Two weekends ago I was faced with a task all come to dread: moving. Not only was I moving but this was the first time I had moved out of an actual house where all the stuff inside of it was actually mine. An arduous task without a doubt and one that convinced me I'll never forego paying someone to move my stuff again.
However, my weekend of manual labor was not without it rewards. Amid the emptying of my crawlspace (an activity that all but assured the development of a hunchback in my old age) I came across a box which had, among other things, a black trash bag that felt as if it housed a basketball. My initial reaction was confusion, but quickly that turned to excitement as I realized there was only one basketball I had ever owned that I would have gone to some length to preserve. I slowly pulled off the trash bag to see my hopes confirmed, this was the basketball I had brought to the 1994 Denver Nuggets training camp as a kid where I scored a slew of autographs. To put the cherry on top, the ball was nearly in mint condition.
This got me thinking to how going to that training camp was essentially what ensured that the Nuggets would always be my favorite professional sports team. As a Colorado native I was naturally a big Broncos fan and I must confess, the Nuggets weren't even my first favorite basketball team. That title belongs to Michael Jordan's first three-peat Chicago Bulls. With Jordan retiring before the 93 season, the local Nuggets pulling off the greatest upset in franchise history in the 93-94 playoffs was an excellent way to fill the basketball void in my life. Five months after that it was the 94 training camp which, at the time, was held at the Air Force Academy.
I grew up about twenty minutes away from the AFA so my dad picked my sister and I up from school early and we headed down there to catch some of the action and hopefully some autographs along the way. What followed was one of the coolest experiences I have ever had as a sports fan.
For whatever reason, training camp for the Nuggets back then took place in the evening so we were able to arrive before the players did. Well, not before all of the players. The nice thing about professional basketball players is they're pretty easy to pick out in a public setting if you're looking for them. We were walking around Clune Arena after finding the main entrance still closed when we spotted a very tall, athletic man in the parking lot below, leaning against a car and talking to a couple people near a side entrance to the arena. As we walked closer, 9-year old me nearly peed my pants when I realized the man was in fact my favorite Nuggets player.
Laphonso Ellis: I loved Laphonso Ellis and was heart broken that he was going to be out for the entire season (I always thought Ellis had torn his ACL, but in doing some research I found out he actually had a stress fracture in his knee that ended up requiring surgery). If there is one silver lining for me with his injury was that it ended up giving him time before camp started on day one to sit and talk with me. I have no idea what we talked about. I was so star struck that the whole thing is a blur now.
Unfortunately, Ellis never regained his pre-injury form, though he did carve out a decent NBA career. In my opinion his injury is the worst the franchise has ever suffered. The promise that was the 94 playoff team was quickly derailed by a series of events that essentially began with Ellis injuring his knee in a pick up basketball game just weeks before training camp started. If you're not familiar with Ellis, imagine if, in addition to his current skills, Kenneth Faried was also a viable threat on offense from the triple threat position.
Dikembe Mutumbo: Deke wasn't as thrilled to find fans eagerly waiting his arrival, sharpies and memorabilia at the ready. Nonetheless he obliged us. By the time the final day of camp had rolled around the Nuggets had managed to find a new entrance to utilize for the players and autograph seekers were nowhere to be found as the players arrived. However, by the time that day of camp was over fans had discovered this new entrance/exit and were lined up as the players tried to reach their car. Much to the dismay of Deke some fans even hopped in his vehicle, holding it ransom until he relinquished an autograph. At the time this had seemed comical, but looking back on it now I'd say maybe those fans went a step too far.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf: I don't really remember much about Abdul-Rauf on this particular occasion. In fact, when I was researching whom all of these signatures actually were, I was somewhat surprised to find that I had in fact got his autograph because I have no recollection of it. Nonetheless, I was extremely pleased to discover it was on the ball. In 92-93 the Nuggets finished the season with a crazy victory over the Phoenix Suns where Abdul-Rauf buried a buzzer beater to win the game from three. As luck would have it, my dad had won tickets to that game that were actually pretty darn good and ever since Abdul-Rauf was second only to Ellis in my Nuggets pantheon.
Robert Pack: As fast as Pack was on the court, he may have been faster getting through the door on day one of camp. Nine year old me was left disappointed as Pack blazed past everyone right in the building. On day two however, he took the time to talk with the fans and sign autographs. Looking back on it this makes perfect sense. It wasn't like there was a staging area set up for fans at these things. We just figured out where the players were coming in and out and lined up there. On day one I imagine this was rather unexpected for the players to see, but by day two they all seemed to have come around.
Bryant Stith, Rodney Rodgers, Tom Hammonds: I can't remember anything specific about any of these guys as far as that particular training camp, however I can remember plenty about each on the court. Stith was pretty much the prototypical 3 and D type shooting guard. He was the definition of solid. Rodgers was a young power forward who took advantage of Ellis' injury to carve a place for himself in the NBA. Hammonds, also a power forward, was a ferocious dunker and solid athlete, sort of a Laphonso Ellis lite.
Cliff Levingston, Darnell Mee, Reggie Slater, Abdul-Fox: No recollection of these guys at training camp, no recollection of them playing for the Nuggets, but they signed my ball. It's guys like these that make me thank god for the internet, without being able to search records for both the Nuggets roster and pictures of individual players signatures, I never would have been able to figure out some of these autographs (and some still remain a mystery). Abdul-Fox for example was cut before the season started and isn't listed on the roster. Thankfully his signature was very discernible (and his name quite unique) so I was able to find and old archived news article about Dale Ellis' signing that also briefly mentioned him.
Mark Randall: Is Mark Randall in the Stiffs Hall of Fame? Seems like he has to be as he fit Doug Moe's definition to a tee: big, slow, no discernible athletic skill. I fully recollect Mark Randall's all but forgettable Nuggets career because he was always that huge guy at the end of the bench and I was quite pleased to see an authentic Stiff on the ball. As fate would have it, he would get cut just weeks after taking up half of the ball with his monstrous signature.
Rocky: You know it! Back then training camp was completely open to the public and so Rocky would be up to his regular routine in the stands while the whole thing was going on. It's interesting how different things are now in that respect.
Jalen Rose, Brian Williams (aka Bison Dele), Dan Issell: This is the disappointment group. I would have loved to find any of these three guys on the ball but it doesn't appear that I got them. All the signatures that I can't figure out don't appear to be any of these guys. At that 92-93 Phoenix Suns game I mentioned before, we actually met Issell in the hallways before the game and scored his autograph on an envelope...not sure where that is these days.
Dale Ellis, Greg Grant,
Reggie Williams, Eldridge Recasner (who?): This is the meh group, doesn't appear that I have any of these guys' signatures and I don't mind. I certainly remember Dale Ellis but the absence of an ageing chucker's autograph on my ball doesn't break my heart.
Mysteries: Despite all my research some signatures on the ball remain a mystery. Who knows, they could be trainers, scouts, less heralded assistant coaches (lead assistant and future interim coach Gene Littles is on the ball) or training camp invites who didn't make the team. I'll leave the pictures of the unknowns below, maybe one of our commenters knows.
Update (3:42PM): Credit Stiffs commenter Cody Schields for identifying the second picture below as former Nuggets assistant coach Mike Evans. Come on commenters, I know we can get the last two!
Update (10/6/15 9:39AM): Credit the Moderation King Russ Hamilton who has identified that the first signature is in fact Reggie Williams. Only one signature remains unanswered!
There was little to root for beyond that 94-95 season (where the Nuggets were unceremoniously swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs) for the next 10 years. Training camps moved back to Denver and I would never attend one again. Those three days were something that will stick with me forever though.
Finding the ball was a true moment of elation but doing the research and writing this piece might have been even more satisfying. It's funny that, though two decades have passed, there are certain moments that still stick out in my mind. I distinctly remember my sister running down to the bench during practice to ask then GM Bernie Bickerstaff to sign her ball (I had no desire to allow Bickerstaff to sign my ball, a decision I regret in hindsight due to his infamy) and the conversation with Laphonso Ellis is still my personal favorite moment as a Nuggets fan.
It's interesting to see how these things stay with you, how pieces of your fandom follow you no matter where you go in life. For me this ball is also a reminder of how great my parents were in nurturing my love of sports (later in my life my mom would let me skip school to go to the Colorado Avalanche training camp which was also in Colorado Springs. I have an Avs jersey that is similar to the Nuggets ball, though it has not survived the test of time as well).
I hope my two year old daughter takes on her daddy's love of sports. She certainly is fascinated with Rocky. If she does, I want to try to do for her what my parents did for me in creating these life long memories.