Dean Smith, the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach who passed away Saturday evening at the age of 83, may have had a more profound impact on the Denver Nuggets than any other franchise in the NBA. Because while, like many NBA teams, former UNC players have come and gone throughout Denver Nuggets history (including great players like Bobby Jones, Charlie Scott and Walter Davis), it was Smith disciples in the Nuggets coaching chair that produced the three greatest eras that the franchise has ever seen.
This shouldn't be a surprise for ardent basketball fans, as Smith himself was coached at the University of Kansas by the legendary Phog Allen ... who himself was coached by James Naismith ... the man who invented the game of basketball!
The Nuggets' Dean Smith story begins with Larry Brown, a 5'9" point guard from Brooklyn who played at North Carolina from 1960 through 1963 and was coached by Smith in his final two college seasons. (Smith took over coaching duties from another legendary coach, Frank McGuire, in 1961.) Brown was able to take his college game to the pros, playing for five seasons in the American Basketball Association (ABA), including two for the Denver Rockets (the predecessor to the Nuggets), before hanging it up as a player in 1972. Soon after retiring as a player, Brown - along with fellow North Carolina alum and fellow Brooklynite Doug Moe - was hired by Carl Scheer to coach the ABA's Carolina Cougars with Moe serving as assistant coach.
When Scheer left the Cougars to take over general manager duties for the Denver Rockets in 1974, he brought Brown and Moe along with him (as detailed in my 2014 column on Scheer after the Nuggets rightfully honored him for saving pro basketball in Denver). In just one season under Scheer, Brown and Moe's leadership, the 37-win Rockets became the 65-win Nuggets. With Brown as head coach, the Nuggets would go on to the ABA Finals in 1976, losing to Julius "Dr. J" Erving's New York Nets. And when the Nuggets were among four teams to merge into the NBA beginning in 1976-77, Brown's Nuggets instantly proved that they belong, winning 50 games and losing to the eventual NBA Champion Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs' semi-finals.
Brown and Moe's relationship was so special and unique that an entire segment was devoted to it in the documentary "The Last Night of the ABA":
Moe actually left the Nuggets before their first NBA season to coach the San Antonio Spurs for four seasons, before returning to Denver as an assistant in 1980. While with the Spurs, Moe coached another Smith disciple and North Carolina alum: the scrappy backup point guard George Karl. More on that shortly.
On Brown's watch, the Nuggets of the NBA took advantage of their altitude advantage and played as fast as they played in the ABA, resulting in four consecutive winning seasons and an appearance in the 1978 Western Conference Finals - sadly just one of three WCF appearances in the Nuggets' NBA franchise history. But in 1979 Larry Brown pulled a Larry Brown; quitting abruptly after 53 games and handing the coaching keys over to assistant coach Donnie Walsh, himself a New Yorker who had played for Smith and McGuire at North Carolina.
Under Walsh's stewardship, the Nuggets won 19 of their final 29 games to wrap up the 1978-79 season but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Los Angeles Lakers. Unfortunately for Walsh, injuries to Nuggets superstar David Thompson cost the team any chance of a playoff run in 1979-80 and the losing carried over into the 1980-81 campaign, when Moe took over for Walsh after 31 games. Walsh, as we all know, went on to become one of the most successful executives in NBA history and is currently consulting with the Indiana Pacers.
Stepping in for Walsh was the incomparable Moe, who played for McGuire's North Carolina Tar Heels from 1958-1961 while Smith was an assistant. Like Brown, Moe had a short-lived ABA playing career but was awesome as a 29 year old rookie for the New Orleans Buccaneers in 1967-68 (seriously, look it up!). As a head coach, Moe brought a style never-before-seen and never-since-seen in NBA history:
And while I doubt the mild mannered and gentlemen-like Smith taught Moe any of what's seen in the above video, Moe obviously learned a thing or two about winning from one of college basketball's most successful coaches as Moe himself became the winningest coach in Denver Nuggets history with 432 wins. From 1981-1990, Moe's Nuggets - playing at an even faster pace than Brown's - never missed a post-season and Moe led the franchise to it's second Western Conference Finals appearance in 1985.
In 2005, following in the very large footprints left on Nuggets Nation by Brown and Moe would be none other than UNC alum-turned-head: George Karl. Karl played for Smith from 1970 through 1973 and actually played for Moe with the San Antonio Spurs in the late 1970s. After a distinguished coaching career in multiple NBA cities, Karl took over a talented-but-struggling Nuggets team in 2005 and led them to an NBA-best 32 wins in 40 remaining games. And Karl brought none other than Moe along to join him on the Nuggets bench in 2005, in a sense completing the Dean Smith / UNC circle right here in Denver.
Beginning with his arrival in 2005, Karl - with Moe at his side for his first few seasons - presided over nine consecutive playoff appearances and the franchise's third and final Western Conference Finals appearance in 2009. Karl's success as a Denver coach could be attributed to the same fast and freelance style of play that Moe deployed here. And also like Moe, Karl was rewarded with an NBA Coach of the Year Award when his 2012-13 squad set a Nuggets NBA franchise record with 57 wins.
So as you can see, Dean Smith's teachings led to the successful NBA careers of Brown, Walsh, Moe and Karl. Three of whom - Brown, Moe and Karl - are undoubtedly the greatest coaches in Denver Nuggets history. To put some perspective on just how positive an impact those three had on the Denver franchise, since joining the NBA in 1976 the Nuggets have made the playoffs 24 times and missed the post-season (including this season, sorry it's gonna happen) 15 times. Of those 24 post-season appearances, Walsh, Dan Issel, Bernie Bickerstaff and Jeff Bzdelik combined for four of them with Brown, Moe and Karl accounting for the other 20.
With the current state of the Denver Nuggets in some form of turmoil / flux, it's fun to look back at the days when Dean Smith's "tree" led to the greatest seasons in Denver pro basketball history. Unfortunately, there probably aren't many Dean Smith disciples left to right the Nuggets ship again.