Once upon a time, not long ago, the Denver Nuggets were the sorriest franchise in the National Basketball Association. The laughingstock of the league. A garbage can for discontented, used-up and incompetent players. They were objects of scorn in their own city -- like Brian Griese and the Denver boot. Once upon a time, not long ago, the Denver Nuggets all seemed to be named Ellis -- Dale Ellis, Harold Ellis, LaPhonso Ellis -- but it didn't matter what they were called: The Nuggets couldn't play. In the 1996-'97 season, they went 21-61, but even then, they hadn't hit bottom yet. In 1997-'98, the team won just two of its first forty games and staggered to the end with an 11-71 record.
Jay Leno made jokes about them. So did schoolchildren and cartoon characters on The Simpsons. Only rarely had Dr. Naismith's grand old game been so thoroughly dishonored at what was alleged to be the professional level. They still in the league? one Chicago Bull (who was not named Michael Jordan) scoffed in the midst of Denver's travails. Brooding in isolation at the old McNichols Arena, with the Nuggets losing by thirty points once more, the average fan could hear the guy who runs the snack bar twenty rows behind him dispensing soft drinks and ask, with good reason, what incurable madness had kept him in his seat through the third quarter.
All that unhappiness is history now.
Last week, a 26-year-old man wearing a beautifully cut pale-gold suit and a pale-gold shirt walked into an interview room at the Pepsi Center. Dressed this way, he looked, well, he looked like a very tall gold nugget, which is exactly what the Nuggets believe he is -- their golden boy, their salvation, their new identity. That is why they are bestowing upon him an unprecedented sum of riches: $92.5 million over the next seven years. A joke no longer, the Denver Nuggets are now "one of the top three teams in the West," according to their owner, Stan Kroenke.
Actually, Kroenke insisted, what he'd said is that they now have the chance to be one of the top three teams in the West. The chance. Their admirable, hard-driving head coach, who has all the job security of a moth drawn to a flame, was even more circumspect. "This is a huge improvement on paper," Jeff Bzdelik said. "The important thing is to get it done on the court."
Still, everyone was smiling last week at the Pepsi Center. The golden boy, 6'9", 235-pound power forward Kenyon Martin, late of the University of Cincinnati and the New Jersey Nets, was smiling. The owner, in his somber black suit and black lizard-skin cowboy boots, was smiling. Looking weary but content, Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe was smiling. So was Bzdelik, dressed in shorts and sneakers, although he confined himself to a quiet corner of the interview room, away from the glare of the TV cameras and the flash guns. Kenyon Martin's pretty wife, Heather, was also undeniably aglow. There hadn't been any problem convincing her to move to Denver, her husband reported. "They have a Neiman Marcus here," he said, smiling wryly, as if contemplating the disappearance of his hard-earned $92.5 mil over the jewelry counters of Cherry Creek.
What the Nuggets have purchased in Kenyon Martin is a huge stick of dynamite. His acquisition, overshadowed in most other NBA cities by the franchise-numbing move of Shaquille O'Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Miami Heat, could be the canniest (and, in its way, the luckiest) transaction of the free-agent frenzy of 2004. A half-crazed competitor on the court -- in his second year, he was called for six flagrant fouls, suspended for seven games and paid bad-boy fines totaling $347,000 -- the guy they call K-Mart plays with a ferocity Denver fans have never seen, not in Dan Issel's prime, nor in David Thompson's. He and New Jersey's star guard, Jason Kidd, are co-credited with propelling the Nets to the NBA finals in 2002 and 2003, and his unquenchable desire, now harnessed and honed, earned him a spot on the All-Star team last season. "I don't think you could have designed a better player for our needs," Bzdelik said on introduction day. "We want to be the nastiest, meanest, best-conditioned, most unselfish team in the league, and Kenyon Martin is all of those things. He helps us establish an identity."
The Nuggets paid plenty for K-Mart: Under the terms of their sign-and-trade deal with New Jersey, they gave up three first-round draft picks, and, pending trades, they now have only $2.3 million of salary-cap money left to spend this year on other free agents. But his signing has already started to pay dividends. Oft-injured center Marcus Camby re-upped with the team. When he heard Martin was on board, Nuggets forward Nene, who is a work in progress, abruptly canceled a promotional tour in his native Brazil and returned to Denver to work out at the Pepsi Center.
Martin's immediate effect on the Nuggets' other star -- the brilliant nineteen-year-old forward Carmelo Anthony -- remains to be seen, but Vandeweghe has no doubt that his new four-year veteran will light a fire under the entire club. "He brings it every night," Vandeweghe said, "and he makes everyone around him better." Last season, when the Nuggets rose from their decade-long doldrums to become the most improved team in the league and contest a scrappy playoff series with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver's long-suffering fans could see and feel hope. But neither the rookie Anthony, nor Andre Miller and 5'5" sparkplug Earl Boykins, the pair of invaluable free agents who helped get the team back on track, provided the inspiration that a winning squad needs. K-Mart seems to be that man. "He's a young player," the suddenly less-well-heeled Kroenke points out. "An All-Star with leadership qualities who's been to the NBA finals twice. When you add a player of his caliber, you have the opportunity to get better. The question is, how much better? You do your best in an uncertain world."
Without talents like Miller, Camby and Boykins on the roster, Bzdelik hinted, the Nuggets would never have been able to attract Martin. "It took a couple of courageous free agents to get this thing started," he said. "Now another courageous player has [joined up]. That raises the bar and that's great.... Would Kenyon Martin have come here if we were still 17-65? You'd have to ask him that, but there has to be some kind of hope, doesn't there? Isn't that the human condition?"
Meanwhile, the condition of the NBA's Western Conference is very much in flux. With the departures of O'Neal and head coach Phil Jackson, the Lakers dynasty appears in ruins. The Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz have improved via free-agency, but the Dallas Mavericks were hurt by the loss of Steve Nash and their failure to land Shaq, who had said Dallas was the place he most wanted to go. No one dares write off the powerful San Antonio Spurs, but Denver could suddenly be a power in the West -- especially if Vandeweghe can sign one of the free agents he has his eye on: Minnesota swingman Trenton Hassell, who shut Carmelo Anthony down in the playoffs with astonishing ease, and Portland's Darius Miles. To make room under the salary cap, that would likely mean trading Nikoloz Tskitishvili, who's been having a great summer season, and releasing 35-year-old Jon Barry. But that's the business of big-time hoops.
As it is, ESPN basketball analyst Marc Stein says no team had a better July than Denver. The addition of K-Mart, Stein writes, might have "turned the Nuggets into the West's deepest team." Anthony and Martin represent the strongest tandem of forwards this side of the Detroit Pistons, he adds, and Vandeweghe "didn't have to sacrifice the shooting of Voshon Lenard to make room on the payroll for K-Mart and to keep Camby."
Whatever happens come fall at the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets' new golden boy will be at the center of it, even if Heather's over at Neiman's trying on frocks. "He's tenacious," Bzdelik marveled. "On the boards, he's ferocious. He plays with a desperate, relentless energy, and that's exactly what we need. Every time he steps on the court, he will more than earn his money."
A couple of things seem certain. You won't be able to hear them pouring Pepsi at the concession stands this year. The Bulls won't be laughing when they come to town. And the last vestiges of scorn will have vanished.