How many Broncos are the best at their position in the NFL? Precisely one -- and he wears number 24. Although the term "shut-down cornerback" is overused by TV commentators, Champ Bailey comes closer than anyone in the league to making it mean something. Any time the ball is thrown to his half of the field, odds are good that he'll get his hands on it one way or another. When Bailey came to the team in a trade for running back Clinton Portis, there were plenty of naysayers -- but those folks are mighty quiet now. In the unlikely event that the Broncos become champs in the next few years, they'll have Champ to thank.
Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson have gotten all the attention this year, since both are capable of setting the scoreboard ablaze. But the underappreciated Marcus Camby truly anchors the Nugs. For one thing, he plays great defense every time he hits the court -- something that's all too rare on this squad. For another, he's the team's most reliable rebounder and shot blocker, and he's got a deceptively deadly outside shot. And, most important, he's a stabilizing force in a lineup that desperately needs one, not to mention a true team player who's willing to subjugate his own stats if it means the difference between victory and defeat. Melo and A.I. can't make that claim -- but the Camby man can.
Because the particulars of the NHL's 2005 collective-bargaining agreement forced the Avalanche to say so long to several fan favorites, the team needed newcomers to step up this year -- and Paul Stastny has done just that. A hometown hero thanks to his play on University of Denver championship squads, Stastny has gotten progressively stronger as the season's gone on; his efforts culminated in an astonishing twenty-game scoring streak that set a league record for a rookie. Along with Peter Budaj, who's all but replaced high-priced goalie/sieve Jose Theodore and fellow phenom Wojtek Wolski, Stastny is both an exciting part of the Avs' present and a key element of the team's future.
There's a reason you're seeing Kyle Beckerman's face all over the city. And no, it's not those Sideshow Bob dreadlocks -- although those are noteworthy. The reason the Colorado Rapids chose to tattoo Beckerman, along with a handful of other Rapids, on the banners and billboards hyping the upcoming 2007 season at the new Dick's Sporting Goods Park is quite simple: The kid had a breakout season last year. Not only did Beckerman grow more comfortable in the attacking mid-field role, playing 31 out of 32 games, he also tied for the squad's scoring lead with seven goals and recorded four assists, two of which were clutch passes against FC Dallas in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Couple those efforts with two call-ups from the national team -- against Mexico and Denmark -- and that amounts to one hell of a season for a Major League Soccer player. It must be the hair.
Granted, touchdowns are more plentiful in the Arena Football League than in the National Football League; it's not unusual for AFL scores to top sixty points. Still, props go to Damian Harrell, a Florida State grad and original member of the Crush, who holds the AFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown. At press time, the streak stood at a gaudy 69 in a row, and the way Harrell is playing these days, the end is definitely not in sight. And how appropriate that the best player on a team owned by John Elway is responsible for so many 7s!
The Colorado Mammoth certainly has some fine players, including defensemen Tom Ethington and Jamie Hanford, who were just named to compete on the U.S. national team at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championship in May. Still, these guys have a long way to go before they'll surpass the accomplishments of Gary Gait, the team's coach. By the time he came to Colorado in 2002, Gait was arguably the greatest athlete in the history of the National Lacrosse League, earning MVP honors while setting a single-season scoring record. When he retired in 2005, he was promptly inducted into the league's hall of fame -- but Gait was far from through with lacrosse. He's the growing sport's top ambassador, as well as the reason the Mammoth are big in Denver.
While the Nugs may not have registered as many wins as anticipated at the start of the season, they've more than made up for their uneven play in drama. The team limped out of the gate, and when it finally seemed to be hitting its stride, Carmelo Anthony was suspended for fifteen games after throwing a punch so timid that it didn't even qualify as a bitch slap. Then, just when all seemed lost, owner Stan Kroenke acquired the services of bad boy Allen Iverson in one of the biggest trades in Denver pro-sports history. The Melo-A.I. tandem still isn't clicking as regularly as it should, but when they're on, the Nuggets are the most thrilling game in town. Sometimes even on the court.
Cinderella isn't known for wearing pilot's gear, but given the accomplishments of the Air Force Academy's men's basketball squad this year, she should probably try a flight suit on for size. Since players must commit to military service, the Falcons have a smaller recruiting pool to draw from than the vast majority of teams they compete against. Nevertheless, players such as Jacob Burtschi proved their grit on the hardwood, chalking up a gaudy record and spending much of the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. While a skid down the stretch doomed their chance to participate in the Big Dance, the Falcons made a run in the National Invitation Tournament that took them all the way to Madison Square Garden. This Cinderella deserves a mile-high salute.
Nearly all great NFL franchises suffer downturns. Think of the once-invincible San Francisco 49ers, who only now are showing signs of emerging from the mire of mediocrity that followed their glory days in the '80s and '90s. Yet despite plenty of opportunities to do so, the Broncos haven't hit bottom under Mike Shanahan. Even last year, when quarterback Jake "The Mistake" Plummer played so poorly that Shanny replaced him in the middle of the season with untested rookie Jay Cutler, the team nearly made the playoffs. How does Shanahan stay in the game? With smart offensive schemes, a willingness to bench or deal any athlete who's not producing, and a cold-eyed intensity that can be downright scary to behold. Simply put, Shanahan refuses to let down.
When Jeff Bzdelik was sacked by the Denver Nuggets, he could have grumbled loudly -- as he had every reason to do. Instead, he accepted the head-coaching position at the Air Force Academy and turned what could have seemed a dead-end gig into a dazzling showcase of his skills. He took a team whose players might not have made the cut at most major universities, let alone start, and molded them into a highly disciplined and efficient group capable of taking down the big boys. The University of Colorado will likely ask Bzdelik to turn around its woeful basketball program in Boulder, and CU couldn't find a better man for the job. Coach Buzz is worth catching.

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