Before Denver fell for the Nuggets -- the original Nuggets of 1939, that is -- fans loved the Pigs. The nickname was short for the Piggly Wigglys, one of the powerful, corporately sponsored teams that played in the prime of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).
For a few decades, Denver was a center of the basketball universe, hosting the annual AAU men's basketball championship on a court set up on the stage at the Auditorium Theatre. Admittedly, that universe revolved around a whiter and slower brand of ball: Denver won one championship game in the '30s by scoring a grand total of 27 points.
"There couldn't be a bigger contrast between the NBA today and then," says Dolph Grundman, a Metro State history professor and author of The Golden Age of Amateur Basketball: The AAU Tournament, 1921-1968.
Grundman became interested in AAU basketball while teaching a class on the history of sports. Poring over local news accounts, he discovered that not only was the AAU tourney the first national basketball showdown, but for a while it eclipsed both the NCAA and NIT championships. The Mile High City's home team was led by two stars: a transplanted Oklahoman dubbed "Jumping" Jack McCracken and the then-towering, six-foot-seven "Ace" Gruenig. "To the people of Denver, they were like Mantle and Maris, always mentioned together," Grundman says. Both held day jobs, then patrolled the hard courts at night. They eventually wound up in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
As Denver's squad battled other corporately funded powers -- notably, the Phillips Petroleum five from Oklahoma and Caterpillar's Peoria-based workers -- rivalries grew, and players attained a measure of fame, if not fortune. The AAU teams funneled players to Olympic teams for years. Eventually, however, the increasing salaries of the NBA undermined the corporate hoopsters; in the 1960s the tournament dimmed, then finally fizzled out altogether.
Still, Grundman believes that the AAU era is worth celebrating. After all, teams such as the Pigs -- which became the Ambrose Jellymakers, among other things -- helped energize Denver's nascent sports scene.
Grundman will sign copies of his book at 1 p.m. today at the LoDo Tattered Cover, 1628 16th Street; call 303-436 1070 for details. -- Ernie Tucker
Hoops, There It Was
The Ol' School Reunion offers an All-Star alternative.
The NBA All-Star Game is expected to draw hard-core rappers and their diamond-studded entourages, but many pearls of peach-basket culture can only be found at the ABA Ol' School Reunion Party: Afros, kneesocks and tri-color balls, to name a few.
Produced by ex-Nugget Fatty Taylor, Ol' School festivities tip off tonight at 9 p.m. at Invesco Field, giving fans of the defunct American Basketball Association -- which closed in 1976, after nine seasons -- the opportunity to rub elbows with such greats as Dr. J, George "the Iceman" Gervin, Moses Malone and former Denver star Ralph Simpson.
The last reunion was in Indiana in 1997. This year's version features highlight reels of the funkiest league on hardwood and enough music, refreshments and prizes to last until the final buzzer at 2 a.m. -- or until the management of Invesco's United Lounge ejects all revelers from play.