The Fat Lady Is Singing

If you haven't been to a Denver Nuggets game this season--and there's no reason to go unless the warden's offering a choice between that and lethal injection--here's a report from the front. Let's begin at the beginning.

This year everybody on the team stands up for "The Star-Spangled Banner." Even the guys on Social Security. Even the Nuggets' star player, LaPhonso Ellis, who has missed ten of the club's first eighteen games because of knee surgery and who has missed 123 games in the last three years. LaPhonso Ellis is a tall, lean, handsome man, so he looks very nice standing there in his $900 business suit. By the time the bombs are bursting in air, though, he looks like he wants to sit down again. Da Fonz has got something called chondromalacia in that knee--a roughening of the articular cartilage--so it's not good to stand up. It's even worse to jump.

Once the anthem dies away and the opening tipoff is dispensed with, the familiar sounds of Nuggets basketball at McNichols Sports Arena crowd the air. Sneakers squeak on the hardwood. In the fifteenth row of the balcony, a man coughs. Out at the refreshment stand, a concessionaire drops ice cubes into a waxed-paper cup, startling two reporters at the press table. From the ladies' room comes the unmistakable zing of a zipper being drawn over the hip of a skirt.

"Take the shot, Dale," a fan remarks. His tone suggests he is offering old Aunt Hattie a second watercress sandwich at Saturday lunch. In the days when Denver was losing to Detroit 186-184, things were not like this. Back then, there was also the sound of the ball dropping through the net cords.

As it happens, the Nuggets are playing the Phoenix Suns tonight. This year the Suns have Robert Horry, Kevin Johnson and Danny Manning. They also have an excellent chance of leaping into the Grand Canyon--as a team, of course--rather than actually playing out the schedule the league has set for them in March and April. Upon arrival in Denver, Phoenix is 0-12, five losses short of Miami's all-time record for early-season futility. Forty minutes before the game, the Suns' brand-new coach, young Danny Ainge, is asking a group of chattery kids at courtside if anybody knows a joke. One twelve-year-old wiseguy snickers behind his hand and waggles a grubby little finger in Ainge's direction.

Late in the second quarter, the 4-9 Nuggets and the 0-12 Suns are tied up 44-all, which stirs a few of the 9,226 fans the management alleges to be in the house to sudden speculation. "Hey, Jimmy," a young woman says. "Looks like Rocky has shrunk. Whaddya think? Has he shrunk?"

Indeed, the Nuggets' irrepressible mountain-lion mascot, with his fat red clown sneakers and a golden lightning bolt shooting out of his butt, does look smaller than he did last year. But this could be perceptual: The Nuggets, who rank 28th in NBA attendance, have a lock on fourth place in the hearts of Denver's pro sports fans, so even their mascot may have diminished in our eyes. In any event, during a time-out, he badly misses all three of his high-arching, half-court free-throw attempts. Very suspicious.

If that is a new cat wearing Rocky's duds, he's right in step with the rest of the club. On Commissar Bernie Bickerstaff's seven-year watch, top draft choices Mark Macon, Rodney Rogers and Jalen Rose have all failed and departed; the emaciated point guard who wouldn't stand for the anthem, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, is in sunny Sacramento; and seven-foot center Dikembe Mutombo--a scorer at heart if not in fact--has slipped off to Atlanta without the hapless Nuggs getting a penny for him. The strangers wearing the white shirts out there tonight are an uncertain mix of aging mediocrity and youthful bewilderment mixed in with a lot of bad knees and aching backs.

Some among the mythical 9,226 can tell you this: The team's leading scorer is Dale Ellis, age 36, now winding down with his fifth NBA team.

The Nuggets--who've been to the playoffs just once in the Nineties--are also working on their sixth head coach in seven years. Doug Moe is on the radio, Paul Westhead's back in college, Dan Issel's raising thoroughbreds in Kentucky, and Gene Littles is back in his assistant's suit, where he always wanted to be. After a humiliating 105-65 loss to Portland, Bickerstaff finally fired himself last week as coach, while retaining roles as president, general manager, house philosopher and, for all anyone knows, driver of the team bus. The misery of coaching a team going nowhere now falls to Dick Motta, whom old pal Bickerstaff hired as an assistant in July.

Motta has 24 years' head-coaching experience, a world championship (Washington Bullets: 1978) and the league's most active sense of humor on his resume. He's got more wins--918--than any coach but Lenny Wilkens and Red Auerbach, and more losses--965--than all but the millennial Bill Fitch. But none of that is likely to help Motta do a job not even Danny Ainge would covet. At the grim, edge-of-doom press conference where King Bernie yielded the wheelhouse of the Titanic to Motta, the latter memorably announced: "The ox is in the mire."

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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