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The Denver Nuggets: It's Complicated

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How I came to love orange balls. We may need counseling. I'll leave it up to you.

Danilo Gallinari. One of the many things to love about the Denver Nuggets.
Danilo Gallinari. One of the many things to love about the Denver Nuggets.
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

It's time. I've been hiding something from you. I wanted to tell you right away, but I was afraid you wouldn't like me afterwards. Then one thing led to another, and suddenly I liked you. A lot. And I just got more and more afraid that if I said something, we'd never be the same. But it's just gotten to be too much for me. If I don't say it now, I may never say it. So here goes...

I grew up a Los Angeles Lakers fan.

Wait, let me explain...

When I was five, my mom remarried and we moved to the Los Angeles area. I spent a lot of time around my new stepdad, Ray, and he was looking for ways for we gents to bond. He was a baseball fan, and so my introduction to pro sports was with the Los Angeles Dodgers. I spent those first years with the longest-running infield in history: Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Ron Cey. Along with Dusty Baker, Rick Monday, Reggie Smith, Tommy John, Don Sutton, and Tommy Lasorda, there was plenty to love about that team, and Ray and I found a common bond that started an amazing relationship. Lots of trips to Chavez Ravine upper deck in my youth. Dodger Dogs are one of those things that you love - if you loved them as a kid. Literally the canvas upon which I discovered that ketchup and mustard go together. If you hadn't had them at that age, they're... average, even against the Rockie Dogs at Coors Field Grille. Chavez has also always served Pepsi, and there aren't many mortal sins you can commit with me in this world, but... Just not Pepsi, ok?

Ray also taught me to keep score. On the field, on a scorecard, and as a person. He was a good and decent guy, the top computer geek for Burroughs back when Burroughs was important, when most people weren't sure what computers did. A man who took the time to make sure a nerdy kid had a father figure. Not bad, dude. We bonded at the baseball field. Along those same lines, one of the last things my grandpa and I got to do together was attending a Rockies game with our family at Mile High during inaugural season. This for the two guys who watched the Cubs on WGN before night games at Wrigley. There was quite literally an ass divot in his couch spent on hours of Harry Carey and WGN. We regularly attended Denver Bears games. The sound of a wood bat hitting a ball makes my ears perk, the same way my wife's do in a bowling alley. I know there are some non-baseball fans amongst us, but when that's a part of what baseball is to you, it's a whole different animal. It's where those men would actually talk to me. I'll watch two teams that I don't care about, or know any players on, on late night replay on a small television just to have those memories.

Six years later, I was 11, starting to develop a pre-teen attitude, and needing to find a sport of my own. Not a replacement to baseball, just an addition. The appeal of basketball was it's constant and fluid motion and reasonably higher scores, that somehow often still resulted in dramatic endings. It was 1979, and the Lakers had drafted some kid with a funny name: Earvin "Magic" Johnson. One of the things that's interesting about growing up in a basketball-centric town like L.A. -The papers and newscasts were filled with stories about the talent and personality of L.A.'s new find. I was fascinated, and started watching every Lakers game I could. By the end of the season, Magic had made the All-Star Game (as a starter), the All-Rookie team, and had led the Lakers to the NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers and Julius Erving. Doctor Freaking J. Ray recognized my newfound passion, and somehow we ACTUALLY GOT TICKETS to see Game Five of the series, in which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar injured his ankle, and still came off the bench to score 14 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter. I have no idea how we got to go to that game, we did not have Final Tickets Type income, and we were up in the cheap seats. Thanks to whoever got Ray those tickets. So, Lakers Win! All well and good, but rumor had it that Kareem could not play in Game Six, and the Lakers were headed back to Philadelphia. I was a wreck. Remember, at this point, Kareem had not won a title with the Lakers, and expectations were high. Only one of the games had been won by double digits (10). This was some serious sh--, man. Doctor. Freaking. J.

Two nights later, I watched Game Six with Ray from our living room - which meant bean bags, shag carpet, and a black and white console T.V. Ray had become a basketball fan himself over the season, and had made a big bowl of popcorn. My nerves were jangling, and the game came on. The announcers led off with tragedy: sure enough, Kareem couldn't play. Good god, we were in trouble. The Sixers had already won two with Kareem intact. To add insult to injury, the announcers said that Paul Westhead had decided that Magic would be starting at center. He looks like a genius in hindsight, but... In that moment, you're thinking... Our point guard. Our 6' 9" rookie point guard who is a genius AT HIS POSITION. Starting Center. No one seemed to be in more disbelief than Johnson, who kept delaying the jump ball, because he couldn't quit giggling when he'd step up to the line.

Suddenly, I knew we were going to win the game. That's right, "we". In that moment, I discovered that the Lakers and I were a "we". If our rookie point guard could be so damned loose as to giggle when starting for our legendary center in the biggest game of his career... What did I have to worry about?

You probably know the rest, but... Magic had 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in a 123-107 win. A sixteen point domination. On the road, against a team who had to have the game to stay in it. Johnson played center, forward, and guard in the game, and became the only rookie in NBA history to win the NBA Finals MVP. And I was completely and totally smitten. I fell for basketball a year before I fell for a girl. You never forget your first. Magic will probably always be my favorite basketball player.

Suddenly, basketball was my favorite thing, and I was starting Junior High. Our school had three-on-three "tourneys" every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday over lunch, and I was teamed with a pair of cousins from the Philippines.  We were the geeks. The eldest cousin, Joel, was over six feet tall at the age of 13, and could touch the rim by barely hopping. Henry was so short as to not be able to close the hatchback on our family's car, even when jumping. I'm not sure, but I don't believe he was over five feet tall at that point.

We were terrors, and ran the table nearly every week. Joel under the basket, Henry running circles around everyone, and me scoring via my one semi-sure thing, a year-long-practiced semi-sky-hook. My Jamaal Wilkes experiment was a tragic/comic failure. We all had one tough-to-defend shot, we all tried on D, and Joel didn't allow anything inside of five feet from the basket. I had officially fallen in love with hoops, and those two years were some of the happiest of my life. By the way, I'm still friends with Joel and Henry. They are the first real friends I ever had in my life. Joel is a concert pianist of exceptional caliber, and had he grown another 5 inches, could have played at LEAST major college ball under the basket. He liked the math of defense and rebounding. His mother's-sister's-son Henry is still such a fine shot as to be a trainer and rangemaster for the Las Vegas P.D. On the basketball court, he was pretty deadly from anything inside of 20 feet as well, and could shoot them at so high an arc that no one could block them. A gift from having grown up playing one-on-one with a cousin over a foot taller than you and still learning how to score.

Let's be honest. I lucked into Upland Junior High's version of the Harlem Globetrotters, had one shot I could create for myself to the tune of 60-ish percent in decent range, and thought I belonged with two artists. For the music geeks: we also played in Jazz Band together, and the tall kid played the alto sax (tiny) and the short kid played the baritone sax (almost too tall to play). They were and are amazing people, and I lucked out in several ways.

Sadly, in 1981, my wonderful stepdad passed away unexpectedly, and my mom rightly wanted us back near family. At 13, I was headed back to Fort Collins, Colorado. And sadly somehow, that turned out to be my last time playing basketball, personally. Weirdly always a favorite game to watch, was just a far better large dumb soccer defender. Know thy limitations. But I WOULD ALWAYS AND FOREVER BE A LAKERS FAN!!!!

Right?

Well, for a while. I held on to that affinity for years, and cried like a little kid the day Magic made his retirement announcement.

But I'd also started a little something on the side. Someone else had caught my eye. AM/FM combo radio gets you tickets at times. I'd started going to the Denver Nuggets games in the 80's.

Simultaneously, I started as a vocal performance major at CSU during the Denver Nuggets 1987-88 season, and the goofy group of guys I was singing with in college got an opportunity to perform the National Anthem at a game during the early season. One of the real perks of the gig was free tickets to the game about 5 rows off the floor at Big Mac. The team was a cast of characters, with Alex English, Calvin Natt, Michael Adams, Mike Evans, T.R. Dunn, and the original Denver Stiffs: Danny Schayes, Bill Hanzlik, and Blair Rasmussen. Not saying they were Stiffs, only that I thought that was where the moniker began. Coach Doug Moe was a slightly-grumpier version of my dad, and I had an immediate affinity for the team. They were loveable, fun to watch, and utilized their advantage at altitude to run opponents off the floor. I wasn't going to do anything crazy like give up on the Lakers, but I kept paying more and more attention to the local crew for the next few seasons, and then, there was a magical moment that changed everything.

This bit might divide the Denver Stiffs writer's crew a bit as to just how "magical" it was... Sorry, Sonics Rising friends, as I am loving your contributions, please stay, but... We're talking about the 1993-94 playoffs and Dan Issel and George Karl and LaPhonso Ellis and Dikembe Freaking Mutombo. Clutch. Clutch play, clutch the ball on the floor, pop that clutch. To this day, it's the most dramatic sporting event that worked out in my favor, no other sporting event has had the effect on me that that series did, and I have been nothing but a Nuggets-first sports fan since. Did I still love the Lakers, you ask? Actually, no. We'd started a slow decline after I moved. And it got worse... Shaq and Kobe eventually completely poisoned me, and by the time Gary Payton and Karl Malone had joined the Lake-Show, I hated that team with a passion, and have never really reconciled with the Purple and Gold.

I've been a Nuggets fan ever since. It wasn't so easy to start. The relationship started off rocky, Following that Cinderella season of ‘93-‘94, the next nine season's win totals: 41, 35, 21, 11, 14, 35, 40, 27, and 17. We made it to .500 ball that next season, and then didn't get all that close again (except 35 and 40) until Carmelo Anthony arrived. During that stretch, I stuck with the Nuggets, attending a bunch of games. Along the way, I met my lovely 6' tall basketball-playing wife. We attended nine of the wins in one of those extra-lean seasons. And we only went to nine games. They should have paid US to show up for good luck. One of my eldest daughter's first words was "BOCKY", as "Rocky" seemed to be a little tough for her at that point. The damned mountain lion still makes her giggle. She's now 21. Stay away from my daughter, Rocky.

Along the way, there have been some fun moments in sticking with a team, including these last several seasons, and I do hope to see us win it all someday. I'm excited about the current squad, admittedly, though am not predicting quite those heights just yet. I've been wrong before, but... Statistics. None of that makes it less fun to guess through the lens of what-ifs. How many more Kevin Durant-level seismic injuries will come this season? I hope not many, I like watching the best guys play. Which new experiments won't work? There is a lot of great competition out there, it will be fun if we can compete and succeed. It seems as if we want to, and you see signs of good things, but many miles still to go just to see what regular season will look like. No need to predict anything just yet, though I believe the Stiffs will have pre-season prognostications coming sometime soon. Grains of salt abide.

So... the jig is up. I'd been hiding something from you, and finally had to get it off my chest. But I've been faithful for a really long time. And I know there's a way we can make this work.

What say you, Stiffs faithful? How did you come to be a part of Nuggets Nation? How and when did the Nuggets capture your attention? We've said it before: Let it all out. This is a safe place.

But stay away, Rocky.