For those NBA fans who haven't already seen it, ESPN 30 for 30 films' recently debuted "This Magic Moment" - about the 1992 through 1996 Orlando Magic - is a must watch. Like all of 30 for 30's terrific documentaries about the NBA and other sports, "This Magic Moment" dives deep into the backstory of how the Shaquille O'Neal / Anfernee Hardaway Magic squad was built and all the highs and lows that came about during that unforgettable but brief era in Orlando Magic history.
Just as I felt after watching other amazing must-see 30 for 30's focused on basketball like 2014's "Bad Boys" (about the late-1980s / early 1990s Detroit Pistons) and "When the Garden was Eden" (about the early 1970s New York Knicks), 2013's "Bernie and Ernie" (about the relationship between Tennessee and NBA alums Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld), 2011's "The Fab Five" (about Michigan basketball's early 1990s super team of freshmen) and "The Announcement" (about Magic Johnson's 1991 HIV announcement), and 2010's "Winning Time: Reggie Miller versus the New York Knicks" and "Once Brothers" (about Serbian native Vlade Divac's relationship with Croatian native Drazen Petrovic ... possibly the best 30 for 30 ever), "This Magic Moment" left me wishing we could see a 30 for 30 about the more exciting, dramatic and heartbreaking eras in Denver Nuggets franchise history.
Giving this some thought, I came up with four moments in Nuggets history that would make for a terrific 30 for 30-type documentary and broke them down, with imaginary titles.
30 FOR 30
"THE SKYWALKER: David Thompson and the 1975-82 Denver Nuggets"
The story of David "Skywalker" Thompson and his era in Denver would make for an unbelievable 30 for 30. The film could begin with the history of the Nuggets franchise and the American Basketball Association (ABA) itself, beginning in 1967 with the Denver Rockets maiden voyage and a brief backstory on the franchise's ineptitude on the court until 1974 when Carl Scheer arrives as team president, changes the franchise name to "Nuggets" and hires former ABA All-Star / New York native / feisty North Carolina alum Larry Brown as head coach. On Scheer and Brown's watch, the franchise goes from 37 wins to 65 wins in their debut ABA season as the "Nuggets".
Then, in the summer of 1975, the most sought after prospect in the NBA Draft - North Carolina State shooting guard David Thompson - opted to play for the Nuggets of the ABA rather than play for the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA (who drafted the 6'4" athletic freak with the first overall selection). It's hard for modern day NBA fans to fathom just how good and immensely popular Thompson was. Not only did Thompson's NC State Wolfpack go undefeated in 1973 (27-0), but they ended UCLA's seven-year reign by winning the NCAA Championship in 1974. Thompson averaged 26.8 ppg in college and had a 44" vertical leap. Thompson is often credited for pioneering the alley-oop (along with his college point guard and former Nugget Monte Towe) and was rumored to be able to grab a quarter off the top of the backboard.
Thompson was Michael Jordan before there was Michael Jordan.
Upon arrival in Denver in 1975 - alongside perennial ABA All-Star big man Dan Issel - Thompson helped lead the Nuggets to 60 wins and the ABA Finals (where they lost to Julius "Dr. J" Erving's New York Nets in six games) and won the ABA's Rookie of the Year Award. That season also put the Nuggets franchise on the professional basketball map forever. The brainchild of Scheer and ABA executives, the 1976 ABA All-Star Game was hosted in Denver and featured the Nuggets playing against the ABA All-Stars (the Nuggets won 144-138) and the first-ever Slam Dunk Contest, during which Thompson barely lost to Erving after Erving electrified the basketball world by leaping from the free throw line ...
At the conclusion of the 1975-76 ABA season, the ABA was disbanded for good with four teams absorbed into the NBA and the Nuggets being one of them. (ESPN featured this story in their 2013 "Free Spirits" 30 for 30 about the shuttered St. Louis Spirits and their owns Ozzie and Daniel Silna who successfully negotiated receiving one-seventh of the national TV contract owed to the four ABA holdover franchises into perpetuity until they were recently bought out for a tremendous sum.)
Coming into the NBA in 1976 with great skepticism over whether any ABA team could hang in the superior NBA, Thompson's Nuggets proved to be a force to be reckoned with almost immediately, winning their first eight games and going on to win 50 total games, tied for second-best in the NBA that season. And Thompson, in only his second NBA season, finished fourth in points per game and started in the NBA All-Star Game. Somewhere during that period, with the movie hit Star Wars making its international debut, Thompson received one of the best nicknames in sports history: "The Skywalker." (Unlike Kobe Bryant who gave himself his own nickname ... sorry, I couldn't resist.)
Losing to the eventual NBA Champion Portland Trail Blazers in the 1977 NBA Playoffs, Thompson's Nuggets came back in 1978 and competed in the Western Conference Finals versus the Seattle Supersonics, who would win the NBA Championship a year later. But what's more memorable about that 1977-78 season than the Nuggets playoff success was Thompson's incredible 73-point game on the final day of the season as was trying to overtake the San Antonio Spurs' George Gervin for the scoring title (Gervin scored 63 on the final day to secure the scoring title).
Like all good 30 for 30 films, a Thompson story would end in tragedy followed by resurrection. Not unlike many NBA players of his era, Thompson succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction and was out of the NBA for good before his 30th birthday (thanks to an injury sustained at the Studio 54 nightclub). But in the years since leaving the NBA - which saw Thompson's drug abuse come and go before going for good - Thompson has become a spokesperson against substance abuse and eventually received one of the highest honors in all of basketball: introducing Michael Jordan at his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech (Thompson himself was inducted in 1996).
Now tell me that wouldn't make an amazing 30 for 30.
On a side note, while researching for this column I stumbled upon a 2004 documentary titled SkyWalker: The David Thompson Story but was unable to find much more about it. I'm assuming that the below video screened on NBATV and posted to YouTube is it, but as you can tell from the quality of production a 30 for 30 on Thompson's life in the NBA would blow this version away ...
30 FOR 30
"WE GOT NO SHOT: Doug Moe and the 1980s Denver Nuggets"
With the recent passing of former Nuggets GM Vince Boryla, I dug into this second "Golden Era" of Denver Nuggets basketball that begins with Doug Moe becoming the Nuggets head coach in 1981. On Moe's watch, the Nuggets made the playoffs every year from 1982 to 1990, including two 50-plus win seasons and a Western Conference Finals appearance in 1985.
Moe and his band of "Stiffs" would make a great 30 for 30 film. In an era dominated by legacy franchises like the glamorous Los Angeles Lakers and gritty Boston Celtics, Moe's Nuggets were a band of quiet stars (like Alex English, Fat Lever and Calvin Natt) and overachieving Stiffs (like Bill Hanzlik, Danny Schayes, T.R. Dunn, Blair Rasmussen and Wayne Cooper) who were perhaps the most entertaining Western Conference franchise other than Magic Johnson's Lakers. Moreover, that Nuggets team essentially took on the don't-take-thyself-too-seriously personality of the perennially disheveled Moe, playing a loose style of up-and-down basketball that was perhaps 25 to 30 years ahead of its time. Before we had Mike D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns and Steve Kerr's Golden State Warriors, we had Doug Moe's Denver Nuggets. Moreover, Moe himself had personality to spare, when he wasn't calling his players "Stiffs" he was cursing up a storm for fans within five rows of the Nuggets bench to clearly hear ...
From a 30 for 30 perspective, Moe's Era would make for an enjoyable, must-watch ride. After two crummy sub-40 win seasons without a playoff appearance in the wake of David Thompson's substance abuse and subsequent trade to Seattle, the Nuggets franchise was an after thought in the NBA (sound familiar Nuggets fans??). But on Moe's watch, he turned the Nuggets from irrelevance to relevance after his first full season at the coaching helm by guiding the team to 46 wins and a playoff berth to conclude the 1981-82 campaign.
The Magic of Moe - if you want to call it that - is that his Nuggets took full advantage of Denver's high altitude and played fast. Really f'ing fast. In 1981-82, Moe's Nuggets averaged an NBA all-time best 126.5 ppg and had three players (English, Issel and Kiki Vandeweghe) average over 20 ppg apiece. They also gave up an NBA worst 126.0 ppg. Remarkably, that Nuggets team never scored less than 100 points in a single game all season long and including the season before and after, went 136 consecutive games without dipping below 100 points.
After three consecutive seasons leading the NBA in scoring (and points allowed) but never getting far in the playoffs, the newly installed Boryla made an earth-shattering trade in 1984 that sent the team's All-Star leading scorer - Vandeweghe - to Portland for Lever, Natt, Cooper and the pick that became Rasmussen. And while the Nuggets would continue to be the NBA's leading scoring team for most of Moe's Era, with a more balanced attack the Nuggets finally found some playoff success, including making the 1985 Western Conference Finals versus the mighty NBA Champion Lakers.
But you can't have a 30 for 30 without grave disappointment. Hampered by injury, Lever never played in that 1985 conference finals and after appearing in the 1985 All-Star Game, Natt couldn't stay healthy and appeared in just 97 games over the next three seasons. English was a rock of health, missing just 12 regular season games over 10 seasons as a Nugget (think: Bizarro Gallo), but he broke his thumb in Game 4 of the 1985 conference finals and his series was over. With Natt appearing in just one game in the 1986-87 season, the Nuggets won just 37 games and had to face the 65-win Lakers in the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. To tweak Lakers coach Pat Riley and the heavily favored Lakers, when asked about his team's chances in that first round playoff series Moe famously said: "We got no shot to beat the Lakers." Moe was right as the Nuggets were swept in three games shortly thereafter.
Just a season later, in what was perhaps the greatest season in NBA history, Moe's Nuggets won an NBA franchise record (at the time) 54 games and Moe received the league's Coach of the Year Award. Sadly, injuries cost the Nuggets a rematch with the Lakers in the playoffs in 1988 and they were bounced out of the second round by a very talented Dallas Mavericks team. Looking back at that magical 1987-88 season a year later, Moe got a little reflective with an AP reporter saying: "We're all gonna die. So enjoy yourself. Have a good time, within reason, without hurting anybody else. Enjoy life."
Moe and his Nuggets certainly made life enjoyable for Denver basketball fans in the 1980s and their run would make for an unforgettable 30 for 30.
30 FOR 30
"MILE HIGH MIRACLE: The Story of the 1993-94 Denver Nuggets"
Any "firsts" in sports make for great 30 for 30 films, and before the 1994 NBA Playoffs no one in professional sports could have fathomed a number eight seed defeating a number one seed in the NBA. And the very young 1993-94 Denver Nuggets had to be among the least likely of teams in pro sports history to be the first to pull off such an unfathomable feat.
Not dissimilar from the 1990s Orlando Magic's rag-to-riches-to-rags tale in 30 for 30's "This Magic Moment", the early-to-mid 1990s Nuggets are a story of brief excitement and success followed soon after by unforeseen tragedy and disappointment. In fact, had things gone right for both franchises it was quite possible that the Magic and Nuggets would have competed for the 1996 or 1997 NBA Championship. No joke.
After two seasons in which the Nuggets were the laughingstock of the NBA playing in coach Paul Westhead's run-and-gun-at-ludicrous-speed "system", the franchise got serious about building a winning team for the long term. And while the early 1990s Nuggets weren't the recipients of NBA Draft Lottery luck like the Magic were - and didn't have the regular season success anywhere close to their Eastern Conference counterpart - they made the most of the picks they had. In 1991 the Nuggets moved up in the NBA Draft to select LSU point guard Chris Jackson with the third overall selection. In 1992 the Nuggets selected Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo with the fourth overall selection. And in 1993 the Nuggets added Notre Dame power forward LaPhonso Ellis (fifth overall) and Virginia shooting guard Bryant Stith (13th).
Along with a few trades, free agent signings and the hiring of Nuggets legend-turned-broadcaster Dan Issel as head coach, the 1993-94 Nuggets were built to be competitive and compete for their first playoff spot in four years. But with just 42 regular season wins, the Nuggets barely squeaked into the playoffs and had to play the first-seeded, 63-win Supersonics who were coming off a conference finals run in 1993 that they had lost in seven tough games to the Phoenix Suns.
After getting torched in Games 1 and 2 of that series in Seattle, the Nuggets returned to Denver sure to be swept on the McNichols Arena floor (I remember hearing rumors of Sonics players only bringing one set of clothes to Denver as they were so certain that a sweep was imminent). But as is typical in atypical sports underdog stories, the Nuggets did the unthinkable and beat the favored Sonics handily in Game 3 and then in overtime in Game 4 with a cast of characters - like Robert Pack and Brian Williams - unmentioned and overlooked in most NBA circles at the time. Returning to Game 5 in Seattle, the Nuggets would again force overtime and pull off the greatest post-season upset (at the time) in NBA history, defeating the Sonics 98-94 and leaving us all with one of the great images in NBA history: Mutombo clutching the game ball on the Key Arena floor.
Following up that astounding playoff victory, the young Nuggets found themselves down three games to zero to the heavily favored Karl Malone and John Stockton-led Utah Jazz in the second round, including a game three loss at McNichols Arena by a mere two points. But rather than get swept again, the Nuggets actually tied the series at three games apiece ... becoming (at the time) just the second NBA team in history to tie a series after being down 0-3. And it has only happened once since.
Sadly, that brief era of history-making Denver Nuggets basketball met nothing but tragedy from that miraculous 1994 playoff run onward. And 30 for 30 films love sports tragedies. During the 1994 off-season, Ellis broke his knee cap and missed all but the final six games of the 1994-95 campaign, and when he came back he was a shell of his explosive pre-injury self. Ellis was the heart and soul of the team, so his absence meant that the team was suddenly void of both. Adding to the team's swift downfall was Issel abrupt resignation after just 34 games and handing the coaching reigns off to his assistant Gene Littles ... who was promptly replaced by the team's own president, Bernie Bickerstaff. The 1994-95 Nuggets team squeaked into the playoffs with a 41-41 record and were quickly swept by the one-seeded Spurs. As a microcosm of how ugly that season and playoff series was, in a Game 3 with NBA league operations vice president Rod Thorn sitting in the stands, Bickerstaff got himself ejected before halftime and Nuggets fans responded by throwing debris onto the court that hit Spurs' head coach Bob Hill in the head. It was one of the uglier incidents in Nuggets history.
The following season was met with more tragedy ... and, this time, controversy. In March of the 1995-96 season Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Jackson's name since converting to Islam in 1991) refused to stand for the singing of the national anthem, causing the Nuggets dynamo point guard to get suspended by the NBA and creating controversy around the team when Abdul-Rauf came back and held his head in his hands for all subsequent national anthems. And Ellis just couldn't stay healthy as he appeared in 45 games but could only be counted on sporadically by his team. 35 wins later, the Nuggets missed the playoffs by a mile and, adding insult to injury, had perhaps one of the worst off-seasons in NBA history thanks to Bickerstaff's poor stewardship of the franchise. First, Bickerstaff traded the controversial Abdul-Rauf - even though he led the Nuggets in scoring at 19.2 ppg - to Sacramento for a washed up Sarunas Marciulionis. Next, Bickerstaff traded the Nuggets' 10th overall selection and a rising talent in Jalen Rose for the 23rd overall selection and an aging Mark Jackson (Kobe Bryant was drafted at 13, Steve Nash at 15 and Jermaine O'Neal at 17 just to give you a sense of who the Nuggets missed on). And finally, and most unforgivably, the Nuggets lost the future Hall of Famer and their All-Star center Mutombo to the Hawks via free agency during the off-season. 13 games into the 1996-97 season, Bickerstaff quit and left the Nuggets with a crummy roster that finished with a mere 21 wins. They'd win just 11 games a season after that.
If I were to commission a 30 for 30 on the 1993-94 Nuggets, I'd focus primarily on that miraculously memorable playoff run but would have to include the comedic state of the Nuggets beforehand (including their flaky ownership structure of Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee) and the tragedy and controversy that came afterward. But like all 30 for 30 films, the story of the Nuggets during the early-to-mid 1990s would make for a compelling sports documentary ...
30 FOR 30
"THE THUGGETS: The Story of the 2003-11 Denver Nuggets"
As NBA fans have been nostalgically looking back at the Kobe Bryant Era in Los Angeles and - to a lesser extent - the fabulous careers of other Western Conference powerhouse stars from the 2000s and 2010s Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett, often overlooked are our very own Denver Nuggets who - from 2004 through 2013 - held the longest active playoff streak of any NBA team other than Duncan's Spurs but did it with a cast of characters rarely - if ever - seen in NBA history. Making for a toxic mix of on-court success and off-court antics that would make a great 30 for 30 film.
After missing the playoffs for eight years in a row, the Nuggets ended up with the third overall selection in the 2003 NBA Draft and drafted Carmelo Anthony - a dynamic small forward who had just led Syracuse to the NCAA Championship as a freshman and had come from a tough neighborhood in Baltimore. Tattooed seemingly from head-to-toe and sporting a corn role hairdo, Anthony embodied the modern day NBA player of the 2000s: supremely talented but defiant towards authority, a la Allen Iverson. Iverson (more on him shortly) inspired an entire generation of tough-but-hard-to-coach players who used basketball as a pathway towards a better life for themselves and their families.
The Nuggets team Anthony joined was coming off an awful 17-win season but featured center Marcus Camby (who played sparingly the season before), second year power forward Nene Hilario, backup center Chris Andersen and free agent veterans Andre Miller, Jon Barry, Voshon Lenard and the diminutive Earl Boykins. The Nuggets were thinking playoffs again and at season's end found themselves as the eighth seed when they lost to Garnett's Minnesota Timberwolves in five games. Wanting to build on Anthony's rookie season success, the Nuggets signed the mercurial but athletic and passionate power forward Kenyon Martin to an astounding seven-year, $92 million contract ... a contract that would cripple the franchise's flexibility for years to come as Martin missed 179 regular season games due to injury during his seven-year tenure in Denver.
Unable to command a roster full of out-sized personalities like Anthony's, Martin's, Camby's, Miller's, Boykins's and others, the Nuggets fired Anthony's rookie season coach Jeff Bzdelik and replaced him with a coach with a out-sized personality of his own: George Karl. Karl - a one-time cancer survivor and a fiery player in the ABA - had been a tremendously successful regular season coach and was known for dealing with tough personalities, like Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in Seattle and Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson in Milwaukee. But Karl's coaching career had included a few major playoff disappointments (including being on the wrong side of the biggest upset in playoff history in 1994) and he was in search of redemption. This story is starting to sound like a 30 for 30 film, right?
On Karl's watch for the remainder of the 2004-05 season the Nuggets set an NBA record by winning 32 of their 40 games, but lost in the first round to the eventual champion Spurs in just five games. But given their end-of-season turnaround with Karl, Nuggets fans were expecting big things entering the 2005-06 season. With Camby and Martin missing a combined 61 games the following season, the Nuggets limped into the playoffs with a 44-win record and lost to the Los Angeles Clippers in a five-game first round series. The only highlights (lowlights?) of that series was when the Nuggets backup forward Reggie Evans grabbed Clippers' center Chris Kaman's private parts and Karl suspended Martin after Game 2 for "detrimental conduct", allegedly due to Martin being upset over a lack of playing time. It wouldn't be the first time that Karl lost control of his team.
But the real drama in Denver doesn't begin until the following season when the Nuggets visited the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on December 16th, 2006. Coached by Isiah Thomas after Thomas fired Karl's good friend and former Nuggets coach Larry Brown the previous off-season, the Knicks were a 9-17 disaster and were getting blown out by the Nuggets late in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets' J.R. Smith (another out-sized personality added the previous off-season) was fouled egregiously hard by the Knicks' Mardy Collins. A full-on brawl ensued, which included Anthony punching Collins in the face and getting himself suspended for 15 games. Smith himself was suspended for 10 ...
Now I don't know if the Knicks brawl is exactly when fans (read: white fans) around Denver started referring to the Nuggets derogatorily as the "Thuggets", but with players like Anthony, Martin and Smith having issues both on and off the court, the team's new nickname started circulating around the Mile High City quickly. (One notable incident was when Martin allegedly sent a friend into the Pepsi Center stands to confront a heckling fan.) Especially in a city like Denver who's African American population hovers around just five percent. Wouldn't it be great to get Anthony, Martin and others on camera responding to questions about the derogatory "Thuggets" moniker?
And then the Nuggets, facing a lost season without Anthony and Smith's firepower for 10-plus games, traded for the talented but preeminently controversial figure in the NBA at the time - Allen Iverson - to rescue their season. And rescue it he did. When Anthony and Smith came back from their respective suspensions, the young Nuggets joined forces with Iverson to win 11 of the team's final 12 games and were regarded as the NBA's hottest team entering the playoffs ... until the Nuggets again lost to the Spurs in a five-game first round series. And things got ugly in that series with Karl benching the young Smith for Game 5 and saying: "I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me." Not only did that not go over well with Smith's teammates, but the dysfunction in the locker room carried over into the 2007-08 season when - despite winning 50 games - the Nuggets were just an eight seed and were swept out of the playoffs' first round again, this time by Bryant's Lakers. In four seasons as the Nuggets head coach, Karl's playoff record was 3-16.
Like all great 30 for 30 films, good has to turn into bad and it certainly did with the 2008-09 Nuggets. Facing a full season with a disgruntled Iverson due to looming contract issues, the Nuggets traded the future Hall of Famer for Denver-born basketball legend and NBA Champion Chauncey Billups early into the season ...
And even though the 2008-09 Nuggets won just four more regular season games than their predecessor, with Billups leading the way the team's culture had changed seemingly overnight and they finished with the Western Conference's two-seed. Even the oft-injured Martin bought into what Karl was selling and played in 66 productive games as the team's defensive quarterback alongside other tough defenders like Nene, "Birdman" Andersen and one-year addition Dahntay Jones. And unlike Karl's four previous and Anthony's five previous seasons, the Nuggets' post-season wouldn't end with a first round defeat ... this time, the Nuggets went all the way to the conference finals where Bryant's Lakers bested them in six hard fought games (well, really like four-and-a-half hard fought games). In a much different way from their 1985 version, the 2009 tough-and-tattooed Nuggets were again the underdog, contrarian team to the NBA's glamorous Lakers. But this time, when Denver fans used the "Thuggets" nickname to describe them it went from a derogatory term to a term of true endearment.
But in true 30 for 30 fashion, tragedy found its way back into the story. And this time, it was a true tragedy. Soon after coaching the Western Conference team in Dallas for the 2010 All-Star Game thanks to his Nuggets being the conference's second-best team for much of the season, Karl announced that he again had cancer - this time it was throat cancer. Karl's treatment and recovery would cost him from coaching the remainder of the season and his replacement - a Hall of Fame player but certainly not a Hall of Fame coach in Adrian Dantley - was unable to match the previous season's success. Another Nuggets season ended with another first round playoff exit and, once again, a putative basketball dynasty in the Mile High City would never materialize.
Incredibly, Karl would fully recover and coach on the first day of the 2010-11 season but was immediately faced with another challenge (that paled in comparison to battling cancer): Anthony's imminent departure due to his pending unrestricted free agency. Overcoming what would be known as "the Melodrama", Karl guided the Nuggets to an impressive 50 wins despite the big trade that sent Anthony to New York in February of that season and completely changed the Nuggets roster forever. Two seasons later, Karl's Nuggets sans Anthony would set the team's NBA franchise record with 57 regular season wins.
As you can see, there was no shortage of drama during Anthony and Karl's reign in Denver. An era which - like the above highlighted preceding eras in Nuggets history - would make for a great ESPN 30 for 30 film.