighth-seeded playoff team ever to upset a top-ranked club (the best in the league, at that) doesn't mean it can't happen again. Give the NBA, say, fifty or sixty years, and a cocky, trash-mouthed, undeniably talented bunch like Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and the Supersonics are bound to fall once more to a collection of raw, impossible upstarts like the Nuggs.

Next season, Dan Issel might even have to miss the Kentucky Derby again.
Sweet, wasn't it? Sweeter than The Drive, or The Fumble, or the Rox outslugging the Jints at Candlestick. Sweeter than a chinook drifting in off the foothills or a ballad on the night air at Red Rocks. Sweeter than all the sweet talk before the airport vote.

Karl Malone and John Stockton are now putting an end to all that, of course. Mainstays of the most ill-named franchise in all of sport--"Jazz" is as alien to dry and danceless Salt Lake City as a Calvinist on Bourbon Street--these two shredded the lovable underdogs at the Delta Center 100-91 in game one, despite a brave 16-0 Denver run bridged by the intermission. The Jazz then did in the upstarts 104-94 in game two, despite a heroic Denver effort that gave the Nuggets the lead in the third quarter. The third confrontation--here at Big Mac--was the real heartbreaker. Bottled-up Nuggets shooters missed a pair of contested layups with just seconds left in regulation, then fell 111-109 in overtime.

The Nuggets eked out an 83-82 win over an exhausted Jazz club on Sunday, but that was window-dressing. Summer vacation is here.

Half-convinced, half-awed, Nuggets forward LaPhonso Ellis, age 24, had pledged to "shut down the post office." But Malone, the Mailman, continued to deliver: 103 points in the first four games of the series. Utah, you may recall, had beaten the Nuggets in 21 of the last 23 regular season games the two clubs played in Salt Lake, and Issel's charges never found a solution in the playoff series to coach Jerry Sloan's superb half-court offense, fueled by Stockton's pinpoint passing and Malone's steamroller moves through the paint. New acquisition Jeff Hornacek and streaky shooter Tyrone Corbin did their parts, too, perhaps providing the missing links to a Utah team that has gone to the playoffs eleven straight seasons but never grabbed the brass ring.

But we were talking Nuggets here. About pluck. Heart. Overachievement. Their crash course in forced maturity.

The locals will not win the NBA championship this year. Probably not next year, either. But before you could say "Get ready to Mutommmmmbbbo!" this group of kids and misfits not only captured the imagination of the basketball world this spring but set their sights on the bright horizon as well.

Little matter that the wellsprings of glory include a castoff forward from the Orlando Magic, Brian Williams, who was so depressed a year ago that he considered suicide. Or a rookie built like a beer truck, Rodney Rogers, who looks like he should be busting up tackle dummies in West Texas. Or a victim of Tourette's Syndrome, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (nee Chris Jackson), who agonizes over the length of his shoestrings more than he does about stepping to the foul line. There, after all, he leads the league in shooting percentage.

How about Robert Pack, the reserve point guard? They oughta call him "Battery" Pack, because this tireless energizer, despite his rough edges and headlong hurtles into seven-foot traffic, lights up weary teammates and flagging fans with pure surges of current.

In midseason, restless murmurs about the future of Dikembe Mutombo ("the third best Georgetown center in the NBA") swelled to a shout. As if by magic, Mutombo silenced the complaints with his hands, seizing the league lead in blocked shots, including 31 of them in the five games against Seattle. I don't know what your future holds, but do you still want to trade away a seven-foot-two-inch mystic who accurately dreams the outcomes of games in nine languages and six African dialects? Didn't think so.

Enjoy the summer, fellas. You still may not be able to beat the L.A. Clippers, and those fearsome Sacramento Kings might as well be the '85 Lakers. But when it came down to crunch time, you produced a thrill that not even Haven Moses in the end zone, Biff in Cleveland or the Buffs beating the Irish can match.

You gave yourselves a future. And we'll all tag along, if you don't mind.

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