The once-promising young, exciting Denver Nuggets began their descent into basketball Siberia in the 1994-95 season when a series of events unfolded that crushed the dreams of the most exciting young team in basketball.
To begin, during the offseason, LaPhonso Ellis tore his ACL at the Highlands Ranch Rec Center playing a game of pick-up basketball with Bryant Stith. The heart and soul of the Nuggets would lose and entire season fighting back, and his career would never be the same. Next, against the wishes of the head coach Dan Issel, General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff signed his former shooting guard with the Seattle Supersonics, Dale Ellis. While Ellis was a fine player, he wasn't exactly known as the best locker room guy ... among other very unsavory things about Ellis.
The final nail in the coffin of the 1994 Nuggets dream was the sudden resignation of coach Dan Issel in January of 1995. Confidant and guiding light for both Dikembe Mutombo and Phonz and coach who lead by motivation, the team seemed extremely dispirited when Issel resigned without warning. Apparently an on-going power struggle with Bickerstaff coupled with coaching burn out lead Issel to decide that coaching wasn't for him (he would return a few years later to disastrous results). 1992-95 Issel had the trust of his team. And while Bickerstaff managed to coax the team to the playoffs in 1995 with at 41-41 record ... but the writing was on the wall, and malaise had set in.
While Bickerstaff managed to pull off a great Draft day trade and acquire newly drafted Antonio McDyess, for Brian Williams, Rodney Rogers and the Nuggets pick (Which turned out to be Brent Barry), he had lost the ear of his team and was openly in a year-long contract dispute with Mutombo. This created tension in the locker room (as well as Mahmoud Abdul Rauf's refusal to stand for the National Anthem). The Nuggets had loads of talent, but they no longer had the will. The Nuggets would win 35 games that season with a roster that featured McDyess, Jalen Rose, Mahmoud, Mutombo, D. Ellis and Phonz.
It was against this backdrop ... this sinking, hopeless backdrop that the epic behemoth, the 72 win Chicago Bulls came to town February 4th, 1996 with an 18 game winning streak. It was going to be a slaughter right?
What unfolded was a Nuggets team that surprised the Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman lead Bulls. The Nuggets rushed out to a 31 point lead. Lost it. Then they battled back to close with some epic defense from Deke and Phonz (who also had 16 points and some amazing dunks). Our former colleague Nate Timmons was in attendance at that game and still describes it as an amazing experience. Behind 34 points from Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (who's shooting form is eerily similar to that of Steph Curry ... only Mahmoud was smaller and more streaky) the Nuggets accomplished what only 10 teams did the entirety of the 1995-96 season.
The Nuggets won. They rose up, gave their WHOLE effort, and despite playing individuals such as Doug Overton and Don MacLean. They left everything out on the floor and DID NOT fold up when Chicago made their big comeback in the second and third quarter. I was about to turn 18 at the time and listened to Jerry Schemmel call the game on KOA. Fist pumping and screaming the whole way.
Maybe these current Denver Nuggets could take a lesson from history? The concerning thing is they have backed down a couple times after getting popped in the mouth. Despite Danilo Gallinari's tirade after getting fouled and other issues, the team backed down. The 1996 Nuggets didn't.
Coach Michael Malone. Play this Nuggets/Bulls game on a loop before Sunday. The greatest team in basketball history, the 1996 Bulls, was beaten and had their streak broken by a Nuggets team that won 35 games. Play this over and over and over. Let that sink in. Ignore all the bandwagon Golden State Warriors fans who will fill Pepsi Center, they will turn the Nuggets way if the game is close. Ignore they hype that ESPN will give the Dubs when they come in. Ignore Stephen Curry's threes. Just remember that the NUGGETS beat the 72 win Chicago Bulls.
It can be done. To prevent history on the Nuggets home court it MUST be done.