Watching the Losers

How Jerry Schemmel stays on an even keel despite broadcasting for the Nuggets.

It's February 26, and the Denver Nuggets are preparing to play what is arguably their most important game of the year. The 2000-2001 campaign had started out promisingly, with the Nuggets running their record to eight games over .500 by late January -- heady territory for a team that the NBA's laughingstocks have been laughing at for most of the '90s. But just when its first post-season berth in years looked like a possibility, not a hallucination, the squad went to hell as fast as the players' oversized legs could carry them. Suddenly the Nugs have 29 wins and 28 losses, and if they can't overcome a talented but beatable Orlando Magic lineup tonight at the Pepsi Center, they can forget about doing anything after the regular season ends other than airing out their sneakers until next fall.

For Jerry Schemmel, who does play-by-play for the Nuggets on 950-AM/The Fan, the scenario is all too familiar. He's held this job since 1992, and with the exception of 1994, when eighth-seeded Denver bounced the top-ranked Seattle SuperSonics from the playoffs (and nearly did the same shortly thereafter to the vaunted Utah Jazz), the crew he covers hasn't given him many happy moments. He's seen his guys fold, choke, collapse, nosedive, tank and/or crumble countless times, and from frighteningly close proximity; his seat along press row at the Pepsi Center is about two yards from the Nuggets bench. It makes perfect sense, then, that he has difficulty shaking off some of the more vivid defeats. "It hurts sometimes," he concedes. "The game with Utah earlier this year where the Nuggets lost by calling a time-out they didn't have -- that one stuck with me for two or three days."

Nevertheless, what's perhaps most notable about Schemmel on the air is how well he handles the few ups and many downs associated with a struggling pro-sports franchise. A South Dakota native whose first big-time gig was as TV frontman for the woeful 1990-92 Minnesota Timberwolves (it proved to be good training), he doesn't get too keyed up during those rare stretches when the Nuggets exceed expectations, nor does he plummet into the depths of depression when they find new and exciting ways to debase themselves on the hardwood. He's probably the main reason that the vast majority of longtime Nuggets supporters -- a term that may someday replace the word "masochists" -- haven't flung themselves from the roof of the nearest skyscraper.

It's just a game: Radio play-by-play man  Jerry Schemmel.
John Johnston
It's just a game: Radio play-by-play man Jerry Schemmel.

The explanation most often given for this ability revolves around the most horrific incident of Schemmel's life. In 1989, when he was deputy commissioner and legal representative for the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association, he survived the 1989 crash of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa -- a calamity that claimed 112 lives, including that of CBA commissioner Jay Ramsdell, one of his best friends in the world. (Schemmel's son, who's coming up on his second birthday, is named for Ramsdell.) His actions after the crash were nothing short of heroic: After escaping through a fissure in the fuselage, he climbed back into the plane to rescue a baby, Sabrina Michaelson, who almost certainly would have perished without his assistance. (He found the child in an overhead luggage compartment.) But he couldn't do anything to help others who'd been seated near him. "The two people on my left both died," Schemmel says. "There was a one-year-old boy in front of me with his mom; she lived, he died. The woman across the aisle from me and the person next to her died. There was a circle of people around me who didn't make it."

In learning how to cope with an understandably severe case of survivor's guilt, Schemmel embraced Christianity (the story is recounted in his 1996 book, Chosen to Live, co-written with the Denver Post's Kevin Simpson) and began speaking publicly about his experiences. "I do about fifty talks a year," he says -- and whenever anyone asks him how he keeps the Nuggets' persistent mediocrity in perspective, he brings up Sioux City. "Since then, my spiritual convictions have been my number-one priority," he says, "and whether the Nuggets win is way down the list. I'm a big fan, and I want them to win. But if they don't, it's not that big a deal."

At the same time, Schemmel agrees that the death of more than a hundred people in an Iowa cornfield is so out of proportion with coming up short in basketball that there's really no comparing them, and he doesn't -- especially when he's at the microphone, where he's got plenty of other things to worry about. Schemmel is an employee of the Nuggets, and because he travels with the team, he has grown close to a number of players and staffers, including embattled coach Dan Issel. Yet when the team is going south, he can't gloss over their shortcomings without exhibiting a fatal lack of credibility. "It's a balancing act that gets kind of difficult," he admits, "which is why I just try to stick to the facts. The Nuggets are a bad defensive team, the worst in the NBA in terms of giving up points. But you don't have to say they stink. All you have to say is, 'Look at the numbers. They're the worst in the league at this, and they have to get better.'"

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