Where do I start?
I came to Vegas to enjoy a mini two-day vacation and watch a few prospects - both on the Nuggets and other teams - and I ended up hanging out with the Nuggets top brass and reaching somewhat of a detente with George Karl and his lawyer who threatened to sue me last year.
How's that for a Vegas bender?
First, I have to paint a picture of Summer League for you, because it's really fun. Games are played simultaneously in two gyms; the 19,000 person capacity Thomas & Mack Center and the 2,500 capacity Cox Pavilion which is adjacent to the larger venue. Your $25 all-day ticket gives you access to both venues and, as I'd been told, it's a very relaxed, casual atmosphere chock full of NBA executives, coaches, scouts and players - former, current and aspiring. If you're an NBA junkie like me, everywhere you turn you see a recognizable face.
When I first walked in, the Suns summer league squad was facing off against the Raptors at Cox. So I peaked in and standing right there was Kiki Vandeweghe. I introduced myself as a lifelong season ticket holder and the proprietor of this blog. We made some small talk about Denver and then a few Nets employees came up to him to discuss business, so I left Kiki alone. It's too bad I didn't get a chance to thank him for sandbagging us with Kenyon Martin's contract (I probably wouldn't have had the guts to say that anyway).
Since the Cox gym was pretty filled up, I sauntered over to the Thomas & Mack gym to catch the last few minutes of the Kings summer league team facing off against the D-League "All-Stars". As the game was winding down, the Nuggets brass of Bret Bearup, Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman arrived (separately), as did the entire Nuggets summer team and the assistant coaches such as John Welch, Chad Iske, Stacey Augmon and Adrian Dantley.
With the game being a snoozer and the arena virtually empty, I had a chance to talk to Bearup, Warkentien and Chapman - all of whom I met briefly during the playoffs - and while I can't confirm that they read this blog every day, they definitely know about it. They were gracious with their time and we talked generally about the Nuggets summer league team's poor shooting from the night before and a bit about the Arron Afflalo trade getting a lot of support among the fans. Warkentien and I also talked about how people routinely mess up the pronunciation of our last names (we're both "teens" in case you're curious).
With the Nuggets game about to tip off, Bearup and Chapman sat right at courtside in reserve seating, and I got to sit in the first row after courtside. There's nothing special about this as anyone can sit in the first row - one of the many things that makes summer league so cool. And at the end of the Nuggets bench on the basket side were Doug Moe and Tim Grgrich.
Before tip off, my friend Chris Tomasson - formerly of the Rocky Mountain News and now writing for ProBasketballNews.com, USA Today and the Rocky Mountain Independent - came over and we caught up on all things Nuggets. As Tomasson and I were talking in comes Karl, who sat many rows above me next to Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy and right near Warkentien.
The game kicked off, and I found myself trying to do two things at once: follow the game and keep an eye on Karl for a good moment to introduce myself. I figured any conversation between Karl and I would be awkward, so I didn't want to do it in front of anyone else and didn't want to bug him while he was watching his son Coby play.
Soon into the game, I observed a few things (many of which I "tweeted" about)...
...Ty Lawson has a ridiculously quick first step and crossover dribble. He was blowing by the Wizards defenders and getting to the rim with ease. The problem was that when he got to the rim, he wasn't able to get a clean shot off over taller, more agile defenders like JaVale McGee. McGee had five blocks in the game and all five may have been on Lawson shot attempts. And Lawson is small, like 5'10" I'm guessing. If/when Lawson figures out how to get his shot off against NBA bigs or dupe them into leaving their men for an easy assist, he'll be fine.
...Sonny Weems is a mess out there. I know he gets a lot of love from the readers of this blog, but I frankly don't understand why. He takes bad shots, doesn't look for the point guard off the defensive rebound, doesn't have a particularly good shooting stroke and never looks to pass. Watching Weems play made me even more relieved that the Nuggets acquired Afflalo.
...The "big men" on the Nuggets summer league team aren't that big, but they have some plusses. Richard Hendrix - my pick for a training camp invite - is probably closer to 6'7" but he has long arms and great hands. You could tell he knows how to tip rebounds to himself and corral the basketball against much taller defenders. I'd call him a "smart rebounder" based on what I saw. Cedric Simmons has really long arms, but not particularly good hands and he even air balled a free throw. And C.J. Giles has the height, but doesn't seem to have the weight to bang with the McGees and the Andray Blatches of the NBA. And as a side note, Blatche is enormous in person. I had no idea. Big body, long arms. He absolutely dominated the Nuggets (and kudos to new Denver Stiffs reader "Garrett" for suggesting the Nuggets acquire Blatche a while back).
...Kareem Rush was automatic when he was open, but had difficulty creating his own shot and missed all of his three's. His competition at two-guard, Coby Karl and Ronald Dupree, played much better.
But again, I wasn't focusing on the game as much as I probably should have been. After the first quarter, I walked over to Doug Moe - my hero - and introduced myself. We talked for a while and I thanked him for teaching me every bad word when I was a little kid (growing up I'd often sit with Denver Stiffs reader "Mordecai" at the old McNichols Arena and from their seats you could literally hear everything Moe said on the sidelines). Moe laughed and said he couldn't take responsibility for that. And when I showed him my Denver Stiffs business card ("Stiffs" being an homage to him) I could tell he got a kick out of it. Unfortunately - and not surprisingly - Moe has never read a blog, doesn't read blogs and will never read a blog.
But meeting Moe was just the appetizer. Getting a chance to talk to George Karl - the man I tried to get fired a year ago - was the main course.
With about two minutes to go in the half, George Karl was finally alone. I decided that I had to talk to Karl before someone else pestered him. So I walked about twenty rows up to where Karl was sitting and just before I was going to introduce myself, Warkentien (who was sitting one row behind Karl and about five seats over) blurts out: "Hey Andrew, why don't you say hi to George?" The second Warkentien said that, I could tell Karl knew exactly who I was.
So I sat right down next to George Karl - a guy I skewered daily on this blog last Spring but applauded this season - and said: "It's nice to meet you, I'm the guy who launched FireGeorgeKarl.com." George said: "Oh, yeah?" in his Karl-esque tone and shook my hand. We made some awkward small talk and I don't think either of us felt all that comfortable. When I mentioned that I had changed the site name a while back, he said: "To Denver Stiffs, right?" So I guess he knew. We talked for a few minutes about the culture of the Nuggets changing last summer and the successful season we just had. I thanked him for the job he did this past season and he wouldn't take the credit, instead citing how hard his assistant coaches and players worked and acknowledging that a lot of things had to "come together" for them to have the season they had. After a few more minutes, the NBATV guys came over to interview Karl, so I just said "nice to meet you" and he said "likewise" and I excused myself. Considering the circumstances, Karl was a good sport. But I wasn't done talking to Karl for the night.
After my conversation with Karl, I went back down to my front row seat. A few moments later, none other than Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke walked over in my direction. I introduced myself as a lifelong season ticket holder and thanked him (I was doing a lot of thanking, apparently) for his stewardship of our franchise since taking over. I shared with him that my family has had tickets since the ABA days and Kroenke immediately lit up with appreciation and thanked me for supporting the team. Unlike Commissioner Stern, Kroenke was happy to do a stop and chat! Before he moved on to talk to the Wizards Mike Miller (in the stands with Antawn Jamison), I told Kroenke that I'd be sure to say hi at games this season to which he replied that he looked forward to seeing me again.
With the game coming to a close, I watched closely as Tomasson interviewed Moe, Karl and Afflalo, who was sitting next to Karl, now situated behind the basket. Watching Tomasson work up close, I have a whole new appreciation for what he does and have no interest in doing that myself. It's just a shame that Tomasson hasn't landed with a major outfit to cover our Nuggets.
I welcomed Afflalo to Denver, told him I represent a Pepsi Center-sized collection of Nuggets fans worldwide (which is true) and informed him that the fans are universally happy to have him in Denver. He smiled from ear-to-ear and thanked me. Then Karl turned to Afflalo and said something like: "Watch out. That's the guy who launched FireGeorgeKarl.com" in a joking manner. I could tell Karl was much more relaxed and comfortable now. Karl then said to me: "You didn't even notice but I signed your Bring Back Birdman petition."
Now here's the best part. When the game concluded, Karl got up, put both of his hands on the back of my shoulders and marched me in the direction of a guy sitting in the stands wearing shorts and an orange polo shirt. "Hey Bret," Karl called out. "This is the guy who launched FireGeorgeKarl.com!" It was none other than Bret Adams, Karl's attorney and business partner who had threatened to sue me a year ago and made this blog famous. Adams and I shook hands, I asked if I could have a seat next to him and we proceeded to talk about the whole ordeal for about a half hour. And just like Warkentien, Bearup, Chapman, Kroenke and Karl himself, Adams couldn't have been any nicer. Adams admitted he didn't quite grasp the potency of the blogosphere but had to do what he felt was right to defend his client and friend. He said what really bothered him about the old site was that some readers were taking shots at Coby. I told him that I screen every comment and immediately take anything down that crosses the line, especially family related. And when I told Adams that the number one profession among bloggers are lawyers like him (also true), he laughed and replied: "But I hate lawyers."
At the end of the night, I told Karl and Adams that I'd like to take Karl to lunch and do an official, on-the-record interview here at Denver Stiffs and they both agreed to it. So there will be more to come!
Before I get accused of sucking up to the organization, you have to understand how surreal and yet fascinating this night was for me. Here I am - not just a blogger but the biggest Nuggets fan on the planet - talking to the very people that I've fiercely criticized and later applauded when they deserved it. And yet every one of them - Bearup, Warkentien, Karl, Chapman, Kroenke and Adams - were nothing short of gracious, honest and forthcoming. It probably helps when I can say that I pay for tickets and write the most read Nuggets blog, but they could have easily given me the cold shoulder. My only regret is that I didn't bring my camera to take pictures of all this.
Now that I've met all these guys, what's next for Denver Stiffs? Seeing Tomasson work and knowing my own job/work situation, I'm never going to be - nor do I want to be - a guy who breaks the news. Given that this isn't my full-time job, I prefer my role of commenting on the news from the fan's perspective. But moving forward, I have no doubt that I can do this job better and with a new level of education and access that very few bloggers have (although that is rapidly changing as more and more bloggers are getting credentialed at games).
When the new Denver Stiffs launches in a few weeks, I believe that getting to know the guys who run and coach the team we love will only benefit the new version of this site. I just hope that what happened in Vegas continues so that I can bring the great readers of this blog the best Nuggets coverage possible from the (not so) cheap seats!