The moniker of this website - Denver Stiffs - is an homage to what I've often referred to as the "Second Golden Age" of Denver Nuggets basketball. And I would say - unarguably - the most fun Denver basketball fans have ever had since pro basketball became a staple of the Mile High City in 1967.
The Second Golden Age of Nuggets Basketball essentially begins less than halfway through the franchise's troubled 1980-81 season. Donnie Walsh, a legend in his own right, had (reluctantly) taken over coaching duties from legendary head coach Larry Brown in 1979 and was overseeing a struggling Nuggets squad in 1980-81 that had gotten off to an 11-20 start. Walsh was let go by his good friend and team general manager Carl Scheer and replaced by the assistant coach Walsh himself had hired: Doug Moe. On Moe's watch, the 1980-81 Nuggets finished their season just above .500 at 26-25 but what followed was nothing short of remarkable.
From the 1981-82 season through the 1989-90 season, Moe led the Nuggets - many of whom he affectionately called "Stiffs", as he was one himself during his playing days - to nine consecutive playoff appearances, two 50-plus win seasons and one Western Conference Finals appearance. But those two 50-plus win seasons and that lone conference finals appearance would not have been possible had it not been for one of the best trades in Nuggets history, orchestrated by a short-tenured general manager named Vince Boryla who, interestingly, had served as the franchise's first-ever general manager 17 years earlier.
Prior to the Nuggets Easter Sunday game versus the Clippers in Los Angeles, Altitude TV's Vic Lombardi and Bill Hanzlik reported the sad news that Boryla had passed away on Easter morning at the age of 89.
While Scheer deserves all the credit in the world for re-booting the Nuggets in the mid-1970s and guiding them into the modern era of the NBA, he was let go as general manager by then-owner Red McCombs at the end of the disappointing 1983-84 campaign, which saw the Nuggets make their third straight playoff appearance despite winning just 38 games. Scheer's replacement was Boryla, who had graduated from the University of Denver in 1949 and played five seasons at small forward for the New York Knicks from 1949 through 1954. Boryla would also run the Knicks for a season-and-half from 1960-61 and he ran the ABA's Utah Stars for Denver businessman Bill Daniels for just one year in 1971. In between, Boryla was hired to be the first-ever general manager of the ABA's Denver Larks - which became the Denver Rockets (the current Nuggets predecessor), named after then owner J. William Ringsby's Rocket Truck Lines. But according to a 2010 Denver Post article written by Irv Moss, Boryla's ties to previous owner Jim Trindle had "dissolved" despite conducting the franchise's first draft.
Nicknamed "Moose", Boryla's original Denver connection came via the Air Force as he was stationed at Denver's Lowry Air Force Base in the late 1940s after playing a few seasons in college at Notre Dame. Boryla was also a member of the 1948 US Olympic Team that won the gold medal in London and played with the original AAU Denver Nuggets in 1948.
Just one month after taking over for the popular Scheer in 1984, Boryla made "the trade" that will forever be debated as one of - if not the - best in Nuggets franchise history. On June 7th, 1984 Boryla traded the Nuggets leading scorer (and the NBA's third-leading scorer) and fan favorite Kiki Vandeweghe to the Portland Trail Blazers for center Wayne Cooper, point guard Fat Lever, power forward Calvin Natt, a 1984 second round pick (the Nuggets would select Willie White) and a 1985 first round pick that became Blair Rasmussen. Controversial at the time, "the trade" would set the stage to make the Nuggets a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference for several seasons to come. (For the record, I still rank that trade as the Nuggets' second best ever after the 1980 trade for superstar / Hall of Famer Alex English.)
RIP former Nuggets GM Vince Boryla. Passed away this Easter morning. Mr. Boryla made the greatest trade in Nuggets history.— Vic J Lombardi XXI (@VicLombardi) March 27, 2016
A season removed from winning just 38 games, the 1984-85 Denver Nuggets finished with a then NBA franchise best 52 wins and their second appearance in the Western Conference Finals, losing four games to one to the eventual NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers. It should be noted that Lever missed the entire series due to injury and English suffered a broken hand in Game 4, so it wasn't exactly a fair fight. But at season's end, Boryla was rightly awarded the NBA's prestigious Executive of the Year Award for making that deal and others that helped build that terrific Nuggets team.
The Nuggets returned the following season to win 47 games and lost in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual conference champion Houston Rockets (featuring the "twin towers" of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon). The Nuggets final game of the season, Game 6, came in a double overtime loss at Denver's McNichols Arena.
After a disappointing 37-win 1986-87 season (highlighted by Moe's all-time great "We got no shot to beat the Lakers" quote prior to the 1987 playoffs), Boryla resigned just days before the 1987-88 season began and remained with the team afterward as a consultant. So while Boryla's successor Pete Babcock gets a lot of the credit for the Nuggets' amazing 54-win 1987-88 season, the credit really belongs to Boryla. In addition to "the trade", during Boryla's tenure he brought in key role players who helped the Nuggets through those amazing 1984 through 1988 campaigns, including Hanzlik himself as well as Elston Turner, Darrell Walker, Danny Schayes and Joe "Come on Moe, put in Joe!" Kopicki. If Boryla had a blind spot as a GM, it was in the draft but drafts can be a crap shoot when you're drafting in the middle-to-late first round. On Boryla's watch, his key draft picks included Rasmussen (1985, 15th overall), Mo Martin (1986, 16th overall) and Mark Alarie (1986, 18th overall). But at least Rasmussen has since joined Schayes and Hanzlik in the Denver Stiffs Hall of Fame!
Boryla remained in Denver after his short-lived tenure as Nuggets general manager was up and became a successful businessman in real estate and other ventures. The Denver Post's Tina Griego caught up with Boryla in 2011, noting Boryla's lifelong generosity and contributions to Catholic-related charitable causes.
As Griego writes, the humble Boryla was never one for the spotlight or accolades. But on Monday night at Pepsi Center - as the 2015-16 Nuggets face off against the Dallas Mavericks - here's hoping that the current Nuggets' brass honors Boryla with a lengthy moment of silence and a video tribute that takes us back to the days when Denver Nuggets basketball was at its very best.
Thanks in large part to Vince Boryla.