Denver says goodbye to its winning ways.

The good news is that the only coach who gave the Nuggs and their beleaguered fans a whiff of the playoffs in the last decade, Dan Issel, is back on the bench this year. Players respect him, Denver fans love him (largely for his record-setting exploits as a player), and he believes he'll get more emotional and financial support for the cause than he got from tightfisted ex-owner Charlie Lyons, of Ascent Entertainment.

The bad news is that Issel may be the best thing the Nuggets have got: Forward Antonio McDyess is the keystone of a troubled club, but general manager/head coach Issel is also committed to point guard Nick Van Exel, late of the Los Angeles Lakers. Moody and mercurial, Van Exel could be the salvation of the team if a few things go right, or its undoing if they don't. The Nuggets center, second-year man Raef LaFrentz, remains unproven, having spent all of last year's strike-shortened season laid up with an injury. The supporting cast is average at best, and Sturm may find himself closing a couple of checking accounts if they don't produce.

Betting on the Horse? This is clearly Issel's last run for the roses.

Patrick Merewether

The Avalanche, transplants from Quebec City who picked up a Stanley Cup their first year in Denver (before a lot of season-ticket folk knew a blue line from a cross-check), haven't been able to reproduce that miracle. After taking out hated Detroit in the playoffs last year, they blew a two-game lead to eventual Cup winner Dallas, and many puckheads think the Avs blew their wad right there.

Bob Hartley's club had two spectacular rookies last year, but the team is aging (Hi, there, Saint Patrick, see you in church) and the loss of ace playmaker Theo Fleury could mean a long year. The Avs' 1-4 pre-season record may not mean much, but they look like a team about ready to slip up big-time. At least that bogus Arab princess didn't pick up their sticks.

Hockey, shmockey. In this town, the blue-chip franchise is still the football team. Always was. Probably always will be. And if the first two games of 1999 are any indication -- anybody doubt it? -- the Broncos have returned to mediocrity with a resounding thud. Number Seven, John Elway, has been installed on the Ring of Fame. Longtime defensive leader Steve Atwater is now banging heads for the New York Jets. And last Sunday the Chiefs knocked linebacker John Mobley out of the picture for the year. Thank God Shannon Sharpe isn't talking to the media anymore: It might be all mutiny and rumor of mutiny.

Three-peat, nothing. After starting 0-2 and being saddled with one of the toughest schedules in the league, these Broncos will be lucky to sneak into the playoff picture by a horsehair. Anyone out there still snickering about that Christmas Day breather against the lowly Detroit Lions? The Barry Sanders-less Lions have beaten the Seahawks and the Packers in their first two, and before the Donks ever get to the Silverdome, they've got to face monsters like Green Bay, Minnesota and Jacksonville, along with ancient enemies like Oakland and New England. It's not a pretty picture, the Broncos' immediate prospects.

Suddenly, Sunday morning's matchup in Tampa Bay looms large.

On the other hand, none of this sports stuff may matter much. This is no longer a self-conscious cowtown on the make, or a hostage of the Eastern banks, or a sagebrush outpost beholden to the ebb and flow of oil prices. This is no longer a city whose self-esteem rises and falls on the strength of a quarterback's arm, or what Philadelphians think of our new airport. So forget the three-peat. Leave 30,000 seats empty at Coors Field. And don't get hot and bothered if the Horse and his Nuggets fail to get out of the gate again. Live without it. Live.

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