The March 12 game between the Denver Nuggets and the Memphis Grizzlies was never going to be much of a contest. Sure, the Nuggets have been erratic throughout the 2007-2008 campaign, showing championship-quality mettle when facing first-rate opponents on one night only to fall flat against lesser talents the next. But the Grizzlies started the season in grisly fashion, and since trading their best player, Pau Gasol, to the Los Angeles Lakers in early February, their only real competition in the NBA's worst-team tourney is the Miami Heat. That the Griz can't even win this race -- Dwayne Wade and company currently sport an even more pathetic record -- symbolizes their ineptitude.
Fortunately, the real action during the Nugs' 108-86 victory took place off the court, including a case of stripper interruptus, epic drunkenness and a verbal confrontation between star Carmelo Anthony and a critical fan that went from high drama to low comedy in the time it takes to flush a power-slam.
I had a mighty close vantage point from which to observe these shenanigans. Westword owns four season tickets in the first row behind the Nuggets' bench, right across from the water coolers, and if I'm lucky, I can use them once a year. (Yes, you're right: Getting passes for the Memphis game shows how I rate around here.) As a result, the Roberts clan -- my wife, Deb, and twin daughters, Lora and Ellie -- could see close-up and personal how little effort the squad's starters expended during the opening moments, when they fell behind 10-0, and how easily they overcame the deficit. Neither Anthony nor all-star guard Allen Iverson put up big numbers: The former was in foul trouble most of the first half, finishing with an anemic 14 points, while the latter passed first and shot second (see? It's possible) on the way to an 8-point night. Nevertheless, the ballers still managed to build a thirty-point lead before coasting the rest of the way.
With the matchup so uneven, attention turned to the Jumbotron, which at one point featured a dance-cam that encouraged those caught in the camera's lens to shake their bon-bons. One guy took this invitation more seriously than the rest, whipping off his shirt and waving it over his head, Chippendales style -- and after the crowd shouted its encouragement, he promptly unhooked his belt and was in the midst of unsnapping his jeans as two security guards raced to tackle him. Don't know what happened next: The director cut away to another image, damn it.
Meanwhile, the dudes behind us were getting progressively more inebriated thanks to a liquid diet of beer and shots (and more shots, and more shots). By the third quarter, the sloppiest of the bunch lost control entirely, repeatedly shouting, "Put J.R. in!" -- J.R. being J.R. Smith, a streaky shooter and fan favorite who's frequently in the doghouse with coach George Karl. Given that Karl and the rest of the team were only about a dozen feet away, they clearly heard these exhortations, with several of them, including Eduardo Najera, looking back and laughing -- and we were doing the same. But after a solid ten minutes of "Put J.R. in!" every few seconds, the security staff made its move, telling the guy to zip it. In response, he spilled most of a beer, or something, all over my coat and my wife's pants and then grabbed my shoulder and did his best to make amends. "You know me," he said by way of apology. "J.R.'s my man!" He then sat back and turned down the volume -- and only then did Karl insert J.R., who promptly drained a three. "See?" the suddenly re-energized man declared. "I told you to put J.R. in!"
An extended stretch of garbage time followed, with Karl pulling out his starters, including Kenyon Martin, who was the most inspired of the Nuggets on this evening, probably because his parents were sitting a few rows behind us. He jabbered back and forth with them on several occassions, and when Our Soused Buddy asked, "Who you talkin' to, K-Mart?," he replied, "My mama" and offered a wry grin.
Anthony was having good time, too -- at least until a fan located behind the basket nearest the home bench stood up holding a sign that featured the name "MELO" over a circled letter "D" with a slash through it. In other words, "No Defense."
That's a valid observation. When Anthony sets his mind to it, he's capable of guarding defenders closely, contesting shots and even making the occasional steal. But it doesn't happen often, and his lackadaisical attitude carries over to many of his teammates. Indeed, poor defense is the biggest single reason the Nuggets are currently in ninth place in the NBA's Western Conference, one position out of the playoffs.
Not that Melo was willing to seriously consider this particular analysis. After sulking with a towel on his head for a moment or two, he began yelling toward the fan. "Shut your ugly ass up!" he barked, followed by, "Why don't you play the game?" Instead of backing down, the sign-holder gave it right back to Melo without hesitation. That got the attention of the other players, and tensions began to rise -- but before the situation could take an ugly turn, a bemused Martin intervened, standing up and doing a mocking little dance directed at the sign-holder. Seconds later, security moved in on the guy, sparking even more good-natured ridicule from K-Mart. In a sing-songy voice, he crowed, "You got in truh-bull! You got in truh-bull!" From our vantage point, it didn't appear as if the fan was ejected, but we never saw the sign again, and Melo and the players went back to enjoying themselves -- especially Martin, who leaned close to Iverson, said, "No D!," and burst out laughing.
Of course, the Nuggets could get away with playing no D against the Grizzlies, whose shooting percentage for the night was just over 31 percent -- not exactly a blistering pace. As a result, the man's placard became a daffy distraction from a nothing game instead of a sign of the times. -- Michael Roberts