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I’m New Here: naive optimism, the veil of ignorance, and the unique trials of living the NuggLife

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Examining the Nuggets through the eyes of Denver’s newest breed of citizen—the transplant

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles is a special kind of hell.

I had always been fascinated by the various depictions of such an afterlife as a kid. What would it really mean to exist in a reality designed to incite relentless torture and misery? Two long years in Hollywood answered that question. The life I was searching for was so close: beautiful weather, weekends spent at the beach, and finally, some peace of mind. I thought it was mine for the taking.

I was so naive.

There’s a mirage-like nature to Los Angeles and it’s exactly what makes Satan’s creation so clever. That prosperity is tantalizingly close but it’s reserved for those with too many zeros in their bank accounts, the hollowest dreams, and an insatiable thirst for relevance. It wasn’t real life. I wasn’t ready to sell my soul. I had to get out.

That dynamic weighed heavily on my mind when HoopsHabit.com responded to my application. They were interested in my potential contributions to the site, but it was contingent upon my willingness to cover a less popular team. I racked my brain for the right match.

Was there a squad that I enjoyed watching, belonged to a market that had room for an additional voice, and most importantly, played in a city that I might be willing to call home one day?

I’m so grateful that I chose Denver.

Few teams struggle to draw the national gaze the way the Nuggets do. They hardly ever seem to be relevant, they perpetually lack star power, and virtually no one on the East coast — where I was raised — watches their games. But I had been paying attention. The Nuggets were playing good basketball, and some dude named Nikola Jokic was turning heads with his unorthodox combination of size and style of play.

The Nuggets went on a tear to finish the season. Despite missing the playoffs narrowly, I was convinced they had one of the brightest futures of the league. What’s more, is their growth seemed to run parallel to that of their city’s. The West’s best-kept secret had been revealed and every young twenty-something on either coast was flirting with making the move . When September came around, I quit my job, packed my car, and left hell in the rearview mirror.

I had little to no idea what Denver would look like. But I pictured a gorgeous city full of happy people, spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains, and phenomenal beer. I couldn’t wait to hit the bars and nerd out with the Nuggets faithful. They had to see what I saw. They had to be brimming with optimism after witnessing the birth of the Jokic-era.

I was so naive.

Denver itself was everything I expected it to be. It was a vibrant city full of young people, perfect weather and an endless array of restaurants, breweries, and dispensaries. The worst of intentions that seem to motivate those who thrive in LA were replaced by the palpable contentedness of those who call Colorado their home. It was simple, it was peaceful, and It was almost perfect. But something was missing .

Where the hell were all the Nuggets fans?

The City was practically lit with that bright ‘Bronco’ shade of orange. But it was devoid of the powder blue and yellow I had hoped to see. It took weeks to find anyone wearing Nuggets apparel. When I finally did, it was old, the yellow had faded, and it read “Lawson” across the back. It was also worn by a homeless man.

Go Nuggets.

What I didn’t know, and what I would come to learn, is that the Nuggets faithful were but a small contingent of the rabid sports fans that do inhabit the Mile High City. As I got to know them, I learned to understand them as a particularly weathered group. Whatever optimism that sprung from the emergence of their young core was guarded at best. It was as if high expectations alone were dangerous. As if they knew something that I didn’t.

NuggLife is a distinct brand of sports fan misery. While some of professional sports’ most troubled and least successful franchises have drawn Cinderella-esque adoration from other, luckier fan bases—the Nuggets have remained largely, and simply, irrelevant.

The trials and tribulations of the Cleveland Browns are well documented and quite comical, but they’ve also earned Browns fans a certain empathy from the rest of us. Much like the Chicago Cubs and the Buffalo Bills, Browns fans have garnered respect for suffering through the hardest of times. There’s a charm to the struggle. For whatever reason, that charm is absent here in Denver.

To be a Nuggets fan is the real-life manifestation of finishing ninth in an NBA Conference. They aren’t quite good enough, but they aren’t quite bad enough either. They just kind of float there in some narrative-less sports limbo.

That explains why as this Nuggets season unfolded, the idea that they had stumbled into a good-to-great team, or even just an enjoyable one, was met with relative resistance. The fans are used to falling short year-after-year, and the last time a draft pick stood a chance of rewriting their history, he forced his way off the team.

While I saw a young core that was poised to take the torch from the Western Conference contenders one day, many fans had a hard time seeing anything but brutal contract extensions, expensive relics of the past that were chained to the end of the bench, and an organization that had failed to earn their trust.

That explained why the Pepsi Center was empty for much of the year. When it was full, it was for a weekend game with a popular opponent in town. I’ve heard as many “MVP” chants for Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant as I have for Nikola Jokic. It’s no wonder the national gaze glosses right over the Nuggets. They can’t even draw the local one.

The city of Denver is filled with transplants. And as the natives have kindly pointed out, there are more and more of us popping up each day. But few, if any, moved here because of the Denver Nuggets.

Strangely — sadly? — that’s exactly why I’m here. I believe it makes me uniquely qualified to answer a fun thought experiment: what happens if you drop a passionate NBA fan into the depths of NuggLife and without the proper context? What would they see when they looked at the latest iteration of the Denver Nuggets?

You might not believe me, but I remain just as positive as I did when I packed up my car and left town. Having grown up in New Jersey, I can only imagine the insufferable hype that would permeate the city of New York if they had the same roster and a similar season.

The Nuggets have one of the youngest cores in all of basketball. Despite playing in the toughest division in the league, despite missing 44 games from their biggest free agent signing in team history, and despite a brutal schedule — they won 46 games. Sure, the playoffs were the bar that many fans had set. But it wasn’t the bar that needed to be cleared. This team still has time. This team is good.

While Denver did miss the playoffs, they were able to create a playoff-like atmosphere at home for the second half of the season. The Nuggets took on the feel of a special group. Their long, tumultuous season featured more than one hair raising, goosebump inciting, and unforgettable moment.

This is a flawed basketball team. But the truth is they stand a non-zero chance of developing into one of the league’s most competitive outfits and most entertaining squads. If Denver can find a way to mitigate their inability to protect the rim and defend the point of attack — it’s a big if, I know — then they might just find themselves competing for home court in the playoffs, and maybe even a Finals appearance one day.

Is it likely? No. But the Nuggets have a chance. How many teams can truly say that?

Perhaps this is simply my naïveté and my ignorance speaking. Perhaps what seems to be bubbling under the surface here in Denver is a false alarm—a hollow hope. Should the Nuggets fall apart, I’ll raise my hand, accept my “L”, and close my eyes in preparation for my official baptism into the NuggLife.

But consider for a second that I might just be right. Perhaps my ignorance creates an advantageous position that allows me to see clearly now that the veil has been lifted. I don’t see inevitable failure. I see a remarkably bright future.

One day, the right group will carry this team to the top. One day, NuggLife will evolve from an ironic embracement of basketball-fan nihilism to a badge of honor worn proudly by those who suffered through it all. If you ask me, we might just be closer to that day than you think.

Then again, I’m new here.