High Hopes

The Nuggets have finally begun to warm up the faithful.

They aren't hanging any championship banners over Chopper Circle just yet. But Denver Nuggets fans are taking the brown paper bags off their heads in record numbers, and their families have cut back on those worried phone calls to the shrink. Hope, hoops and hooplah have returned to lift high the faithful.

Witness Terry Blankenship, an electrical engineer from Littleton, who doggedly trudged into McNichols Arena and the Pepsi Center on hundreds of nights through all the dismal years since 1995 -- despite his co-workers' quizzical looks and the rude jokes of old basketball buddies back in L.A., the Land of Shaq and Kobe. Just before the tipoff at last week's Nuggets-Toronto Raptors game, Blankenship wore a wry little smile. "This is great," he said. "We've been waiting so long. Now here's a team we can be proud of. No more going out to get the car at the beginning of the fourth quarter because the game is gone. No more doormat. Just look around."

Blankenship was looking at another sellout house, another sea of baby-blue-and-white souvenir jerseys (first season for the new color scheme, wouldn't you know?) , another vista of glowing fan faces. What he was feeling was the rare throb of anticipation in the air. "This is a completely different experience," he said. "I really do believe the Nuggets are going to the playoffs."

Uttered a year ago -- or the year before that, or in 1998 -- such a statement would qualify as madness, akin to claiming that monkeys can fly or that Germans make great lasagna. For almost a decade, the Nuggets have been one of the NBA's worst teams, and in 2002-03, punchless Denver finished 17-65 (only the second-worst record in team annals) and averaged 84.2 points per game -- the fewest in league history. They had losing streaks of seven, ten and, yes, fourteen games. But the new Nuggets -- which is to say, a vastly renovated collection of players who actually belong in the National Basketball Association -- has dispelled the old glooms, rendered moot many of the old questions and loaded the fan bandwagon with herds of new recruits. Season-ticket sales jumped by 1,000 the minute the team took the dazzling nineteen-year-old rookie forward, Carmelo Anthony, as the number-three NBA draft pick, and good seats are now as hard to come by as Glenfiddich in rural Utah. The record speaks for itself. By January 6, the Nuggets had already won twenty games and lost only fifteen -- something that hadn't happened since 1977, when legends Dan Issel and David Thompson were suited up in those gaudy jerseys with the jagged mountain peaks on the front. That alarming one-four swoonette they experienced recently probably doesn't indicate much.

If they're not careful, the lordly Colorado Avs, winners of two Stanley Cups, might become the "other guys" who lace 'em up in Stan Kroenke's fancy new playpen on Auraria Parkway. Still, even ecstatics like Blankenship and his pal Charlie Jenda, who calls the team "a fabulous surprise," must bank their fires a little. "We won't knock off the Lakers or the Spurs this season," Jenda said. "But you wait. Good things will happen."

The co-authors of those good things, regarded only months ago as crude hacks, are general manager Kiki Vandeweghe and head coach Jeff Bzdelik. What they enacted in the off-season is politely called a "housecleaning" but is more accurately termed a "purge." Only six players remain from last season's roster, and only two of the survivors -- the oft-injured center Marcus Camby and Brazilian work-in-progress Nene (who dropped his last name, Hilario) -- get much playing time. This year, the Nuggets' three top scorers are all newcomers: the ex-Syracuse sensation Anthony and the reborn guards Voshon Lenard (a former Toronto Raptor) and Andre Miller (who spent a year in purgatory with the L.A. Clippers). It speaks volumes about the revolution in Nuggetville that last year's top scorer, Juwan Howard, is now mired in misery at 8-26 Orlando and that two of last year's guards have sunk into well-deserved oblivion: Junior Harrington is shooting hoops in Ukraine, and Vincent Yarbrough is in Greece.

Meanwhile, Kiki and Buzz (every Nugget gets a cozy nickname these days) are preaching full-throttle hard work, unwavering pride of purpose and withering speed designed to exhaust every opponent, every night. "We get after people," Bzdelik says. "We get out and run, we defend, we rebound well. We play a style the fans can embrace, and we work our butts off every night to show we're worthy of their respect."

You needn't look very far (or very high) for this team's most vivid symbol. 'Melo may be the rock on which the Nuggets are built, and the promise of their future, but reserve guard Earl Boykins, late of the Golden State Warriors, is their heart and soul -- the tireless, five-foot-five spark plug who personifies the Bzdelik work ethic and the team's new hard-charging dynamism. "We don't have the best players in the league," Bzdelik says. "So we have to go all out every night. We give effort. Endless, relentless effort."

Coach Buzz's own efforts are not going unnoticed among his peers. Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy praises Bzdelik's performance last year, when his hopeless collection of green rookies and none-too-talented veterans often stayed in games to the end and started giving credence to his uncompromising system of play. Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, who was a TV analyst for the Miami Heat in the late '90s, when Bzdelik was an assistant coach there, also saw a turnaround in the making last season -- and a radical change of attitude. Now that the roster has been dramatically upgraded, Ramsay's only mildly surprised at the Nuggets' early success.

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