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.'"

Schemmel's overall style is just as pragmatic; his delivery is clean, streamlined and blessedly free of the forced catchphrases that have been endemic since the rise of ESPN. "I just try to be the eyes of radio listeners," he says, "and I try to be professional, without getting into a lot of editorializing or ripping the team. If the Nuggets are down by 25, I don't see any reason to rub it in, because people know what's happening. I just call the action."

Given the frequent ugliness of said action, it's only natural that those paid to watch and participate in it would form a close bond. As the tipoff between the Nuggets and Orlando nears, Schemmel, dressed in a crisp white dress shirt and tasteful tie, joshes with his executive producer, Jason Kosmicki, who is juggling a laptop computer full of data and his daughter's entire kindergarten class, for which he's lined up a slew of freebie tickets. (Good seats are still available...) Also ensconced in the Fan section of the courtside counter provided for the media is Schemmel buddy Jack Thompson, president of Berger Funds, a powerful Denver mutual fund company, who for the past five years has done stats for home Nuggets broadcasts. Rather than use a computer, Thompson writes everything down in a studiously neat hand. Moments later, after the Nuggets are introduced, assistant coach Louis Dampier high-fives Schemmel, and recently signed center Kevin Willis ambles over to take a cough drop from a bag Schemmel keeps handy in case his throat gets dry. Not that Schemmel minds: After all, Willis recently bought him a new batch.

As the game begins, the Nuggets are blazing, with star forward Antonio McDyess and underachieving center Raef LaFrentz sinking everything they launch skyward, whereas the Magic seemingly can't hit a shot with a rim-seeking missile. But even as the Nuggets get up by sixteen points -- in the first quarter! -- Schemmel remains low-key; when a hoop is made, he eschews clever verbiage ("Straight through the silk!" "Right down the drain!") in favor of "Got it" and "Good." And before long, his decision to temper his enthusiasm looks like fortune-telling. The Nuggets slowly but surely piss away their double-digit lead, ending the first half ahead by just three -- and they emerge from intermission with all the energy of a cryogenically frozen Walt Disney, allowing Orlando sensation Tracy McGrady to score eleven points in four minutes. With time ticking down, the Nuggets, fueled by hyperactive backup guard Robert Pack, make a last-ditch effort to stay alive, but it's not nearly enough. They wind up on the short end of a 93-87 tally, and as veteran scorer George McCloud slams the ball down in disgust, it's abundantly clear to everyone that the season is essentially over, with more than a month left to play.

But Schemmel still has work to do. Even after the 12,000 or so diehards have vacated the Pepsi Center, he's still in his seat, dispassionately dissecting another catastrophe -- and although his words are glum, the sense of calm, strength and sanity he exudes sends the message to his listeners that life will go on. For that, they should be grateful.

Guard that wallet: The Denver Newspaper Agency is currently attempting to prepare the populace for the arrival of combined weekend editions of the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, due April 7 and 8, with full-page Q&As explaining for the umpteenth time the joint operating agreement that made the papers' business merger possible (and legal). Among the questions: "What will happen to advertising and subscription rates?" But the answer provided -- "Advertising and subscription rates will be increased over time. These rates will reflect the size of our audience and the quality of our products" -- probably won't soothe business owners suffering from extreme sticker shock. The DNA has been downplaying the word that rates are headed for the stratosphere, but even the News has been forced to acknowledge the truth. In a March 11 article headlined "Advertisers Feeling Sting of New Rates From Dailies," a representative of Christopher's Dodge World said he's been told that a full-page ad in the News that would have cost him $2,055 pre-JOA will now require him to fork over between $12,000 and $13,000.

That's an approximately sixfold increase -- even higher than numbers reps were pooh-poohing just weeks ago. More significantly, these hikes are arriving just in time for what could turn out to be a sizable economic downturn. Speaking of which...

No, not that kind of stock: DJ Sandy Travis, the cowboy-hat-wearing veteran broadcaster whose tale of being sacked by country giant KYGO-FM was told in this space two weeks ago, still isn't baring his soul to scribes like yours truly, but he is talking to members of his "posse" -- boosters who've signed up for updates on his Web site, sandytravis.com, which was taken down late last week. In a March 11 e-mail, Travis addressed his situation for the first time. "Sorry I haven't gotten back to you about my problems with KYGO, but I've been trying to recover from the shock and reorder my life," he wrote, adding, "I've declined to do interviews with the media. I just hate it when people in my situation indulge in those pity parties. I simply can't afford the energy and time to look back. It's time to move forward."

So what's Travis planning to do for a living now? Trade on Wall Street. "Are you interested in making money in the market?" he asked in that March 11 missive. "I'll gladly share with you my transactions for free. Later on, I'll ask for a small subscription fee, but only after I've proven to you that my system works."

Of course, the market zoomed downward in the days after Travis sent this note: Had he gone into business in October 1929, his timing couldn't have been much worse. But he's not ready to hang up his Stetson yet. "Holy Cow!" he wrote the posse on March 14. "We've never seen anything like this. Hope you had an EXIT STRATEGY in place." In his view, "It's only a paper loss...Just be patient and get ready for big opportunity. I'll let you know."

Thanks for the offer -- but I think I'll stay on the sidelines for a while.

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