A History Lesson: Your Denver Nuggets/Rockets and the ABA years.

I am a 45 year old Denver Nugget fan. I was born in Denver in 1967, and my first pro basketball game was at the Denver Auditorium Arena in the early 1970s with my dad and older brother where the current Ellie Caulkins Opera House now sits.

I was initially inspired by Andrew Feinstein's post of "Presenting the Nuggets' Dream Team" where legend Ralph Simpson was not even given an honorable mention, let alone a spot as one of Denver's greates all-time shooting guards.

Since then, there was a post by Nate asking us about who in Nuggets history was great but "obscure". I promoted Monte Towe. Crickets.

Today, in the "Greatest Trade of Nuggets' History" post, I brought up Denver sending cash, and Dave Robisch to the Baltimore Claws for Dan Issel as an honorable mention. Again, nothing.

Thanks to players like David Thompson, Dan Issel, Bobby Jones, Monte Towe, Mack Calvin, Fatty Taylor, Barry Beck, Marvin Webster, and coaches/management giants of Larry Brown and Carl Scheer, and the foresight of Mayor Bill McNichols to build an arena that was quadruple the size of the Denver Colliseum, the Nuggets were one of only 4 teams absorbed into the NBA as the ABA became more and more of a circus sideshow. If it weren't for these giants, there'd be no "Nuggets". So, it's time for some schooling. I present to you your Denver Nuggets/Rockets:

Personal memories:

I don't very much remember my first Rockets' game, as I was probably only 4 or 5 at the time. I do remember thinking that the Auditorium Arena was almost exactly like the Denver Colliseum where the stock show is, and where the Denver Spurs played minor league hockey. I also know that I must have been brainwashed by my older brother to worship Ralph Simpson, as he is my first basketball hero.

I also remember crying like a baby often. The Nuggets never won a championship, and in the final year of the ABA, I remember Dr. J draining a last second shot to win the ABA championship. Upon research, I have learned that Dr. J made a last second shot in game 5 of the best of 7 series to put the NY Nets up 3-2, and then subsequently broke my heart again with a miraculous comeback in Game 6 to win the Championship in the last ABA game ever. How cool is it that there is youtube of this last ABA game? One from David Thompson's perspective

and the other from Dr. J's

I also attended the Denver Nuggets' basketball camp in Ft. Collins when I was 8. I got my picture taken with coach Larry Brown. My mom, on the last day of camp also ordered my brother to guard the restroom door at the boys' room on the last day of camp. My brother then delegated that responsibility to me, and I failed. Chopper Traveligni walked in on my mom while she was using the restroom and mom was pissed.

Ralph Simpson:

To go back to my original inspiration for this post, Ralph Simpson was the Nuggets' first steady basketball all-star. We had one or two season wonders like Spencer Haywood and Julius Keye. But Ralph Simpson was my first basketball hero.

Look at these stats:

Excluding Simpson's rookie year, Simpson never averaged less than 18 points per game in his 6 seasons with the Nuggets. In 1971-72 season he average 27 ppg. He was a 5 time ABA all star. Here's his tribute page on He should have been in the Nuggets' Dream Team roster.

Rockets history:

As I was but a wee toddler during the formative years of the Rockets, the best thing to do is to link you to this article about the Rockets. Of note from this article is that the original name was the Denver Larks after the Colorado state bird ( the lark bunting ) but after trouble raising enough capital to run the team, the franchise was sold to Bill Ringsby, owner of "Ringsby Rocket trucking company" who then named the team after his company in an act of self-promotion (disabusing my long-held belief that we were named after our Lockheed-Martin rocket engine plant outside of Chatfield dam). Also of note from this article is how Denver engineered a coup of sorts by signing Spencer Haywood to a pro contract before he was eligible as a pro under a hardship exception so that Haywood could provide for his mother and 9 siblings. Haywood was a beast in his one and only season with the Rockets, but the next season, the Nuggets refused to rework Haywood's contract (despite his scoring 40 points in each of the first two exhibition games) and Haywood bolted and went to the Supersonics in the NBA. (No, Bernie Bickerstaff was not our GM in 1970).

Spencer Haywood's one and only year was terrific though, and he led Denver to it's only playoff series win as the Rockets in 1970 with this game 7 description:

"Predictably, the series went the full distance. In Game 7 in Denver, in front of 9,893 fans at the Denver Coliseum, the Rockets simply dismantled the Caps (143-119) for their very first playoff series win. Rocket veterans Larry Jones and Byron Beck led the team with 27 and 25 points, respectively. Beck had 11 rebounds, and Haywood had 19. With the game all but over (the score was 132-103), a frustrated Rick Barry knocked Rocket guard Jeff Congdon to the floor with an intentional foul. While Congdon shot his free throws, two Rocket players (Haywood and Julius Keye) surrounded Barry at the mid-court line. Haywood deliberately bumped Barry when the Caps came down the floor. Barry then heaved the ball at Haywood, and Haywood threw a punch at Barry. After Haywood was ejected from the game, another series of fights broke out. Rocket guard Lonnie Wright eventually decked Barry with a vicious blind-side punch, as a number of fans spilled onto the floor. One of the fans also took a swipe at Barry, who was on the floor being aided by a trainer. It was an ugly end to an exciting series -- the only playoff series that the Denver Rockets would ever win."

The next two seasons after Haywood left, the Rockets sucked. But, they got Ralph Simpson on another hardship exception for pro eligibility. While the Rockets struggled, Simpson did not. By 1971-1972 season, the Rockets were on the upswing. In addition to Simpson, the Nuggets added all-American Dave Robisch (my personal 5 year old brain's memory of Robisch is that he was horrible) and Larry Brown.

Notwithstanding the promise of Ralph Simpson, the Nuggets underachieved and the team's owners hired Larry Brown to become coach, and Carl Sheer to be General Manager and overhauled the team image with a new nickname, the Nuggets. In hindsight, this restructuring is probably why there is still a Denver Nuggets. Here are some nice pictures of Denver Rocket Legends:

Spencer Haywood, Julius Keye and Larry Jones

The ABA Denver Nuggets:

Now we are in my semi-reliable memory bank, but I again recommend you to read the Remembering the ABA link about your Denver Nuggets. Brown and Sheer also brought along Doug Moe as an assistant coach, and persuaded highly touted talent in the form of Mack Calvin and Bobby Jones to join the Nuggets. Notwithstanding a 40-2 home regular season record however, the Nuggets gave away 3 home games to the Pacers in the playoffs and lost that series (no specific recollection, but I'm sure I cried).

Determined to improve, the Nuggets drafted David Thompson and Marvin Webster, and traded Dave Robisch and $$ for Dan Issel from the short lived Baltimore Claws. Seeing as how Dan Issel probably became the Nuggets' best ever center, it's hard to say that this trade does not at least deserve honorable mention on the Nuggets' greatest trades of all time list. In any event, the circumstances around the Nuggets acquiring Issel, taking advantage of the ABA dysfunction that rendered the league a joke, may have been one of the saving graces for the survival of the franchise upon the ABA's demise.

(tangent: the Baltimore Claws HAD to have been the inspiration for some of the Flint Tropic gags in Semi-Pro. Highlights from link:

They originally were called the Hustlers, but were made to change their nickname by the ABA right before the season because of "negative connotations" (i.e. Hustler magazine); in their exhibition games, they sewed patches of fabric that read "Claws" on them over surplus Memphis Sounds jerseys, and the color of the patches didn’t match; one of their players was arrested during their exhibition games, and the team couldn’t afford to bail the guy out so he stayed in jail 3 days; they didn’t make payroll for any of the players and couldn’t even give them meal money during their exhibition season, so the players worked for free; and when the ABA demanded they raise operating revenue, and the Claws failed, the ABA terminated the franchise right before the season started.

As for Issel, the Claws promised cash to the Kentucky Colonels in exchange for Issel. Issel was pissed but showed up to Baltimore’s training camp reluctantly. As the Claws continued to fail to pay the promised money to Kentucky, the Nuggets stepped in with the cash and Dave Robisch, and Issel became a Nugget.

Note the sewn on patches for the Claws jerseys here:

The 1975-1976 Nuggets then became one of the two elite teams of the NBA, the other being the NY Nets featuring Dr. J. Another huge factor in the Nuggets being around after the demise of the ABA was Denver Mayor Bill McNichols building an arena that was quadruple the size of the Denver Auditorium Arena (and naming the arena after himself. LOL).

The Nuggets had sold out many of their games in the 1974-1975 season, but the next season, the Nuggets certainly made themselves NBA ready by building a 18,000 person arena, and then packing it with rabid Nugget fans. The ABA all star game, where the Nuggets played the rest of the ABA all-stars was a sell out, and an "event" in that it was also a Glen Campbell/Charlie Rich concert that also had the first slam -dunk contest. Don't think for a minute that the NBA did not notice that the attendance for this event in Denver was 17,798 or the attendance of 19,034 at Game 5 of the Nuggets/Nets finals at McNichols. But for McNichols arena, there's no way Denver merges with the NBA.

Another point about this season relating to my own personal memories about the Nuggets was dimunitive 5' 7" point guard Monte Towe, who was drafted by the Nuggets and reunited with his fellow college teammate David Thompson. According to Wikipedia, Monte Towe and David Thompson invented the alley oop, and at 2:26 of the David Thompson version of the youtube of the final ABA game linked above is a vintage Towe/Thompson oop.

So Dr. J broke my heart. I had many tears. But, the Nugs merged into the NBA, enabling me to have more heartache at the hands of Portland in our first NBA season and the bleeping Lakers for the last 37 years (for as much of a joke as the ABA became, that the Nugs with David Thompson, Dan Issel and Bobby Jones won 50 games and gave the eventual world champion Trailblazers all they could handle in Denver's inaugural NBA season shows that the Nuggets were legitimate).

Fun ABA/Nuggets photos:

Nuggets halter top night promotion 1973:

From greatest Nugget game ever where Denver scored 5 points in 3 seconds to beat the Spurs

When the Nuggets hired a witch to curse the Indiana Pacers in a playoff series:

The Orbiter trophy presented by Frontier Airlines to the team that won the regular season series between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Stars:

David Thompson posterizing George Karl:

Ralph Simpson

Bobby Jones:

Monte Towe:

Mack Calvin:

Dan Issel:

Fatty Taylor:

Byron Beck:

Larry Brown:

Carl Scheer:

and a link to the commemorative 1974-75 team Pepsi Can collection.

So, these are the origins and roots of your Denver Nuggets. In terms of Greatest Trades in Nuggets History, give a little appreciation to the scrambling and cunning of your Nugget forefathers, who outlasted numerous failing ABA franchises. Also give it up for your elders who packed McNichols back in the day to convince the NBA that Denver was worthy of a franchise.


And, for the love of God, please read and click every link and look at every photo of The movie Semi-pro is almost a documentary. Examples, there actually was a bear wrestling halftime show, bikini clad women to distract the opposing team on free throws, and the first professional female player. Click the "outlandish promotions" link.

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