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There Oughtta Be a Thaw

Mark Poutenis

If we can believe Carmelo Anthony, a nineteen-year-old college dropout with some fancy ideas in his head, the Denver Nuggets are about to achieve greatness. This will happen soon after he, Carmelo Anthony, laces up his sneakers and becomes a Nugget. In fact, Carmelo believes he -- not some overhyped high school kid in Ohio decorated with a $90 million shoe contract -- should be chosen first in the NBA draft. To hear Carmelo tell it, the Nuggets have no idea what a brilliant piece of talent they're getting with the third pick.

Oh, the young man allows that he might need a bit of help. As long as Nuggets management signs free agent Gilbert Arenas away from the Golden State Warriors and convinces frazzled veteran Juwan Howard to stick around, and Nene Hilario and Rodney White continue to improve their play, everything will be fine. He, Carmelo Anthony, will make it so. In fact, you can start printing those playoff tickets right now. In next year's Western Conference wars, neither the San Antonio Spurs nor those washed-up has-beens, the Los Angeles Lakers, will stand a chance in the face of the newly invigorated Nuggets juggernaut.

"I'm happy that Denver is going to pick me," Anthony told reporters covering the league's pre-draft camp in Chicago last week. It is worth noting that the camp was held at something called the Moody Bible Institute. Where the Nuggets are concerned, it doesn't hurt that the Almighty's keeping an eye on the building. It might collapse at any moment.

It is evident that, in his lone year of study at Syracuse University, Anthony didn't learn much about the disturbed history of the Denver Nuggets. About their bad luck. About the godawful players they've drafted over the years. About the good players they've ruined, or the ones who've failed to develop. About the excellent players they've let slip away. About their unhappy succession of coaches and the shadiness of past owners. Carmelo Anthony doesn't know anything yet about the fans' long-term dismay and the franchise's deep-down despair. He is happy that the Nuggets are going to pick him. Yes, and the Iraqi army was happy that the Bush administration picked it a couple of months back.

Hey. 'Melo. We know it's cold in Syracuse in February, but that's no excuse for a brain-freeze in June. Should the Nuggets take you in next Thursday's draft -- and it looks like they will -- there are a couple of things you may want to know about the team you're joining. Here's a clue: This year, Denver's new arena-football team sold almost three times as many season tickets as the Nuggets did. Indoor football! Trash sport!

The Nuggets are not just a team with problems; they're a major embarrassment -- like that ill-mannered cousin from the sticks who gets roaring drunk at a family wedding and plows into the gift table. Listen, Carmelo: The best player in the history of this franchise later became the coach -- in fact, he became the coach twice -- before getting thrown out on his ass for hurling a racial slur at a heckler after a tough loss. It's a club that's never won a championship, hasn't been to the playoffs in eight years and couldn't beat a decent college team on the road. The Nuggets, who won seventeen games and lost 65 in the season just mercifully concluded, are a laughingstock far and wide. In a recent episode of The Simpsons, for instance, a Frankenstein monster stumbling around a basketball court explained his ineptitude this way: "Me made of Denver Nuggets corpses."

There have been moments, few and far between, when the Nuggets earned a little respect. Upon graduating to the NBA in 1976 from the defunct American Basketball Association, Denver promptly strung together three winning seasons, led the league in attendance and produced major stars in high-flying, coke-snorting David Thompson and dogged Dan Issel, who later stuck his foot in his mouth as the head coach. In the '80s, intrepid leader Doug Moe delighted the multitudes with his bon mots -- he once endorsed cafeteria dining by asking: "Where else can you inspect your entree before ordering?" -- and the gritty play of Alex English, Calvin Natt and Fat Lever. In the spring of 1994, the Issel-coached Nugs sneaked into the playoffs with a lukewarm 42-40 record, then pulled off one of the greatest upsets in post-season history by knocking off the top-seeded Seattle Supersonics.

The famous shots of Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo (the team's best-ever draft choice) writhing on the floor in delighted disbelief capture one of the greatest moments in Denver sports history.

Alas, the Nuggets haven't managed a winning season since then. And if you know what's good for you, Carmelo, you'll take a close look at the team's recent first-round draft choices, including such supposedly blue-chip lottery picks as Tony Battie and Raef LaFrentz.

While going through coaches like fat men through a buffet line, the Nuggets teams of the mid- to late '90s let Mutombo slip away to Atlanta (the Big Fellow's still at it, blocking shots now for the Eastern Conference champion Nets), watched helplessly as potential NBA greats like LaPhonso Ellis and Antonio McDyess broke down with injuries and guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem. Meanwhile, a series of awful draft picks made the always-troubled front office look like Stevie Wonder on acid. Frank Williams, oh, where have you gone? Has anyone asked Tyronn Lue how things are going down at the feed mill? And you -- Efthimios Rentzias. Bring another bottle of retsina to the table, and make it snappy.

In case you haven't heard, Carmelo, in the three seasons between 1996 and 1998, the Nuggets went 46-168. You could pick up a ticket for the price of parking at the old McNichols Arena, and once inside, you could hear the concessionaires splashing the soft drinks into the cups -- even in mid-game. Still, the most ridiculous year in Nuggets history may have been 1990-91, when coach Paul Westhead's defenseless gunners averaged an outrageous 124 points per game -- but gave up 131. Amid that 20-62 debacle, they lost all but three of their road games. Despite that, the self-proclaimed Shakespeare scholar returned to coach another season, when the Nugs won just 24 times. The Bard of Avon had no outside jump-shot, but he wrote Westhead's epitaph 400 years before the fact: "The game is up."

There's a time-honored place in sports for lovable losers, like the Chicago Cubs, and fans who console themselves with notions of tragic myth, like the Boston Red Sox faithful. But the Nuggets are something else: the distressing civic joke that won't go away. The team's story may be intermittently colorful, but it's too short for nostalgia and too foolish for mythology. Except for the hardest of hard-core fans, the Nugs just don't invite much affection.

If general manager Kiki Vandeweghe (another relic of the brief glory years) and head coach Jeff Bzdelik really wanted to remain true to the franchise's penchant for strangeness and screwup, they wouldn't choose Carmelo Anthony at all, despite his brilliant contribution to Syracuse's improbable rise this year to the NCAA championship. Instead, the Nuggets brain trust would pick Pavel Podkolzine, a seventeen-year-old Siberian giant who's completely unproven and already injury-prone, but who supposedly impressed NBA scouts at last week's pre-draft camp in Chicago. At 7'5" and 303 pounds, Podkolzine is an authentic freak, and with a little work, he could probably fit the classic mold of outsized Nuggets failure. There's another advantage: The poor kid knows even less about the enduring miseries of the club than Anthony and could thus toil here in relative bliss. Besides, if the perpetrators of The Simpsons should choose to portray him in some future episode, they would have no need for an animated stand-in.

But the Podkolzine Era is not likely to happen. It is you, Carmelo Anthony, Denver seems to covet, and so be it. All is not lost. Not by a long shot. In fact, the glorious future you envision for yourself at the Pepsi Center may yet come to pass. Tell the truth now. Do you own ice skates? Ever play goalie?


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