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Have you heard? The Denver Nuggets are serious about winning. About winning games and winning back the hearts of the fans. Of course, Napoleon was serious about winning at Waterloo. The Germans probably liked their chances in Stalingrad. And the Miami Dolphins rolled into Mile High Stadium Saturday afternoon filled...
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Have you heard? The Denver Nuggets are serious about winning. About winning games and winning back the hearts of the fans.

Of course, Napoleon was serious about winning at Waterloo. The Germans probably liked their chances in Stalingrad. And the Miami Dolphins rolled into Mile High Stadium Saturday afternoon filled with every confidence that they, too, could win--beating long odds and the even longer reach of history.

When Nuggets owner Charlie Lyons says he's serious about winning, who's going to take him seriously? The Nuggets are Denver's forgotten pro franchise, a distant number four on the list, a joke--and short of signing up Jayson Williams, luring Michael Jordan out of retirement and announcing the second coming of Larry Bird, last year's worst-in-league team is likely to find itself back in the Midwest Division cellar again this season. At least the season will be short--50 games instead of the customary 82. This will provide ex-Lakers guard Nick Van Exel fewer opportunities to wonder anew how he wound up here in the first place. And for new Nuggets coach Mike D'Antoni to stick his head in the oven.

As for winning the fans back, our Mr. Lyons (and the rest of the NBA owners) might be--just might be--fooling themselves. To be sure, these are men unaccustomed to losing. Their pockets are stuffed with ill-gotten billions, which tend to pump up the confidence level, and they have just shot the NBA players' union dead in the street at high noon--something that didn't happen at the end of the ruinous 1994 baseball strike. But getting sufficient butts back into the seats at Madison Square Garden or McNichols Sports Arena to pay the bills may be a taller order than these captains of industry ever imagined back when they were cooking the books in the trucking business or making bad movies in Hollywood.

It's safe to say that even hardcore pro-hoops fans are angry and alienated by six months of pointless argument between tall rich guys and short rich guys. It's safe to say that most Americans, always an inventive lot, have found alternatives to $50 or $150 NBA tickets on which to spend their disposable income. It's safe to say that most citizens of this peerless republic wouldn't bat an eyelash if league commish David Stern were marched out to the guillotine at dawn tomorrow, or if union rep Patrick Ewing were suddenly deported to Kazakhstan. As for greedy player agents like David Falk, most folks wouldn't mind a bit if a posse rounded up the lot of them and put them to work as hospital orderlies.

On the other hand, a few lucky NBA fans will get to see an exhibition game for free!

This magnanimous gesture, Stern assures us, will spread its wings over the entire league. Before the truncated 1999 regular season gets under way on February 5, all 29 NBA teams will open their doors to the unhappy and the unwashed in the interests of "reconnecting." Little matter that inviting the peasants inside the palace for a practice game is a little like Pol Pot telling his fellow Cambodians how much he loves them. Hoops fans are supposed to be grateful. On their way to and from their Rolls-Royces, players who have ignored their adoring fans for years might even sign a couple of autographs. League orders.

But don't expect a professional quality of play until, say, mid-March. Here in Denver, it could take a little longer--maybe seven or eight years. "When [the season] starts out," out-of-shape Orlando guard Nick Anderson warned the New York Times the other day, "it's going to be ugly, real ugly. Believe me."

We believe you, Nick. As a matter of fact, we've gotten used to considerable ugliness over the last 200 days. Seen in its best light, the eleventh-hour agreement that ended the NBA lockout and salvaged the season one day short of the so-called "drop-dead date" was a buzzer-beating miracle on the order of the Jordan jumper that beat the Utah Jazz. And proof that man, after all, is a rational beast. Seen in its actual light, the pact was another demonstration that, in a war of attrition, deep pockets and corporate might will always outlast working people--even working people who average $5 million a year. This is no brief for the Ewings and Shaquille O'Neals and Rik Smitses of the world: They've become so seduced by fame and their overblown lifestyles that when it came down to facing up to Stern, their union cracked, then caved in. Their solidarity was broken, the old defiance gone with the wind.

The owners' victory is nothing to cheer about, either. The NBA players saved their season, all right. But in the end the owners and the commissioner had them right where they wanted them: After losing half a year's pay, they now face "cost controls" that will reduce the league's top salaries by tens of millions of dollars. Stern and the owners are being careful not to crow, but they have won big. Theirs is now the first pro sports league with a stranglehold on top dollar. The future of the players' union, almost torn apart by mutiny last week, and its director, Billy Hunter, are very much in doubt.

Meanwhile, the man who owns the worst team in basketball says he's serious about winning. Winning games and hearts. For now, that means Charlie Lyons will let the rest of us watch the players pant and sweat through long-overdue practice sessions if we like, and after the needs of Nuggets season-ticket holders (both of them) are served, the doors will be thrown open for that free exhibition game. Otherwise, in the frantic weeks ahead, new Nuggets general manager Dan Issel, an icon in these parts, might lose popular star LaPhonso Ellis as he battles to sign some reasonably useful free agents--perhaps wayward ex-Nugget Antonio McDyess, perhaps Minnesota forward Tom Gugliotta. Who knows? Latrell Sprewell, the Oakland Strangler, is still with Golden State. But that club is looking to trade.

What was it the man said about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Might as well set them up in Big Mac, where the floorboards are a little drier--for now.

In the immediate aftermath of last week's settlement, David Stern wanted to appear conciliatory. "It's our time to get back together," he told a divided New York gathering of almost half the league's players. "We're all part of the same family."

Fine. But there are families and there are families--consider the Borgias, or the Corleones--and Stern is unlikely to ever again be regarded as the visionary patriarch who reclaimed the NBA from the ashes and turned it into a global darling. In the wake of the lockout, he is now likely to be regarded by players and their agents as half tyrant, half owners' lackey. A hero no more, he's the Bud Selig of hoops.

If the players had held their ground and stood up to him for one more day last week, would he really have canceled the season? Would he have pressed ahead with those replacement-player plans?

"You didn't pay to find out," Stern answered. The big question now is whether fallen-away fans, especially in troubled markets like Denver, will pay to find out if they still care.

If John Elway and his mates have anything to say about it, that fish fry the Broncos threw Saturday afternoon in Mile High Stadium was only the beginning of the post-season feast. The next courses, they trust, will include seared Tuna and scallopini Testaverde, with appropriate whines selected from the best-stocked cellar in New York.

But as the scalpers working the parking lot last Saturday can tell you, the Jets bear little resemblance to the Miami Dolphins: The price of winning football just quadrupled.

Weary, banged-up and lacking an authentic deep threat in the receiving corps, Dan Marino's offense mustered nothing here Saturday, and the 38-3 final score was a virtual mercy killing. Could have been 52-3. "We got our butts kicked," Dolphins wideout O.J. McDuffie acknowledged. "But good."

The long-suffering J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets! were a 1-15 team just two seasons back, and they haven't been to the Super Bowl since Nixon was working his brand of chicanery in the Oval Office. But explosive coach Bill Parcells--the Tuna--revived them, and he has a way of getting resuscitated teams straight to the big one. Believe it: The Jets like to eat well, too, but horsemeat would suit them just fine Sunday afternoon.

Can you imagine a more appealing scenario? John Elway's last game at Mile High--maybe his last game ever. The visiting Jets, long denied a taste of glory, riding a seven-game winning streak. The Queen City of the Plains versus The Big Apple. Keshawn versus Shannon. Shanahan against Parcells. Terrell Davis versus old pal Curtis Martin. East meets West.

When sunset falls on a thriller: Broncos 27, Jets 24. And dinner reservations in Miami.

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