The Fat Lady Is Singing

The ox, to see it one way, is named Bernie Bickerstaff. It's Dick Motta's task to pull him up from the muck and wash him off.

Good luck. The French task at Verdun was to overrun the German machine guns. This fact comes to mind at the Denver-Phoenix game when something called the Nuggets Dance Team suddenly materializes again during a time-out in the third quarter. Twelve or fifteen young women stuffed gorgeously into black Lycra, they spring onto the floor with the kind of bounce LaPhonso Ellis remembers fondly from his NBA days, then launch into a synchronized frenzy that contortionists from a Russian circus would be hard-pressed to equal. The number ends with these extraordinary athletes leaping eleven feet into the air, shooting their legs into splits and letting gravity do the rest.

Beautiful. The tune that's been blaring from the speakers has to be the official team anthem: "Mission Impossible."

Down the press row, Dick Motta is looking quizzically at transplant guard Mark Jackson. This is Motta's first night in the NBA's bleakest job and, as he is to say later, he's still a little baffled by the Nuggets' strange nomenclature. He also indicates--only half-jokingly, it seems--that he's been pondering the glories of seasons past. "I'm having to get help from the point guards and the assistants who were here under Bernie's system before me," he later explains. "I'm thinking I wanna post Bobby Dandridge and have Elvin Hayes hit the jumper."

Not gonna happen again, Mr. Motta. Not here. Not now. By the middle of the fourth quarter, however, it's clear that the Denver Nuggets are about to win this game for their new coach--even though both Dale Ellis and Jackson grumble afterward in the locker room about the fate of player-friendly Bernie Bickerstaff. With 8:14 to play, the Nuggs are ahead 95-80, behind a jump-shooting fury by free-agent pickup Brooks Thompson, and in the end the home-teamers break their four-game losing streak with a 117-108 win over once-mighty Phoenix. The Suns (whose team motto this year is "Young Blood. Veteran Fury. Serious Stuff.") are now 0-13, just four losses shy of Miami's infamous record string. Serious stuff.

For the moment the Nuggets have a freshly minted win, and for a moment you can actually hear cheers inside McNichols Arena--as if this were suddenly 1994 again and that man there were Dikembe Mutombo, lying face up on the floor, an ecstatic smile on his face, clutching the game ball that beat the Seattle Supersonics in the playoffs.

No way. This is 1996. The local hockey team has already paraded triumphantly through the streets of Denver, and the local football team is measuring out orange bunting in anticipation of a second outburst. The local baseball team doesn't win very often, but the owners have finally given the game back, and their stadium will once more sell out every day. But Denver's basketball team? Page fifteen of this year's Nuggets media guide may provide that eerie hint of doom hoop fans so dread. To wit: There's a photograph of the team chaplain, Bo Mitchell, but in the space reserved for the likeness of team doctor Russ Simpson, we see the words "Photo Unavailable."

Translation: The Nuggets can pray all they like, but there's no one in the picture to cure what ails them.

And Dick Motta? For those who may have forgotten, Motta is the wit who, during the 1978 NBA playoffs, made a lasting contribution to the English language when he said, "The opera ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."

Hmmmm. We know it's only early December, but isn't that Aida wafting down from the rafters of Big Mac?

Those plucky but unlucky Colorado Buffaloes could have used a touch of the Bronco magic last Friday, don't you think?

As it was, the student-felons who play football for the University of Nebraska did everything they could to hand a win to the Buffs. At game time, bad-boy linebacker Terrell Farley was counting backward from a hundred again for the state police. Top running back Ahman Green was on the bench with a ding. Every time a Nebraska wide receiver got wide open, quarterback Scott Frost did his Stevie Wonder imitation. The Big Reds fumbled the ball away four times in the sleet and snow.

But Colorado declined these holiday offers.
Linebacker Matt Russell played a career game, and brand-new placekicker Jeremy Aldrich managed four field goals in four tries. But CU receiver (and we use the term loosely) Chris Anderson dropped a tailor-made touchdown pass as well as a Koy Detmer bomb that could have shifted momentum. The Buffs' brave but undersized offensive line couldn't keep Nebraska's huge defensive linemen out of the backfield: Detmer was an alfalfa sprout fighting off stampeding corn silos.

In the end, a team that understands how to win a big game, even when it's not at its best, won the big game.

So, how much fresh powder at Vail?

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