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DON'T GET YOUR HOOPS UP

Now that the National Basketball Association season is about to tip off, local connoisseurs are cautioning Denver Nuggets fans not to get their hopes up.

That shocking upset of the powerful Seattle Supersonics in the playoffs last spring, the pundits reason, was not only a sign that the young Nuggets are coming of age. It was also a clear signal to the rest of the league that they'd better not show up for Denver games on Nembutal: If they do, Mount Mutombo, the Pack Man and the Fonz will put a spanking on them.

Just ask Karl Malone and the ill-named Utah Jazz. In their second-round battle with Denver, the Jazz came within a brick or two of watching the rest of the show on the big screen at the Mormon Tabernacle. While their owner, journeyman cruiserweight Larry Miller, tried to strangle coach Jerry Sloan with his bare hands.

Yes, the word is out: Paul Westhead is gone. The Nuggs won't sneak up on anybody this season. They don't get back to Seattle until January 24, but when they do, expect Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's bed to be short-sheeted and Reggie Williams's salmon to be laced with poison. Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton will probably plant a glove with Nicole Brown Simpson's blood all over it in Dan Issel's suitcase.

So don't get your hopes up.
Despite the additions of number-thirteen draft pick Jalen Rose (late of Michigan's Fab Five), ex-San Antonio sharpshooter Dale Ellis and free agent Cliff Levingston. Despite a core of developing stars who are a year older, wiser and more playoff-toughened.

Come to think of it, inflated expectations have been the bane of the entire year in professional sports. For one thing, baseball fans had the gall to presume there would be a World Series this October. How foolish of them. For another, devotees of Denver's NFL franchise actually expected their heroes to win a game at Mile High Stadium this autumn. Ridiculous. Talk about shooting for the moon.As you know, until Sunday, the only place Your Broncos had scored a "W" was in--well--good old, user-friendly Seattle. And they needed five Seadork turnovers to do it.

So don't get your hopes up about the Nuggets.
As long as Rodney Rogers gets to McNichols Arena every night without Tonya Harding blindsiding him in the alley, we should be happy. The team failed to re-sign backup center/power forward Brian Williams, but so what. At least he didn't turn out to be the guy chasing Governor Roy in that red Chevy. Besides, top draft pick Glenn Robinson might become available if Milwaukee can't get his name on the dotted line. What the Big Dog wants from the Milwaukee Bucks is all the bucks in Milwaukee--about a hundred million of them, at last report--and, probably, the Miller brewery.

Why not sign him up here and give him Denver International Airport?
While we're busy putting on our hair shirts and toning down our dreams, this is also time to get ready for the Year of the Altar Boy in the NBA.

When New York's Derek Harper and the Bulls' Pete Meyers duked it out in the playoffs last spring in front of the NBA's astonished commissioner, David Stern, and a national television audience, Stern and the league's Competition and Rules Committee quickly decided that enough was enough. An increasingly physical game's old gentlemanly manners are now to be restored.

You won't find peach baskets at either end of the court this year, and Bob Cousy won't be lofting set shots from the top of the key while his opponents stare at their Keds. But there will be no unfettered hand-checking. There will be no touching--above or below the waist. And the pro game's most highly developed secondary skill--trash-talking--will bring quick rebukes and fines in 1994-95.

"Pardon me, Mr. O'Neal. Would you mind awfully much stepping aside while I attempt this layup?" That's the kind of thing we'll hear this year on the hardwood. And: "Sporting of you, Barkley, old chap. Lovely to be back here in Phoenix. Care for a spot of tea once the contest is decided?"

The New York Knicks, to mention just one team, cannot be pleased by the news. They will be asked to check their guns and knives at the door to Madison Square Garden this year. As for the aforementioned Seattle Supersonics, who are hooked on phonics, they will have to quell their big-mouth act if they don't want to wind up on welfare. I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to hearing center Bill Cartwright address Bryant Stith as though they were both in the receiving line at Buckingham Palace.

Meanwhile, Mount Mutombo might lose a few feet of altitude. Last season the Nuggets center emerged not only as a man who literally dreamed of winning but as one of the NBA's most fearsome defensive threats. He blocked more shots than Bonnie and Clyde, and he rebounded with the best in the game. He did it with a pair of hands as busy as a horny drunk's at a Christmas party--and with his copyrighted taunts. Dikembe is the only man in the league who can say "Get that weak shit outta here" in seven languages, but he long ago adopted an English Only policy out there.

By the end of this season, the big guy could be begging nickels on Federal Boulevard--if Stern and the officials mean what they say about taunting, trash-talk and fining violators to the max.

So don't get your hopes up about the Nuggets.
Because the only things they'll bring to war this season are the most savvy general manager in the game, Bernie Bickerstaff; a coach, Dan Issel, who's grown gracefully into his job despite some moments of dark self-doubt last season; and a collection of players who have learned how to win.

Abdul-Rauf, a pure shooter and the league's undisputed master of free throws, won't have to be the team's chief operating officer this year: Sharp-passing rookie Rose and tireless fireball Robert Pack can split time doing that while Mahmoud becomes the NBA's best sixth man. Don't let it get around the shootaround, but they've also moved the three-point line in this year. Mahmoud won't mind a bit. Neither will new Nugget Dale Ellis, who has drained 1,013 three-pointers in his time, the NBA career record.

Bryant Stith, who can play guard and forward, was the team's fourth-leading scorer in his second season and equaled Mutombo in playing time at 34.8 minutes per game. He also grew up in a hurry, and in Game Five of the Utah playoff series his potential burst into full flower: Playing 50 minutes, scoring 22 points and sinking all 14 of his free throws, Stith announced his arrival.

So did LaPhonso Ellis, whose fractured kneecap is an early worry this year but whose brilliant passing and surprisingly accurate outside shooting earned him the starting power forward spot. If the connoisseurs are right--and they sometimes are--the ex-Notre Dame star is about to become one of the league's finest players and a solid team leader.

The Nuggets went 42-40 last year, stunned Seattle in the playoffs and moved up several notches on the NBA's prestige ladder. This year the team has been significantly strengthened--in mind and body.

But don't get your hopes up. Not if they let John Elway into the place again.

Word now comes from beautiful downtown Eagan, Minnesota, that a company called Pro Insignia Inc. has just produced 500 baseball bats.

Actually, they are all traditional, wooden Louisville Sluggers, which are made in Louisville. What the folks in Eagan are doing is laser-engraving the barrel of each bat with a commemoration of Mile High Stadium's passage into oblivion as a baseball venue. The Colorado Rockies logo is on there, along with the, uh, Major League Baseball logo, a line about Mile High's Opening Day attendance record (80,227), the 1993 season attendance record (4,483,350) and a couple of other items.

In fact, just about the only thing not engraved on the limited-edition bat, which sells for $49.95, is a picture of Bud Selig, the so-called "acting baseball commissioner," or one of Rockies owner Jerry McMorris, who has raised ticket prices precipitously for 1995.

These oversights could easily be compensated, however. As soon as all 500 $49.95 bats are gobbled up by enthusiastic collectors, they should immediately be used to bop Mr. Selig and Mr. McMorris atop the head.


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