Meanwhile, the man who owns the worst team in basketball says he's serious about winning. Winning games and hearts. For now, that means Charlie Lyons will let the rest of us watch the players pant and sweat through long-overdue practice sessions if we like, and after the needs of Nuggets season-ticket holders (both of them) are served, the doors will be thrown open for that free exhibition game. Otherwise, in the frantic weeks ahead, new Nuggets general manager Dan Issel, an icon in these parts, might lose popular star LaPhonso Ellis as he battles to sign some reasonably useful free agents--perhaps wayward ex-Nugget Antonio McDyess, perhaps Minnesota forward Tom Gugliotta. Who knows? Latrell Sprewell, the Oakland Strangler, is still with Golden State. But that club is looking to trade.

What was it the man said about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Might as well set them up in Big Mac, where the floorboards are a little drier--for now.

In the immediate aftermath of last week's settlement, David Stern wanted to appear conciliatory. "It's our time to get back together," he told a divided New York gathering of almost half the league's players. "We're all part of the same family."

Fine. But there are families and there are families--consider the Borgias, or the Corleones--and Stern is unlikely to ever again be regarded as the visionary patriarch who reclaimed the NBA from the ashes and turned it into a global darling. In the wake of the lockout, he is now likely to be regarded by players and their agents as half tyrant, half owners' lackey. A hero no more, he's the Bud Selig of hoops.

If the players had held their ground and stood up to him for one more day last week, would he really have canceled the season? Would he have pressed ahead with those replacement-player plans?

"You didn't pay to find out," Stern answered. The big question now is whether fallen-away fans, especially in troubled markets like Denver, will pay to find out if they still care.

If John Elway and his mates have anything to say about it, that fish fry the Broncos threw Saturday afternoon in Mile High Stadium was only the beginning of the post-season feast. The next courses, they trust, will include seared Tuna and scallopini Testaverde, with appropriate whines selected from the best-stocked cellar in New York.

But as the scalpers working the parking lot last Saturday can tell you, the Jets bear little resemblance to the Miami Dolphins: The price of winning football just quadrupled.

Weary, banged-up and lacking an authentic deep threat in the receiving corps, Dan Marino's offense mustered nothing here Saturday, and the 38-3 final score was a virtual mercy killing. Could have been 52-3. "We got our butts kicked," Dolphins wideout O.J. McDuffie acknowledged. "But good."

The long-suffering J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets! were a 1-15 team just two seasons back, and they haven't been to the Super Bowl since Nixon was working his brand of chicanery in the Oval Office. But explosive coach Bill Parcells--the Tuna--revived them, and he has a way of getting resuscitated teams straight to the big one. Believe it: The Jets like to eat well, too, but horsemeat would suit them just fine Sunday afternoon.

Can you imagine a more appealing scenario? John Elway's last game at Mile High--maybe his last game ever. The visiting Jets, long denied a taste of glory, riding a seven-game winning streak. The Queen City of the Plains versus The Big Apple. Keshawn versus Shannon. Shanahan against Parcells. Terrell Davis versus old pal Curtis Martin. East meets West.

When sunset falls on a thriller: Broncos 27, Jets 24. And dinner reservations in Miami.

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