For Samsung's Favorite Sports Highlight, I have chosen a moment in Nuggets' basketball history where they shocked the world and became the first 8th-seeded team in the NBA playoffs to knock of a No. 1 seed. It was 1994 and the location was Seattle, Washington.
What's your favorite sports highlight?
I was 15 years old, about to turn 16, driving time. The Nuggets had just come off of two horrendous seasons under Paul Westhead and his bizzaro game plan of, "shoot the ball immediately, don't play defense" (the Late Orlando Woolridge thrived in that "system"). And then a season under Nuggets' legend Dan Issel in 1992-93. The moribund Nuggets managed to improve themselves with young talent centered around the defensive stopping ability of Dikembe Mutombo, point guard play of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and the solid forward work of LaPhanso Ellis. Things, in 1994 were definitely looking up when they finished with a respectable 42 wins and the 8th seed in the Western Conference.
George Karl's Seattle Supersonics were the beasts of the West, winning 63 games that season and were, needless to say, heavily favored over the upstart Nuggets (although they split the season series with Denver 2-2 ... which should have told people something). The Sonics team, one could argue, was at its peak ... with Shawn Kemp, Gary Peyton, Detlef Schrempf, and an impressive assortment of role players.
In the first round, best of five series, it was expected that the Sonics would make quick work of the Nuggets, and it appeared, through the first two games, that they would. They won the first two contests in Seattle against the Nuggets by hefty margins. Then the series shifted to Denver and the Nuggets took full advantage of their home court by blowing out the Sonics in Game 3, and then slugged out a defensive battle in Game 4 to win in overtime.
When the series shifted back to Seattle, you could almost feel how desperate the Sonics were. Even though they ran out to a big lead in the first quarter, the Nuggets reeled them back in. From there, much like Game 4, it was a defensive slug-fest. Dikembe blocked eight shots in Game 5 (that he was credited for, could have easily been 10 or 11) on his way to set an NBA record for most blocks in a five game series (31 blocks). The game went to overtime again, and set up an epic ending.
We all know what happened. The Nuggets won, but more than that we were left with the image of Deke cradling the ball as he wept with joy while laying on the Sonics home floor. I remember at the time thinking that it was one of the biggest upsets I had seen, probably ever in my 15 short years. Now, I look back on that moment with a twinge of sadness.
Two seasons later Mutombo would leave via free agency to the Atlanta Hawks after Nuggets' GM and nemesis Bernie Bickerstaff offered him what can only be described as an insult contract. Deke's value to the Nuggets was tremendous and more should have been done to keep him here, or at least sign and trade him. Before that, after feuding with Bickerstaff in private, and losing control of his emotions in public ... Issel would quit after the first couple months of the 1994-95 season. He was briefly replaced by assistant Gene Littles, then Bickerstaff stepped in and coached the remainder of the season. One can only wonder what could have become of the Nuggets. Laphonso had perpetual knee problems that prematurely ended his career. Rauf experienced a public outcry when he refused to stand for the National Anthem, then, he too, soon left the Nuggets.
The rest of the 90's was filled with horrible basketball, bad ownership, and a team in limbo as the Nuggets were sold twice in two years. Yet, one wonders what would have happened if they continued to build around the core of Mutombo, Ellis and Rauf. What if Issel hadn't quit? One can only dream ...
All we have is a brief blip in an otherwise horrible decade for Nuggets fans, but it's a historical one. I get a little teared up when I see that image of Mutumbo cradling the ball. The team did something historic, and it will remain my favorite sports highlight until the Nuggets win a championship.
Watch the highlights of the Nuggets/Sonics 1994 first round series below.
What are your favorite sports highlights (or moment)?