Before one of the Nuggets playoff games this past spring, I got into a cordial albeit somewhat contentious debate with Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien. Despite having just met, I couldn't help but bring up what a difference it was from the fans' perspective to root for the 2008-09 Nuggets versus their 2007-08 predecessors. Even though the teams were separated by a mere four victories, I tried explaining how a team of character instead of characters will always win over the hearts of Colorado fans.
Warkentien turned the conversation back on me for having foolishly, in his opinion, condemned Nuggets head coach George Karl and the organization in general during a 50-win season in 2007-08. His point was that I had no clue how hard it is to win 50 games in an NBA season. I tried (unsuccessfully) to explain to Warkentien that it wasn't about the 50 wins, but rather the apparent lack of effort from the bench and on the floor, the routine off and on the court incidents that the players got themselves into, the fifth straight first round playoff exit and, the kicker, the sweep at the hands of the Lakers without putting up so much as a nominal fight.
In other words, the 2007-08 Nuggets just weren't a team worth rooting for. And the same could be said of the last three Broncos teams, most of the Rockies teams in the post-Blake Street Bombers Era up to 2007 and most of the Nuggets teams in the post-Dikembe Mutombo / pre-Carmelo Anthony Era.
You see, unlike our counterparts in larger markets like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas or Boston, Denver sports fans have always been rooted (somewhat) in reality. We don't expect to win every game and recognize that our franchises, being located in one of the countries smaller markets by professional sports standards, are unlikely to outspend in order to win. And thus, we live by a simple credo: as long as the players and coaches we root for care more about the outcome of the games they play than we do, we will support them with our dollars, time and emotions.
It's not necessarily about wins and losses, but rather the effort on the field, on the court and in the locker room. Hence why it felt better rooting for Jeff Bzdelik's 17-win 2002-03 Nuggets than Dan Issel's 40-win 2000-01 squad. And why it felt great rooting for Mike Shanahan's 8-win 1995 Broncos, but it just never felt right rooting for the teams he coached in his final three seasons even though they, too, were essentially 8-win teams on average.
In fact, since the Rockies arrival in 1993, I can't remember a time when we could honestly say that the personnel running, coaching and playing for all three of our favorite teams - the Broncos, Rockies and Nuggets (sorry, I regard the Avalanche like an adopted fourth child and don't know enough about hockey to comment on it intelligently) - genuinely cared more about winning as much, if not more, than we the fans did.
Just months after the Nuggets completed their best season in NBA franchise history, we find the Broncos off to a stunningly wonderful 5-0 start, the Rockies in the playoffs for only their third time in team history (even though they're down 2-1 to Philadelphia) and a possible third straight 50-win Nuggets season that could see them make another Western Conference Finals.
But again, it's not about the wins but the guys producing these wins. Doesn't it feel better rooting for the young, energetic, workaholic Josh McDaniels than the arrogant, how-dare-you-question-my-authority, resting on the laurels of past glory Mike Shanahan? Shanahan became so entrenched as the Broncos "coach for life" that he had the chutzpah to build a 34,927-square-foot home that includes a bowling alley, a racquetball court (I didn't know people still played racquetball) and a shuffleboard table. I hope he has time to enjoy it when he's commuting to Denver from Dallas next year. And on the field, it's certainly more enjoyable rooting for the humble, team-first Kyle Orton than the cocky, me-first Jay Cutler.
Doesn't it just feel right hooting and hollering in support of Jim Tracy, knowing that he won't jerk his players around the batting order like his predecessor Clint Hurdle did? And knowing that when the Rockies get themselves into a strategic pickle, Tracy's captivation of numbers and scenarios - you know, Baseball Managing 101 - will often lead the Rockies to the right place?
And on the hardwood, it sure was nice seeing George Karl take a "my way or the highway" approach to the 2008-09 season rather than the "I'll just enjoy this free courtside seat" version of Karl that we unfortunately became accustomed to from 2006 through 2008. (I'm hoping that Karl's eruption on his players during a meaningless preseason game against Partizan Belgrade during the first quarter last weekend is a sign of things to come this year. How many times have I and the readers of this blog begged for "Fiery George" to rear his head again these past two seasons?) And it goes without saying that "lunch pail" guys like Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo, Chris Andersen and Renaldo Balkman make $300 worth of Nuggets tickets go down easier than selfish divas like Allen Iverson, Ruben Patterson and Voshon Lenard.
1997-98 remains as the best period in Denver sports history and will probably never be topped. Back-to-back Broncos Super Bowl victories will do that for you. But even during that time, the fact that those two Broncos teams each won more games than the 1997-98 Nuggets taints it just a tad.
2009-10 has the potential to feel almost as good. Let's savor it while it lasts...