Sometimes there are moments that stick in your brain forever. Whether they be from circumstance, significance or just plain coincidence .... it seems that they stay with you and keep coming back again and again. For me, the year 1993 - 94 is huge on many levels. For many of you the experience may be different.
As I began this journey, examining and telling the story of that Nuggets team, it occurred to me that many people who read Denver Stiffs weren't even born when that run happened. Some others are too young to remember. After I got over the initial shock that at the age of 35, nearly 36 that I'm that much older than the average reader of this website it dawned on me that this was more a history lesson than a personal essay.
Yet, moments like this ARE personal.
Why it matters to me
When you are in your middle teens, at least for boys, hormones are racing and everything is changing. It sucks being a teenager sometimes. I was no different, and in fact I had other things on my mind (as many of you know) that contributed to the awkwardness. Additionally my mom and step-father had suddenly picked up stakes and moved the family to California in May of 1993. It separated my two older brothers and I from our dad (with whom we have always been very, very close).
Living in California was a massive culture shock to me at the time. We lived in the Los Angeles area and was just unhappy all around. It was while I was living there that I learned Michael Jordan retired from basketball. For those that weren't around at the time, this was a huge surprise to the average fan. You got the sense, however, that this was some sort of fundamental change in basketball. The Jordan era Chicago Bulls were unstoppable, and had just beaten the Phoenix Suns in 6 games. It was an interesting time (particularly when Jordan announced he would try his hand at baseball).
Meanwhile, right before the 1994 season began my mom suddenly moved the family back to Colorado. This time to Grand Junction. Even more culture shock this time, as this was the first time I'd ever spent in a small city. As we settled into some normalcy, the 94 Nuggets season got underway in earnest. I was a sophomore in High school and soon developed a group of friends (ones that would last me until this very day). Things were starting to look up, and as the 1994 season came to a close, this decidedly average Nuggets team (42-40) became legendary.
I watched the entire Nuggets/Sonics series wearing my #20 LaPhonso Ellis shirt that my grandmother had given me shortly after the Nuggets changed from the iconic rainbow skyline jerseys they had for 10 years. I would call my dad after every game and he and I would excitedly talk about what happened ... even after the first two games were losses. The Nuggets hadn't made the playoffs since 1990 and it was fun to watch any playoff basketball. When the Nuggets bested the Sonics in overtime I fell to the floor, kicking my feet in the air and screamed. Oh yeah! I made a fool of myself but I didn't care.
The second round series was an even more severe roller coaster ride. Right in the middle of the series I rode on a Greyhound Bus (5 1/2 hours ... sitting next to smelly people) to Denver and spent the Summer with my dad. Nuggets managed to lose the first three games. Game three was a heart breaker as Jeff Hornacek hit a shot with no time remaining to give the Jazz a commanding 3-0 lead. I seriously thought it was over. My dad and I sat back and relaxed. Watched game 4 with little to no expectations.
Then came the improbable. The Nuggets won the next three games, roaring back from the most insurmountable deficit in sports ... an 0-3 hole. It was magical. There was a watch party for game seven at Big Mac (McNichols Arena to you lay people). Being back in Denver, and experiencing what the city was experiencing was amazing. The only comparable feeling was Rocktober (Colorado Rockies run to the playoffs in 2007). Unlike those Rockies, however, these Nuggets couldn't complete the journey. They fell to the Jazz in Game 7 of the Second Round, losing 91-81. The team made it close for most of the game, but was doomed by a bad stretch in the second half.
It didn't matter though. The Nuggets gave us an amazing ride in a sport where the best team ALWAYS wins. The city of Denver rallied around the team, and in this financial success (which reflected in the attendance the next season) helped convince Ascent shareholders to buy the Quebec Nordiques and bring them to Colorado, which in turn helped build the Pepsi Center.
More than that though ... in a year of my life that seemed in perpetual turmoil, the Nuggets provided a much needed respite from everything else. I never forgot that, and I cherish that memory to this day.
Despite those who wish to diminish the moment
Why it matters to us
I didn't really have a plan to celebrate this Nuggets anniversary until, after last season, I read an article by Bill Simmons shortly after the Nuggets were dispatched by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA playoffs. In it he brushes aside Nuggets history (admittedly easy to do) and passive aggressively minimizes the 1994 Nuggets run.
Now, in hindsight Simmons wasn't degrading the moment. I don't expect much from him, however, what offended me was the sad-sack, sheepish, kick-the-dirt, "we ain't nothin' and we never been nothin'", claptrap that I heard in response to Simmons missive from Nuggets fans. Including a "The 1994 playoff run wasn't special" sentiment that was truly beyond the pale.
Let me make this clear. The Denver Nuggets were the very first team, in NBA HISTORY, to pull off an 8 over 1 upset in the NBA. The very first. In a league where upsets like this NEVER happen (four times in it's entire history) the Nuggets of 1994 were the very first and probably the most unlikely. That's something to be very much proud of. The Nuggets of 1994 weren't a great team, but they were Denver's team. They came together and played at their peak at the absolute right time. They followed through with an even more unlikely comeback from an 0-3 deficit in the second round, becoming the first to go down 0-3 and force a game 7.
That was YOUR Nuggets, Denver.
I saw a team in 2008-09 that the city was reluctant to warm up to until they traded for Chauncey Billups. That run is hard to top. Yet, in 1994 the entire city came together in a brief month long period and embraced the Nuggets like they hadn't since the mid to late 70's. There was something extremely likeable about that team. Be it Brian Williams (Bison Dele) quirky personality and massive energy. Dikembe Mutombo's mega blocks and big time leadership. LaPhonso Ellis and his freaky athleticism and his heart and soul of the team. Mahmoud Abdul Rauf and his quicker than lightning shot. Bryant Stith and his toughness and leadership. Robert Pack and his fire cracker unpredictability. Dan Issel and his respectability within the league and, more importantly, the respect of his players.
I'm not sure the Nuggets had a more "likeable" team in it's history. There was such a feeling of optimism around Denver and coming after the disastrous and embarrassing Paul Westhead years, it was like the town breathed a sigh of relief. No more humiliating losses for the sake of a "system", it truly was a city coming together to watch it's Nuggets.
I have one message for the "well they didn't win a championship" people. This doesn't deserve celebrating? The first number eight seed to beat a number one seed. Ever. It had NEVER happened before in a league where the best team ALWAYS wins. Your Nuggets were the first, and followed it up with one of the most amazing comebacks in playoff history versus the Utah Jazz. If this doesn't deserve celebrating then I'm now sure WHAT is.
Lets drop our cold hearted cynicism and just enjoy the fact that, despite the Nuggets lackluster history in the NBA, we have something that no other team in the Association has. Celebrate something that deserves our praise.
On Monday night, at halftime, against the Clippers enjoy the moment that brought Denver together behind it's basketball team.
SAVE THE DATE FOR SATURDAY, MARCH 22ND FOR
STIFFS NIGHT OUT WITH NUGGETS GM TIM CONNELLY
Nuggets GM Tim Connelly is going to join his fellow Stiffs to watch the NCAA Tournament at Jake's Food & Spirits on Saturday, March 22nd at 5pm. This is a great opportunity to meet Tim and get the inside scoop on your Nuggets!