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Reduced to Dribbling

How bad have things gotten for the Denver Nuggets?
Well, the loudest cheer at any Nuggets home game in the last two miserable seasons, one bemused fan reports, erupted the time Rocky the Mascot, the red-sneakered mountain lion with the jagged lightning bolt shooting from his butt, yanked spectator John Elway out of his front-row seat at McNichols Sports Arena and convinced the famous quarterback to zing passes to him using a little blue sponge football.

How dismal have things grown for a Nuggets franchise that just four years ago upset Shawn Kemp and the mighty Seattle Sonics in the first round of the NBA playoffs?

Last Tuesday, an hour before the club suffered its seventeenth straight loss, this one at the hands of the Orlando Magic, a perky member of the Nuggets Dance Team spent fifteen minutes on the telephone trying to give her game tickets away to a friend. Any friend. Or an acquaintance. An ex-boyfriend. Anybody. Eleven phone calls. No luck.

How low have spirits dropped in the darkened rafters of Big Mac, where The Few, The Loud and The Mean all understand that the Nuggets won't win ten games this year?

In the second quarter of last week's Denver-Orlando contest, the voice of a lone vendor rang out in the wilderness that was the loge. "Second call for junk food!" he shouted. "Don't make it the last!" There was a pause, a philosophical silence, before the vendor went on. "Lack of cooperation could get you cut off!" Another long pause while he stood there, mortally alone, then: "This is not looking good!"

Absolutely correct. This is not looking good. At this writing, the Denver Nuggets have won two games and lost 35, a pace of ineptitude that, if it continues, will brand Denver's none-too-professional basketball team as the worst of all time. The record-holding Philadelphia 76ers of 1972-73 won only nine of their 82 games, despite a shocking five-out-of-seven surge in mid-February. At their present rate, the Nuggets will win five games all year.

Is there hope for improvement? Probably not. The team's fatal combination of green rookies--five of them, the most in any club--and modestly talented, oft-injured veterans makes the Nuggets easy pickings. For everyone. Even for wretched clubs like the Dallas Mavericks, who halted a fifteen-game losing streak of their own on January 6 with a 108-90 win over Denver. Even for the 7-29 Golden State Warriors, who notched consecutive victories against the Nuggets December 23 and 26--despite having just kicked designated coach-choker and leading scorer Latrell Sprewell into the night.

That's not all. Because the Nuggets are the laughingstock of the league, no team dares lose to them. By reverse psychology, opponents imagine they're playing the Chicago Bulls.

This is not looking good. Certainly not by history's standard.
In 1990-91, a run-and-gun Nuggets team coached by Paul Westhead and "led" by Orlando Woolridge gave up 131 points per game to opponents and won just twenty times--a record of futility the organization trusted would never be approached again. It won't be--not this year. Because in 1997-98, twenty wins is an impossible dream.

The guy hawking the Cracker Jack and the candy bars upstairs would be delighted with twenty wins, because somebody, anybody, maybe even the Dance Teamer's ex-boyfriend and his date, might be buying a snack. Rookie head coach Bill Hanzlik, a likable ex-Nugget with one healthy NBA-caliber player on his roster--LaPhonso Ellis--and few apparent coaching skills would be delighted to win twenty games. That would be relative success. That would be something to shoot for.

As it is, Hanzlik will be reduced--right up to the moment he breaks the Philadelphia 76ers' ignoble season-loss record and is fired--to smiling bravely and repeating the party line. "We have to keep working," the poor devil says after every failure. "We have to keep preparing, working hard and getting better." Quoth the somber plaque mounted in the Nuggets' funereal dressing room: "The Will to Win Is Worthless If You Don't Have the Will to Prepare."

That's fine. Lovely sentiment. But who wouldn't start misreading the thing at this point? Who can't help seeing "Prepare to Feel Worthless If You Can't Win"? At least Paul Westhead, in the slough of despond, had the wit to quote Shake-speare and T.S. Eliot. Gave up 130 a game, maybe, but knew his Hamlet.

How desperate has it gotten for the current Nuggets?
While the Broncos, Avalanche and Rockies boast long-term sellout strings unheard of this side of a Jane's Addiction tour, the Nuggets have the third-worst home attendance in the NBA. Some longtime season-ticket holders won't even come to the games anymore. At all. And they don't want their names in the paper.

Take Mr. and Mrs. X, pleasant retired people who've been sitting in the first row of the loge, behind the visitors' bench, since the Nuggets were born. Before that, they trundled down to the old Auditorium Arena to cheer on the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association.

"No," Mrs. X answers firmly. "We don't go anymore. Sometimes we give the tickets away--but this year no one wants them. They say: 'We have something else to do that night.' I tell you, it's very discouraging. Ever since [former coaches] Larry Brown and Doug Moe, things have gone downhill. There's poor organization at the top level. The general manager [Allan Bristow] and the head coach are rookies, and so are the players."

Now Mr. and Mrs. X throw their tickets in the garbage. $50.50 per ticket. A hundred bucks a night. Out with the trash.

"We smile now about being Nuggets fans," Mrs. X admits. "Friends will say, 'Are you still going to those games?' and we smile." And next year? Will the X's renew their faith for the 31st straight year? "We don't know yet," she answers.

How dreary is life in Nuggetville?
Forward/guard Johnny Newman has a subluxation of the left shoulder. Forward Eric Williams is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Co-captain Bryant Stith has tendinitis in his left foot; George Zidek has a sprained left foot. Healed up from surgery on his right Achilles tendon, LaPhonso Ellis is between injuries right now, but how long will it last? The Nuggets have lost twenty in a row on the road and a club-record nine straight at home. As of last week, Dean Garrett had shot .297 from the field in his last ten games--70 percentage points better than rookie Danny Fortson. Anthony Goldwire can't pass, Tony Battie can't shoot and Kiwane Garris belongs in some less demanding line of work.

And, yes, Dikembe Mutombo is in Atlanta. Sherman Douglas is a New Jersey Net. Antonio McDyess is headed for the playoffs with Phoenix.

Maybe Coach Hanzlik should get Sonny DuPree to suit up.
Sonny played high-school ball in suburban Los Angeles before moving here in 1981, and last Tuesday night he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing inside McNichols Sports Arena. "That boy wanna be a star!" he observed, as a young Nugget who shall remain nameless flung the ball to a phantom teammate apparently sitting in the third row courtside. "Wanna be a star? On this sorry-ass team?"

Sonny's eleven-year-old son, Pat, and his little daughter, Alisha, smiled at him. Judy, Sonny's wife, burst out laughing. "This is something, all right," she said. "We've been coming here for twelve years, pretty steady, and I've never seen anything like it. These boys got no clue. These boys belong in algebra class. Learn something and get another kind of job. It is, I mean, this is comical."

The DuPrees were taking advantage of Pizza Hut and Pepsi Family Night: Four tickets, four pizzas, four Pepsis and two mini-balls, only $49. The heartaches you get for free: Orlando 98, Denver 84. Loss number 32.

How gloomy is the Denver Nuggets dressing room these nights?
Well, right after the final buzzer, Super Bowl-bound Tyrone Braxton came in for a visit, which gave everybody a little lift. Maybe some of that will rub off. By the time the reporters trudged in for their interviews, the place was stony silence but for the whoosh of Right Guard cans and the eerie sound of huge stockinged feet slipping into loafers.

The Will to Win Is Worthless If You Don't Have the Will to Prepare.
Yes. There stood Bobby Jackson, the 6'1" rookie guard from the University of Minnesota who is probably the Nuggets' best young player, their leading scorer these days and a guy who has to play more minutes than he ever imagined.

"I've never experienced anything like this before," he was saying. Meaning the losses. The two and 32. The grind of the NBA and the pressures of rookiedom and that awful feeling that comes with knowing you're expected to carry the ball for the worst team in the National Basketball Association.

Back at Minnesota, the season would already be over. Reminded of this, Jackson's weary eyes widened, and he said: "Right now my legs aren't there. I can't take the ball to the hole the way I should, so I'm hopin' somethin' will come around soon." He paused, too, like the vendor in the rafters. "How many games we got left?" Jackson asked. "About fifty? Forty-somethin'? Shit. It's a long-ass way, man."

How long is the way for the Denver Nuggets? How dismal the road? Don't ask. Because this is not looking good. When it's finally over, they'll be south of Philadelphia.


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