Reduced to Dribbling

How bad have things gotten for the Denver Nuggets?
Well, the loudest cheer at any Nuggets home game in the last two miserable seasons, one bemused fan reports, erupted the time Rocky the Mascot, the red-sneakered mountain lion with the jagged lightning bolt shooting from his butt, yanked spectator John Elway out of his front-row seat at McNichols Sports Arena and convinced the famous quarterback to zing passes to him using a little blue sponge football.

How dismal have things grown for a Nuggets franchise that just four years ago upset Shawn Kemp and the mighty Seattle Sonics in the first round of the NBA playoffs?

Last Tuesday, an hour before the club suffered its seventeenth straight loss, this one at the hands of the Orlando Magic, a perky member of the Nuggets Dance Team spent fifteen minutes on the telephone trying to give her game tickets away to a friend. Any friend. Or an acquaintance. An ex-boyfriend. Anybody. Eleven phone calls. No luck.

How low have spirits dropped in the darkened rafters of Big Mac, where The Few, The Loud and The Mean all understand that the Nuggets won't win ten games this year?

In the second quarter of last week's Denver-Orlando contest, the voice of a lone vendor rang out in the wilderness that was the loge. "Second call for junk food!" he shouted. "Don't make it the last!" There was a pause, a philosophical silence, before the vendor went on. "Lack of cooperation could get you cut off!" Another long pause while he stood there, mortally alone, then: "This is not looking good!"

Absolutely correct. This is not looking good. At this writing, the Denver Nuggets have won two games and lost 35, a pace of ineptitude that, if it continues, will brand Denver's none-too-professional basketball team as the worst of all time. The record-holding Philadelphia 76ers of 1972-73 won only nine of their 82 games, despite a shocking five-out-of-seven surge in mid-February. At their present rate, the Nuggets will win five games all year.

Is there hope for improvement? Probably not. The team's fatal combination of green rookies--five of them, the most in any club--and modestly talented, oft-injured veterans makes the Nuggets easy pickings. For everyone. Even for wretched clubs like the Dallas Mavericks, who halted a fifteen-game losing streak of their own on January 6 with a 108-90 win over Denver. Even for the 7-29 Golden State Warriors, who notched consecutive victories against the Nuggets December 23 and 26--despite having just kicked designated coach-choker and leading scorer Latrell Sprewell into the night.

That's not all. Because the Nuggets are the laughingstock of the league, no team dares lose to them. By reverse psychology, opponents imagine they're playing the Chicago Bulls.

This is not looking good. Certainly not by history's standard.
In 1990-91, a run-and-gun Nuggets team coached by Paul Westhead and "led" by Orlando Woolridge gave up 131 points per game to opponents and won just twenty times--a record of futility the organization trusted would never be approached again. It won't be--not this year. Because in 1997-98, twenty wins is an impossible dream.

The guy hawking the Cracker Jack and the candy bars upstairs would be delighted with twenty wins, because somebody, anybody, maybe even the Dance Teamer's ex-boyfriend and his date, might be buying a snack. Rookie head coach Bill Hanzlik, a likable ex-Nugget with one healthy NBA-caliber player on his roster--LaPhonso Ellis--and few apparent coaching skills would be delighted to win twenty games. That would be relative success. That would be something to shoot for.

As it is, Hanzlik will be reduced--right up to the moment he breaks the Philadelphia 76ers' ignoble season-loss record and is fired--to smiling bravely and repeating the party line. "We have to keep working," the poor devil says after every failure. "We have to keep preparing, working hard and getting better." Quoth the somber plaque mounted in the Nuggets' funereal dressing room: "The Will to Win Is Worthless If You Don't Have the Will to Prepare."

That's fine. Lovely sentiment. But who wouldn't start misreading the thing at this point? Who can't help seeing "Prepare to Feel Worthless If You Can't Win"? At least Paul Westhead, in the slough of despond, had the wit to quote Shake-speare and T.S. Eliot. Gave up 130 a game, maybe, but knew his Hamlet.

How desperate has it gotten for the current Nuggets?
While the Broncos, Avalanche and Rockies boast long-term sellout strings unheard of this side of a Jane's Addiction tour, the Nuggets have the third-worst home attendance in the NBA. Some longtime season-ticket holders won't even come to the games anymore. At all. And they don't want their names in the paper.

Take Mr. and Mrs. X, pleasant retired people who've been sitting in the first row of the loge, behind the visitors' bench, since the Nuggets were born. Before that, they trundled down to the old Auditorium Arena to cheer on the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association.

"No," Mrs. X answers firmly. "We don't go anymore. Sometimes we give the tickets away--but this year no one wants them. They say: 'We have something else to do that night.' I tell you, it's very discouraging. Ever since [former coaches] Larry Brown and Doug Moe, things have gone downhill. There's poor organization at the top level. The general manager [Allan Bristow] and the head coach are rookies, and so are the players."

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