There Oughtta Be a Thaw

After an ice age of drafts, the Nuggets seek a warm body.

If we can believe Carmelo Anthony, a nineteen-year-old college dropout with some fancy ideas in his head, the Denver Nuggets are about to achieve greatness. This will happen soon after he, Carmelo Anthony, laces up his sneakers and becomes a Nugget. In fact, Carmelo believes he -- not some overhyped high school kid in Ohio decorated with a $90 million shoe contract -- should be chosen first in the NBA draft. To hear Carmelo tell it, the Nuggets have no idea what a brilliant piece of talent they're getting with the third pick.

Oh, the young man allows that he might need a bit of help. As long as Nuggets management signs free agent Gilbert Arenas away from the Golden State Warriors and convinces frazzled veteran Juwan Howard to stick around, and Nene Hilario and Rodney White continue to improve their play, everything will be fine. He, Carmelo Anthony, will make it so. In fact, you can start printing those playoff tickets right now. In next year's Western Conference wars, neither the San Antonio Spurs nor those washed-up has-beens, the Los Angeles Lakers, will stand a chance in the face of the newly invigorated Nuggets juggernaut.

"I'm happy that Denver is going to pick me," Anthony told reporters covering the league's pre-draft camp in Chicago last week. It is worth noting that the camp was held at something called the Moody Bible Institute. Where the Nuggets are concerned, it doesn't hurt that the Almighty's keeping an eye on the building. It might collapse at any moment.

It is evident that, in his lone year of study at Syracuse University, Anthony didn't learn much about the disturbed history of the Denver Nuggets. About their bad luck. About the godawful players they've drafted over the years. About the good players they've ruined, or the ones who've failed to develop. About the excellent players they've let slip away. About their unhappy succession of coaches and the shadiness of past owners. Carmelo Anthony doesn't know anything yet about the fans' long-term dismay and the franchise's deep-down despair. He is happy that the Nuggets are going to pick him. Yes, and the Iraqi army was happy that the Bush administration picked it a couple of months back.

Hey. 'Melo. We know it's cold in Syracuse in February, but that's no excuse for a brain-freeze in June. Should the Nuggets take you in next Thursday's draft -- and it looks like they will -- there are a couple of things you may want to know about the team you're joining. Here's a clue: This year, Denver's new arena-football team sold almost three times as many season tickets as the Nuggets did. Indoor football! Trash sport!

The Nuggets are not just a team with problems; they're a major embarrassment -- like that ill-mannered cousin from the sticks who gets roaring drunk at a family wedding and plows into the gift table. Listen, Carmelo: The best player in the history of this franchise later became the coach -- in fact, he became the coach twice-- before getting thrown out on his ass for hurling a racial slur at a heckler after a tough loss. It's a club that's never won a championship, hasn't been to the playoffs in eight years and couldn't beat a decent college team on the road. The Nuggets, who won seventeen games and lost 65 in the season just mercifully concluded, are a laughingstock far and wide. In a recent episode of The Simpsons, for instance, a Frankenstein monster stumbling around a basketball court explained his ineptitude this way: "Me made of Denver Nuggets corpses."

There have been moments, few and far between, when the Nuggets earned a little respect. Upon graduating to the NBA in 1976 from the defunct American Basketball Association, Denver promptly strung together three winning seasons, led the league in attendance and produced major stars in high-flying, coke-snorting David Thompson and dogged Dan Issel, who later stuck his foot in his mouth as the head coach. In the '80s, intrepid leader Doug Moe delighted the multitudes with his bon mots-- he once endorsed cafeteria dining by asking: "Where else can you inspect your entree before ordering?" -- and the gritty play of Alex English, Calvin Natt and Fat Lever. In the spring of 1994, the Issel-coached Nugs sneaked into the playoffs with a lukewarm 42-40 record, then pulled off one of the greatest upsets in post-season history by knocking off the top-seeded Seattle Supersonics.

The famous shots of Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo (the team's best-ever draft choice) writhing on the floor in delighted disbelief capture one of the greatest moments in Denver sports history.

Alas, the Nuggets haven't managed a winning season since then. And if you know what's good for you, Carmelo, you'll take a close look at the team's recent first-round draft choices, including such supposedly blue-chip lottery picks as Tony Battie and Raef LaFrentz.

While going through coaches like fat men through a buffet line, the Nuggets teams of the mid- to late '90s let Mutombo slip away to Atlanta (the Big Fellow's still at it, blocking shots now for the Eastern Conference champion Nets), watched helplessly as potential NBA greats like LaPhonso Ellis and Antonio McDyess broke down with injuries and guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem. Meanwhile, a series of awful draft picks made the always-troubled front office look like Stevie Wonder on acid. Frank Williams, oh, where have you gone? Has anyone asked Tyronn Lue how things are going down at the feed mill? And you -- Efthimios Rentzias. Bring another bottle of retsina to the table, and make it snappy.

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