From 1990 through 2002, the Denver Nuggets franchise was in total disarray: they never won more than 42 games, won only one playoff series, and had four seasons in which they couldn't do better than 21 wins (including one in which they won just 11 games, tying the NBA's second worst all-time record). For a franchise that had only missed the postseason twice in 23 previous seasons, professional basketball in Denver had become a running joke.
And then change we could believe in came along in the summer of 2002 when a man with little experience and a funny name took over the coaching ranks for the team.
His name was Jeff Bzdelik.
Entering the 2002-03 season, Bzdelik inherited the worst roster in modern NBA history. In order to move "toxic assets" off the books, then-Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe had pillaged the roster of what little talent it had remaining, and left Bzdelik with a roster of no-names such as Chris Andersen (who made the team after an open tryout...unheard of in the modern NBA), Mark Blount, Rodney White, Donnell Harvey, Junior Harrington, Vincent Yarbrough, Chris Whitney, Shammond Williams, Ryan Bowen, Kenny Satterfield and Predrag Savovic (who? He played 27 games that season!) and two teenage rookies with even funnier sounding names than Bzdelik: Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Maybyner "Nene" Hilario.
Under Bzdelik's tutelage, 2002-03 was a dreadful season record-wise. The Nuggets won just 17 games, the third worst outing in franchise history, and were routinely clobbered by their opposition. They averaged 84.2 points per game (29th out of 29 NBA teams) and their attendance ranked 25th. In one game they put up just 53 points. A mere 58 in another. They scored in the mid-to-low 60s on three other occasions and managed less than 80 points a total of 30 times, more than a third of their games.
And yet if you watched this team play each game as I did, you'd never have guessed they were a 17-win team. In fact, you could argue (as I have on numerous occasions), that they won 17 more games than they ever should have.
Jeff Bzdelik changed the culture of professional basketball in Denver. The Nuggets may have suffered from years of ineptitude beforehand, had no money to work with, and an all-time worst roster to boot - i.e. the perfect storm for what should have turned into the fewest wins in NBA history - but Bzdelik never used any of this as an excuse. Under Bzdelik, the Nuggets players were going to out-hustle and outwork their opponents virtually every night. They would play unselfishly and commit to defense, or they wouldn't get back on the floor.
After one season with Bzdelik at the helm, playing in Denver no longer seemed like a death sentence to NBA players. Thanks to good fortune with the draft, a few of Vandeweghe's trades panning out and - most importantly - the atmosphere of effort, selflessness and confidence built from the ground up by Bzdelik - the Nuggets were able to build off of Bzdelik's energy and return to the playoffs the following season. Six seasons later, the Nuggets are one of just three teams in the Western Conference to have appeared in the postseason for five consecutive seasons.
Watching Barack Obama sworn in as our 44th President today, I couldn't help but think back to 2002 (yes, I'm that pathetic of a Nuggets fan that I'm actually drawing a connection between the two, but please bear with me). Like the Nuggets that year, our country has also succumbed to a slew of incompetent, greedy, self-serving and lazy individuals - both Republican and Democrat - who failed to understand our financial system, deal appropriately with the world around them and the problems at home, or formulate worthwhile plans and programs that could pay off in the long run.
Like the Denver Nuggets of 2002, the United States of America is badly in need of a culture change and I believe Barack Obama could be our country's Jeff Bzdelik.
In fact, I see Obama's first year in office being similar to that 2002-03 Denver Nuggets season. We may not see a lot of immediate progress and a lot of mistakes will be made, but if President Obama can - at a minimum - establish an atmosphere of effort, selflessness and confidence (mentioned in today's inaugural address, by the way) and catch a few lucky breaks along the way, I believe we can get through the various monstrous problems before us and come out much better on the other side.
So here's wishing President Obama the best of luck (I know my stock portfolio needs it...yeeesh). May he do for our nation what Jeff Bzdelik did for Nuggets Nation.
Now that's what I call the audacity of hope.