I've been trying to think of a story that best describes the impact that the 1993-94 Denver Nuggets had on our community and those who follow our local professional basketball team closely. While having several to choose from, I keep coming back to something that took place a season earlier, during the 1992-93 campaign.
With attendance and attention lagging for our Nuggets at the beginning of the 1990s, the Nuggets franchise would host an annual "fan day" day at McNichols Arena for season ticket holders and their families. Basically, each coach and/or player would get a six-foot banquet table to sit at and they'd sign whatever the fans brought: basketball cards, photographs, basketballs, sneakers, jerseys, etc. Chaperoned by my mother, I went each year and prior to the 1992-93 season I could accumulate as many autographs and conversations as I wanted ... because no one ever showed up. In fact, these events were so sparsely attended that I could get multiple autographs from each player if I wanted. Frankly, they were just thrilled to get some attention.
Until the 1993 "fan day."
Despite coming off a 20 and a 24-win season in 1990-91 and 1991-92, respectively, there was suddenly a buzz in the Denver air about our Nuggets. Even though the franchise missed out on the big names in the 1992 NBA Draft (notably Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner and Jimmy Jackson), the Nuggets were able to select a dynamic power forward fifth overall named LaPhonso Ellis and paired him with the 13th overall selection, a shooting guard named Bryant Stith. Ellis and Stith joined a team that already featured an All-Star caliber young center in Dikembe Mutombo, a very slimmed down point guard / shooting guard hybrid in Chris Jackson, a solid young small forward in Reggie Williams and a bench with some young talent that included dunking dynamos Robert Pack and Tom "The Hammer" Hammonds, the "he has so much potential!" Marcus Liberty and an all-time character at the end of the bench in Scott Hastings.
Oh, and one of the Nuggets franchise's best-ever players, Dan Issel, had come out of the Nuggets broadcasting booth to assume head coaching duties to begin the 1992-93 season.
So when it came time for the 1993 "fan day" - which if memory serves came late in the season - you can imagine my surprise when upon arrival I saw nothing but endless lines awaiting an autograph from each of the Nuggets players. Endless lines! I distinctly remember the lines being so long that I was only able to pick one player (plus Kevin Brooks, he didn't have a line) to get an autograph from. One! Naturally, I waited in line for my new favorite Nugget - Ellis, aka "Phonz" - and after an hour or so I finally made my way up to him and had him autograph his rookie card for me. Gracious as ever, Ellis shook my hand and thanked me for coming.
And suddenly "fan day" was over, as not enough time was allotted to get anyone else's autograph.
As if I was living in some sort of bizarro world, my Denver Nuggets were suddenly a cool team.
Nuggets? Cool? Huh?
You see, despite routinely making the playoffs throughout the 1980s under the tutelage of the immortal Doug Moe, our Denver Nuggets were anything but cool. In fact, unless it featured Alex English you couldn't even buy a Nuggets poster, jersey or T-shirt. They didn't make them.
The Nuggets' superstar player of the 1980s, English, was so quiet that he'd put up 30 points nightly without anyone in the arena noticing. And instead of partying in night clubs like a modern NBA star, English spent his free time writing poetry. No joke.
The Nuggets star point guard on the 1980s, Fat Lever, also never made a visible impact on the game despite flirting with a triple double almost every night he stepped onto the floor. Their one-time All-Star power forward, Calvin Natt, was generously listed at 6'6" and couldn't stay healthy. Their starting shooting guard, T.R. Dunn, never actually shot (he averaged 4.5 field goal attempts per game ... really, 4.5). And the team was loaded with lovable, hard-working Stiffs like Bill Hanzlik, Danny Schayes, Blair Rasmussen and Wayne Cooper. That's just who our Nuggets were in the 1980s: super nice guys who won a lot of regular season games but didn't have any rings to show for it.
And they never dunked. Ever.
In fact, as a rookie with the San Antonio Spurs for the 1989-90 season - the last of the Moe-era Nuggets - David Robinson had more dunks individually than the Nuggets had collectively as a team.
Wanting to switch gears away from the "we'll make the playoffs and lose in the first round" mentality, at the end of the 1989-90 campaign Nuggets ownership made the radical decision to unceremoniously fire Moe (despite coaching the team to nine-straight playoff appearances), not re-sign English (despite being the all-time leading scorer in franchise history), trade away Lever (despite leading the team in scoring, rebounds, assists and steals the season before ... please read that again) and embarked on a blatant two-year tank job that only the 2002-03 Nuggets and 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers would admire.
And yet out of the ashes of two meaningless first round playoff losses to conclude the 1980s and two very forgettable seasons to begin the 1990s, the Nuggets assembled a surprisingly talented team for the 1992-93 season that the fans almost immediately embraced and for a very simple reason: these guys were fun to watch. Really fun.
Jackson - who would later legally change his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf after converting to Islam - was the precursor to today's Stephan Curry: a dead-eye shooting guard in the body of a lithe, undersized point guard ...
Ellis - the heart of the team - was a beast at the four-spot whose infectious enthusiasm for basketball was felt by both his teammates and the fans ... and was good for at least one thunderous dunk and one huge block per game (think: a rich man's Kenneth Faried who actually had a mid-range jump shot and could play stingy defense) ...
Mutombo, despite moving awkwardly on the court, was a fearsome defender who was among league leaders in blocks and rebounds and would famously wave his finger in the "no no" position whenever he blocked an opponent's shot attempt ...
Williams, almost reminiscent of English, would quietly put up 17 points per game using an assortment of mid-range jump shots and drives to the basket ...
And the supporting cast would take turns thrilling the fans, whether it was Stith coming up with a big steal, the diminutive Pack and rock-like Hammonds laying a dunk on a much bigger opponent, or the tantalizing Liberty showcasing his many talents out of the blue.
Even though that 1992-93 team didn't make the playoffs, Nuggets fans were back to filling McNichols Arena and both the franchise and the fan base had it's sights set squarely on the 1994 post-season after a thrilling end to the 1992-93 season that served as a sign of good things to come ...
To coincide with the new enthusiasm surrounding our suddenly cool Denver Nuggets (who beefed up their frontline with rookie Rodney Rogers and backup center Brian Williams in the 1993 off-season), the organization went for a full logo and uniform change for the first time in over 10 years - ditching the Lego-style Denver skyline logo in favor of a mountain peak logo. And replaced their rainbow uniforms in favor of a cleaner, bolder dark navy blue uniform that featured wine and gold trim (I have on good authority that the Nuggets' president at the time, Tim Leiweke, wanted the Nuggets to wear gold home uniforms but the NBA rejected it).
It's funny today as we think about the rainbow uniform and skyline logo as being "so cool," but it was anything but cool in the early 1990s. I remember as a teenager racing to King Soopers (yes, King Soopers) to buy the new Nuggets gear the day it was released. And within months of the 1993-94 season, I already had posters on my bedrooms walls representing Mutombo, Ellis and Abdul-Rauf wearing their new navy blue uniforms.
Remember, these guys were cool. Really cool.
Unfortunately, being cool didn't translate immediately into Ws on the court. Especially when you're the youngest team in the NBA.
Even though the 1993-94 Nuggets were able to beat the eventual NBA Champion Houston Rockets twice (including a double overtime thriller in Denver ... and their two losses came by a combined two points) and were able to beat all of the NBA's elite teams at least once apiece, including the San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks, Seattle Supersonics, Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns, the 1993-94 Nuggets were woefully inconsistent. In addition to the big wins mentioned above, the 93-94 Nuggets also lost to the likes of the New Jersey Nets, Golden State Warriors, Washington Bullets and Philadelphia 76ers, and were pushed much of the season by a very mediocre (no Magic, no Kobe) Los Angeles Lakers team for that eighth and final playoff seed. If you're looking for a microcosm of the Nuggets inconsistency, look no further than Tuesday, February 8th 1994 when Nuggets' rookie Rodney Rogers remarkably made three three-pointers in eight seconds to give the Nuggets a one-point lead over the then-dominant Jazz in Denver ...
... only to see the Nuggets lose by one when Jazz point guard John Stockton passed the ball to Jeff Malone for a game-winning two-pointer while the young Nuggets players were distracted in celebratory mode.
After all was said and done at the conclusion of the 1993-94 campaign, the Nuggets were a 42-40 team heading for a first round playoff matchup against a 63-win juggernaut Supersonics team that was coming off a thrilling seven-game 1993 Western Conference Finals versus the Suns. And after the first two games of that 1994 first round playoff series versus Seattle (which the Nuggets lost by a combined 34 points ... and it wasn't that close), the Nuggets seemed destined for a first round sweep. Not atypical in NBA history considering an eighth-seed had never beaten a one-seed prior to that year.
But then something amazing, just amazing, happened.
For Game 3 in Denver on a Monday night in May, the Nuggets' brass had the smarts to give every attending fan a "Mt. Mutombo 5,280 FT." t-shirt and have Denver Broncos legend John Elway (four years before he won two Super Bowls!) get the McNichols crowd fired up with a boisterous "LET'S GET READY TO MUTOMBO!!" chant before tipoff. The result? A total blowout in Denver's favor, ending in a 110-93 decimation of the Sonics led by 31 points (and 8 assists) from Reggie Williams and a monster game from Mutombo: 19 points, 13 rebounds and 6 blocks.
Wake up call received, the first-seeded Sonics came into Game 4 ready to play ball and focused on containing Reggie Williams. Meanwhile, the Nuggets' brass doubled-down on the Elway pre-game pep rally by having Elway fire up the crowd alongside Nuggets legend David Thompson. Unfortunately for Seattle, while Williams was kept under wraps Ellis unleashed 27 points and 17 rebounds on Seattle, while Mutombo contributed 16 rebounds and 8 blocks in a stunning 94-85 overtime victory for Denver. And showing the ability to make tough in-game / in-series adjustments, Issel kept a starting yet struggling Abdul-Rauf on the bench in favor of the backup Pack who unloaded for 13 points off the bench, including a spectacular overtime dunk on the Sonics' All-Star power forward Shawn Kemp. The Sonics scored just 3 points in that overtime period.
All of this set up an epic Game 5 matinee on Saturday, May 7th in Seattle. So ill-prepared was NBC (then the NBA's national broadcaster) for the game that they still had the Nuggets' old rainbow skyline logo on the outside of the Nuggets media room at Seattle's Key Arena. Ready for a dogfight against Mutombo and Ellis, the Sonics were again unexpectedly surprised by contributions from other Nuggets players, notably Brian Williams (17 points and 19 rebounds off the bench) and Pack (23 points off the bench), and yet couldn't contain Mutombo (15 rebounds, 8 blocks) or Ellis (19 points) anyway.
Playing tough throughout Game 5, a Kendall Gill put-back got the Sonics into overtime where the young Nuggets amazingly hung on to a hard-fought 98-94 victory, by far the most substantial victory in the Nuggets' NBA history. Because while the franchise had appeared in two Western Conference Finals prior to that game, no eighth-seeded team in NBA history had ever beaten a one-seed ... nevermind having a 63-win team lose to a 42-win team. Nuggets fans of that era certainly remember all of the iconic plays from the series: Mutombo blocking Kemp routinely, Ellis' ferocious dunk in Game 3, Pack leaping over Kemp for the dunk of his career, Mutombo holding onto the ball and falling to the floor in Game 5, Reggie Williams bombing three-pointers, and so on ...
Not talked about enough in the annals of Nuggets (or NBA) history is what the 93-94 team did in the following series against the 53-win Jazz in Round 2. Down 3-0 to a superior Jazz squad featuring Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Nuggets remarkably won three straight games to tie the series at three games apiece ... something only a handful of teams have done in NBA history. Amazingly, the three games the Nuggets had to win to tie the series including a one-point victory in Game 4, a double overtime victory in Salt Lake City in Game 5 (despite foul trouble for Mutombo and Ellis) and a three-point home win in Game 6. All signs pointed to an epic Game 7 back in Salt Lake City ...
... but what should have been the greatest cinderella story in NBA history (no NBA team has ever recovered from a 3-0 playoff deficit to win a series) ended with a whimper in Game 7 at Utah when the Jazz handily defeated our Nuggets 91-81. All I remember from that game is the Jazz getting out to a near-double digit lead and the two teams trading baskets for much of the fourth quarter. It was like I was rudely waking up from a glorious dream, earlier than my subconscious really wanted to.
It was just a dream indeed.
After that miraculous 1994 playoff run, the combination of Ellis' devastating 1994 off-season knee injury and then-team president Bernie Bickerstaff's incompetence blew up a would-be dynasty before it really ever got off the ground. Which is really a shame, because that 1993-94 Nuggets team really had it all: scorers, toughness, talent, depth, personality, heart. That team had heart.
While I can't speak to how the 1975-76 Nuggets (ABA Finalists) or 1977-78 Nuggets (NBA Western Conference Finalists) captivated our city because I was one and three years old when those teams reached their respective peaks, I can tell you that no team captivated Denver on my watch quite like the 1993-94 Nuggets. Even though the 1984-85 and 2008-09 Nuggets got much further in the playoffs, the unexpected joy derived from the 1993-94 Nuggets will be forever unmatched ... unless the franchise wins an NBA Championship.
I'll never forget Pack out-running his own dribble because he was too fast for his own good. And I'll never forget Phonz's snarl after a block or his smile after a huge dunk. Or Mutombo's finger wave, Abdul-Rauf's electricity, Issel's smirks, the Williams "brothers" filling in the gaps, Hastings' antics or Stith's hard-nosed defense.
I'll never forget the 1993-94 Denver Nuggets and, fortunately, neither has the current organization.
On Monday night, at halftime against a mighty Los Angeles Clippers team (still feels weird to write that!), the 1993-94 Nuggets team is going to be honored at halftime. The entire team - sans Brian Williams, who tragically died in 2002 - will be in attendance including (I've been told) Rogers, who sadly became paralyzed after a dirt bike accident in 2008. And even though it's understandable to be frustrated with the way the 2013-14 Nuggets season has turned out, Josh Kroenke, Tim Connelly, Tim Gelt and the current Nuggets brass deserve huge kudos for putting this night together. So whether you can attend the game in person or just watch it on television, I ask my fellow Nuggets fans and Stiffs everywhere to honor and support this team.
Because there's a good chance it'll be at least 20 more years before we see another one like it.
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!