Walk into any local saloon or opium den this week and you're sure to run into the guy. The guy who's been there from the beginning. The guy who's been there from the beginning and never lost hope. The guy who never lost hope and always kept his season tickets -- even when his wife left him for a car salesman, the dog died of neglect and the doctor prescribed those funny-looking yellow pills.
Ladies and gentlemen, your real, live, authentic Denver Nuggets fan.
Once thought to be extinct, this peculiar species recently staged a dramatic comeback that has baffled scientists all the way from Northglenn to Littleton -- not to mention scores of frazzled concessionaires struggling with a suddenly overwhelming demand for mini-pizzas at the Pepsi Center. The species is represented by the wild-eyed guy on the bar stool next to yours who's wearing a moth-ravaged, pizza-stained Byron Beck jersey and a blissed-out grin. This is the guy who won't shut up. Even if you tell him that you hate sports and crave nothing more on this night than a nice cup of hot cocoa at home and a dozen heady quatrains from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Undeterred, he waves his schooner of Bud in your face and tells you about having lunch with Donnie Walsh back in '79, chronicles the lowlights of that 23-game losing streak amid the Hanzlik disaster, then segues into the night David Thompson poured 73 points through the hoop against the Pistons.
"Game was in Detroit, of course," the guy says. "But I was there. Saw it with my own eyes: April 9, 1978."
He was there, all right. He was also there the night Fat Lever had ten steals against the Pacers and the night Dan Issel went ballistic on the Chicano and the time Paul Westhead flipped out and started quoting from King Lear. He was there back in 1984 when the Nuggets put 163 points up on the Spurs. He's absorbed Alex English's love poetry and helped Doug Moe select his wardrobe, and he once chased down Calvin Natt in the McNichols Arena parking lot to beg an autograph (for his little nephew, of course). He remembers the Memphis Tams, the Pittsburgh Condors and the Minnesota Muskies of the old ABA. When Marcus Liberty was a Nugget, he once sent drinks over to the entire table.
"Been there from the beginning," he's here to tell you. "So this is great."
Truth be told, it's probably high time to give the guy a break. He may be a fictioneer -- you know, an outright liar -- but if he's done a quarter of the things he says he's done ("I was there when Dikembe collapsed on the floor after beating the Sonics!"), he qualifies as the real thing, an honest-to-goodness Nuggets fan who never wavered even when he could hear the toilets flushing in the men's room in the middle of the third quarter. Old or new, real or fake, foul-weather or fair, every Nuggets fan is as precious as gold these days to a long-perturbed franchise that, before this spring, had not contested a playoff game in nine years and hadn't won one in a decade.
In their first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Nuggets appear a bit baffled and overwhelmed. But that's not the point, is it? Not now. Not this year. Because things are getting better. For the first time since Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf scorned the national anthem, Denver's NBA franchise is something more than a rumor, and its players are more than those dopey guys in sneakers who share a building with the two-time Stanley Cup champions. In nineteen-year-old Carmelo Anthony, they've got the best teenage player in the league -- LeBron James notwithstanding -- and the solid young veterans general manager Kiki Vandeweghe has surrounded him with bode well for the future. Even Michael Jordan was on hand April 12 when the Nuggets slipped into the eighth (and last) Western Conference playoff slot with a 97-89 home-floor win over the mighty Sacramento Kings. To the amazement of almost everyone else in the NBA, that stopped the Portland Trail Blazers' streak of consecutive playoff appearances at 21 and eliminated the Utah Jazz from the post-season for the first time in twenty years.
Talk about street cred. Last week, Sports Illustrated hoops guru Marty Burns ranked the 43-39 Nuggets as the eleventh-best team in the league. Not bad for a club that won only seventeen games in 2002-03.
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I wasn't there, but I read about it in the papers. The guy who has been there from the beginning was there, of course -- and as long as you don't have a pressing appointment at Grease Monkey and you don't have to be off right this minute to hatha yoga class, why not let him tell you about it? About everything Nugget-mania-related. His briefing paper:
"First of all, there's Melo. Any kid who gets a candy bar named for him five minutes after the NBA draft and then has the cojones to tell the world he doesn't eat chocolate is aces in my book. All the guy does is go out and scores twenty points a game -- a teenager. Talk all you want about LeBron. The rookie of the year is Carmelo Anthony, because he got his team to the playoffs. LeBron's on the couch with a bag of Fritos, watching. As for Jeff Bzdelik, what more can you say about a coach who got his young players to believe, even when there wasn't much to believe in? That was last year, when their only decent scoring threat was Juwan Howard, and three or four other guys on the roster would have had trouble making it in the Czech Republic. This year, it's all starting to come together. Here, lemme get you a beer. Hey! Two Buds over here!
"The idea that Bzdelik might not get hired back next year is ridiculous. Talk about a no-brainer. Canning this guy would be like having Michael Waltrip park cars at Morton's. Complete waste of talent. He's not only helping to sculpt Carmelo, he's given the team an identity. Hard work. Pride. Full-out speed. Tenacious defense. Couple of years ago, when they had soft guys like Raef LaFrentz and whiners like Nick Van Exel -- don't even get me started on Nick Van Exel -- this team had all the heart of a figure skater going in the ring with Mike Tyson. Hey, I go back to Dave Robisch and Wayne Cooper and T.R. Dunn -- guys with a work ethic, for God's sake. Bzdelik has renewed that. Hey, you might say he's even managed to keep Marcus Camby healthy all season. This is a guy who gets hurt tying his shoes, and now he's suddenly as tough as Schwarzenegger in the last reel of The Terminator. Bulletproof. Believe me. I've been there from the beginning. I've seen Popeye Jones and Snapper Jones and Larry Jones and Bobby Jones. This could develop into the best Nuggets team ever. Better than the Issel-English Nuggets. Better than the guys who beat the Sonics in 1994. How's that beer? Here. Have a pretzel.
"And by the way, if Kiki isn't the NBA executive of the year, I'll take the rap for Kobe Bryant. The thing Kiki's done is gotten rid of all the overpriced, overrated, injury-prone players that were holding the team back. So long, Nick. Get outta here, Antonio McDyess. Then he patiently rebuilt from the ground up with good, solid players like Andre Miller and Earl Boykins and Camby. Melo is the key, but then Voshon Lenard has a shooting night, or little Earl starts tormenting the big guys, or Camby stops more shots than Sonny Corleone. No wonder they've had their best season in fourteen years. Are they ready to knock off the Spurs or the Lakers or the Timberwolves? Probably not. But this is one hell of a nucleus for the future, and they've got all that cap room to add a top-of-the-line free agent this summer. Very smart guy, that Kiki. I know, because I've been there from the beginning. Seen it all, good and bad and godawful. By the way, did you know that I've had season tickets for DU hockey since the early '60s? Even thrown the occasional chicken on the ice. Keith Magnuson. There was a player. Jim Wiste. Great. Still has that joint over on University Boulevard. Now, about the Pioneers' national championship. Lemme tell you something, because I've been there from the beginning..."