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Remembering a truly original Denver Nugget...

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I got a call from my Uncle Marty on Friday informing me that a friend of our family, Leonard Alterman, had passed away, and asked if I could mention Leonard's passing on this blog. Not only was Leonard Alterman - known as "Chink" to his teammates - regarded as one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet, but he might have been the last surviving member of the 1948-49 Denver Nuggets...Denver's first professional basketball team. (Not to be confused with the more commonly known, yet still rarely mentioned, 1949-50 Denver Nuggets).

(Pictured: The Denver Nuggets logo from 1949-50, according to Sportslogos.net)

Wanting to learn more about Leonard and those original Nuggets, I did some digging online and stumbled upon a book titled The Golden Age of Amateur Basketball, written by Adolph H. Grundman. In this section of the book, Grundman documents the days when what eventually became the NBA competed with "amateur" basketball organizations for the country's best players. This was the era during which Leonard played basketball at the highest level available.

As Grundman details in his book, industrial corporations would hire college players who wanted to extend their basketball careers, but still be considered amateurs (so players could remain eligible for the Olympic team). By working for a corporation like Phillips, Caterpillar or Goodyear full time, players weren't technically considered "professional basketball players." Eventually, teams like the Phillips 66ers, Peoria Caterpillars, Akron Goodyear Wingfoots and Milwaukee Allen-Bradleys formed the National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL) in 1947. According to Grundman and Wikipedia, the NIBL featured multiple Denver teams, such as the Chevrolets, Central Bankers, Chewies and Truckers...but no "Nuggets." (On a side note, I wish today's Nuggets would wear "Central Bankers" jerseys for the next retro jersey night!)

So where did the Nuggets come from and who were they?

According to the NBA's Hoopedia, the "Nuggets" were an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team that won the AAU national championship in 1939 and were a runner-up in the 1948 tournament. After that 1948 tournament, however, the Nuggets would never be an amateur outfit again. Again, according to Grundman rather than join the NIBL and retain their amateur status, the Nuggets' General Manager, Hal Davis, secured a franchise in the nine-team National Basketball League (NBL) to play in 1948-49 - one season after the NBL's Minneapolis Lakers and their star attraction, George Mikan, defected for the rival Basketball Association of America (BAA). Davis wanted players to be paid openly for playing basketball, rather than be paid by a corporation for something else in an unregulated way.

And thus, Denver's first professional basketball team was the 1948-49 Nuggets of the NBL, and Leonard Alterman was on that roster. So was Leonard's close, lifelong friend, Morris "Mo" Udall. After his brief professional playing career was over, Udall would go on to become a U.S. Representative from the State of Arizona and his son, Mark, would follow in his footsteps and become a U.S. Representative himself, but from the State of Colorado. Today, Mark Udall is one of Colorado's two U.S. Senators.

In 1948-49, the Nuggets of the NBL would finish last in the Western Division (incidentally, Denver was the furthest "western" team in the Western Division) and in 1949 they merged with the BAA to form a new league to be named the National Basketball Association of America (NBA). Three players stayed on when the Nuggets became an NBA team, and Leonard wasn't among them. And yet, even though the NBA counts stats from the BAA going back to 1946, they don't count stats from the NBL. So you won't find Leonard or his non-NBA teammates' names mentioned anywhere in the history books, or on sites like Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com/history or even the Nuggets own history section on their website (which, frankly, needs a complete overhaul).

Marty told me that Leonard had great stories about those old days. Like the fact that he got paid so little (about $6,000 a year), he only played home games because he couldn't afford to leave his day job when the Nuggets traveled to another city. Oh, and he had to wash his own jersey, too. Imagine Carmelo Anthony doing that!

In recognition of those original Nuggets, the Nuggets organization honored them at halftime at McNichols Arena about 20 years ago. As part of the ceremony, Leonard got a jacket. That's all he got for paving the way for hundreds of basketball players to play professionally in Denver and get paid well for it. But Leonard never complained and was thrilled just to be mentioned. As Marty told me, Leonard loved reminiscing about those original days of Denver professional basketball and would tell anyone his stories who took the time to listen.

I wish I had more stories to share about Leonard and those original Nuggets, but regrettably I never got a chance to hear these tales firsthand. I only met the man once when I dropped something off to him while working for my dad during college over 10 years ago.

While the 1948-49 Nuggets might just be a faint memory in the history of professional basketball in Denver, I have to believe that it's thanks to those players, coaches and general managers that we still have professional basketball in the Mile High City today. They started it. And even though professional basketball returned to Denver in the form of the ABA's Rockets in 1967, my hunch is it didn't feel right until Carl Scheer renamed them the Nuggets in 1974, as an homage to those early basketball pioneers like Leonard Alterman.

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