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The Stiffs family loses its first fan

Saying goodbye to Uncle Marty - aka The Nuggets Curmudgeon

Marty Chernoff in 2011.
Kevin Preblud

On Friday evening, about 45 minutes before tip-off of the greatest game in Denver Nuggets playoff history, one of the all-time great Nuggets and sports fans - Marty Chernoff - passed away at the age of 76. Just one night before, I had stayed up late with Marty in his hospital room, watching the Philadelphia 76ers best the Toronto Raptors and, even though he was in ill health, he had just enough energy and strength to talk about that game and the Nuggets big playoff match-up looming the following night in Portland.

Longtime readers and followers of Denver Stiffs knew Marty Chernoff as “Uncle Marty, The Nuggets Curmudgeon”, whose name adorned these pages frequently from the day I started the site in 2008 and was a fixture at our Stiffs Night Out events at Jake’s Sports & Spirits, a sports bar Marty and I used to own together that became the epicenter of Stiffs Nation. While I referenced Marty as my uncle, we weren’t actually related by blood. My father and Marty - who co-founded Denver’s legendary Tracks Nightclub in 1980 - had been business partners since before I was born. So he was “Uncle Marty” to me growing up, and was my biggest fan, my lifelong mentor and my best friend.

As much as anyone, Marty - a walking encyclopedia for all sports - loved the NBA and our Denver Nuggets. And he loved Denver Stiffs. Himself being the ultimate disruptor in every business he touched - rocket science (yes, literally, rocket science), card playing, gambling junkets, real estate, the bar business and publishing - Marty appreciated how this site changed the landscape of local sports journalism in Denver and how quickly it gained traction with Nuggets fans worldwide.

Marty read every article that I ever published - usually before breakfast - and our first topic at breakfast each morning would be Marty pessimistically questioning whatever I was saying optimistically about the team in that day’s column. It wasn’t that Marty didn’t root for the Nuggets, because of course he did ... he just didn’t want to get his hopes up, so he often derided the direction of the team both on and off the court, even when the team was playing well.

Saying Marty was a big sports fan is a great understatement.

Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Marty grew up - ironically - as a New York Yankees fan rather than a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and would frequently skip school to attend games for both teams. Marty was also a regular at the original Madison Square Garden, where he would attend NBA doubleheaders that featured the likes of the New York Knickerbockers, Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals and Syracuse Nationals. Marty grew up watching NBA pioneers like George Mikan, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Dolph Schayes, Maurice Stokes and Marty’s all-time favorite, the incomparable Wilt Chamberlain (Marty always rooted for the big man).

A stickball player on the streets of Brooklyn, Marty was a tough athlete as a youngster and even tried out as a catcher for a Yankees farm team on a trip to Florida in his latter high school years. Marty’s hero was Yogi Berra who - like Marty - was short and stocky but made the most of his talents. Marty would frequently quote the always quotable Berra, his favorites being “When you come to a fork in the road, take it” and “no one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”

Leaving his hometown of Brooklyn in 1959 as a 16 year high school graduate with just a few dollars in his pocket, Marty arrived in Denver to play football for the University of Denver. Soon after reaching the DU campus, DU canceled their football program and the sport hasn’t been back since. Marty used to joke: “The coach said ‘Chernoff wants to play?! Cancel the entire football program!’” But Marty stayed at DU, fleecing his wealthier classmates in poker to pay tuition and expenses and graduating in 1963 with a degree in mathematics and statistics. Ever the DU Pioneers fan, Marty reveled in the school’s recent success in both hockey and lacrosse - watching all of those games in addition to his regular slate of sporting events, ranging from football to golf and every sport in-between.

After graduating from DU in 1963, Marty moved to the Los Angeles area to work in the space industry as an engineer ... again, he was literally a rocket scientist. Even though Marty hated his job, he enjoyed attending Southern California-based sporting events, including Los Angeles Lakers games where he got see Jerry West and Elgin Baylor play in their primes. Marty even got to attend Super Bowl I (which wasn’t even called the Super Bowl at that time, but rather first AFL-NFL World Championship Game) and if memory serves I think he said the ticket was under $10 and there were so many empty seats that he was able to move down several rows.

Marty returned to his newly adopted hometown of Denver and home state of Colorado five years later, where his sports fandom would lead to a lifetime of Denver Broncos and Rockets/Nuggets games (for the uninitiated, the Nuggets were named the Rockets from 1967 until 1974). One of Marty’s best friends and fellow poker players, Danny Mordecai (father of one of our most passionate Stiffs readers, Ryan Mordecai), offered Marty tickets to every Broncos and Rockets/Nuggets game and they attended countless games together. At Rockets/Nuggets games - at the Denver Auditorium Arena, McNichols Arena and then Pepsi Center - you couldn’t miss them as Danny had tickets to six seats located right behind the visitors’ media and bench - seats that Ryan, and often yours truly, sit in to this very day.

Just a month or so ago, our close friend Kevin Preblud - whose father Arlan served as the ABA Players Association’s attorney from the late 1960s into the early 1970s - found the photograph below that he took in 1979. You can see Marty, his wife and longtime companion Kay and his friend Danny in their regular seats, immediately behind the media in the very first row. Marty and Danny are the two heavyset guys wearing yellow that I’ve highlighted, Marty (with his head shaved) on the left and Danny (with the Tony Clifton mustache) to the right:

Magic Johnson vs David Thompson at McNichols Arena in 1979, with Uncle Marty watching from the first row.
Kevin Preblud

From the day the Rockets were founded in Denver in 1967 until last week before Marty’s tragic passing, Marty watched every single Rockets/Nuggets game available to him - either on television or in person (in the old days, not every game was broadcasted on television). That means Marty had a front row seat, literally, to the greatest Nuggets players and teams to walk onto that court. From Spencer Haywood’s unparalleled rookie debut for the 1969-70 Rockets to David Thompson and Dan Issel’s late 1970s Nuggets squads to Doug Moe, Alex English and Fat Lever’s 1980s Stiffs teams to the brief but thrilling 1990s era of Dikembe Mutombo and LaPhonso Ellis to the modern day teams of Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and now Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. And ever appreciative of receiving a ticket, Marty would go to any game, any time and always stayed until the very end, regardless of the outcome. Marty even enjoyed garbage time blowout games, because it gave him the opportunity to watch players who rarely got onto the court who he had likely seen play in college a few years before. And even through the darkness of the 1990s and very early 2000s for Denver basketball fans, Marty was a regular at Nuggets games. No one could ever accuse Marty of being a fair weather Nuggets fan.

When Danny himself passed on over 10 years ago, Marty was heartbroken as he had not only lost one of his best friends, but had lost his fellow Nuggets seat mate. But just before Danny passed, Danny promised Marty that he would continue to get invited to Nuggets games and Ryan and his mother Jan have proudly carried on the tradition of inviting Marty to games ever since - even when Marty physically struggled to get to his seat late this season.

By being able to sit in the very first row behind the visitors’ media and bench, Marty had a unique perspective on the game. Being a former athlete himself, Marty could tell everything about a team simply by watching their body language up front and by how the coach was interacting with his team. If only the Nuggets coaches could somehow have had a direct line to Marty, perhaps they’d have won more games over the years! And Marty had favorite non-Nugget players. He admired Charles Barkley’s hands (“If he could get a finger on that ball, it was his rebound!”), LeBron James’s physical dominance (“He could have been the best tight end in the NFL!”) and Yao Ming’s freakish height (“I’ve never seen a human being that big in my entire life!”). But for Marty, Chamberlain was the all-time best player he’d ever seen and it wasn’t even close. Marty always loved telling Chamberlain stories, including the one when Chamberlain - as a 50-something year old - said he’d only average 10 points per game in the modern NBA, and when the reporter questioned this Chamberlain said something to the effect of: “Yeah, because I’m over 50 years old!” Marty loved that story.

(On a side note, Marty’s amazing wife Kay - a huge animal lover and a basketball fan herself - names Clifford Ray as her all-time favorite player because in 1978 Ray saved a dolphin’s life by using his very long arms to pull a metal bolt out of its mouth.)

With Marty in my corner as my biggest fan, when I launched Denver Stiffs in 2008 (under a different moniker originally), I knew I was guaranteed to have one reader and Marty was, indeed, Denver Stiffs first-ever reader. Just like I was guaranteed to have one reader when I launched my comic strip Girls & Sports in 1997, one viewer when my animated cartoons appeared on Fox Sports’ Best Damn Sports Show Period in 2008 and one listener when Nate Timmons, Jeff Morton and I would do Colorado Sports Guy podcasts, which Marty would sit in on when hosted at Jake’s. Marty always had my back and cheered on all of my ventures. When you know you’re guaranteed one supporter in life, it encourages you to take risks and try new things.

As noted above, from the dawning of Denver Stiffs Marty was a regular feature in my columns and even suggested content from time to time, including when Marty’s close and longtime friend Leonard “Chink” Alterman - a member of the original Denver Nuggets from 1949 - passed and Marty encouraged me to write about Chink’s life. And not only did Marty join us for many Stiffs Nights Out at Jake’s, but he also welcomed the new Denver Stiffs crew led by Adam Mares when we hosted our first-ever annual “Stiffapalooza” pre-season planning session at our office just a few years ago.

Subconsciously worried that the Nuggets would only disappoint him (and, really, who can blame him?) Marty was a constant naysayer when it came to our beloved home team - even predicting that the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs would be the victor in the first round over our second-seeded Nuggets in this year’s playoffs.

Some classic Uncle Marty The Nuggets Curmudgeon-isms that made their way into columns over the years include:

“When you have 15 decent players you have no good players.”

“Who in pro sports wins championships while wearing powder blue?”

And when forecasting how the 2010-11 undersized Nuggets would do, Uncle Marty said the team would only dominate “the midget basketball league.”

But as I’ve noted above, Marty really loved the Nuggets and all of those who worked for and played for the team. Thanks to the platform this site gave us, I was able to introduce Marty to the likes of Josh Kroenke, Bret Bearup, Masai Ujiri, Tim Connelly, George Karl and Chauncey Billups. Masai and Tim attended Marty’s annual July 4th party. George joined us for dinner a few times at Jake’s. Bret was a frequent lunch guest, as well. Chauncey always made it a point to say hello to Marty when he came by the office for a visit. And when Marty, Josh and I once got together, Marty couldn’t help himself and asked Josh about why the Nuggets had “so many midgets” on the roster (again, Marty always loved the big man). Josh would respond with class, smilingly defending the height of his guards and small forwards and not getting into a debate with Marty about his centers and power forwards!

So while it’s depressingly sad and regretful that Marty missed - by just a few hours - the greatest Nuggets playoff game in franchise history this past Friday night, he more than made up for it by all the games he enjoyed over the past 52 years of professional basketball in Denver.

Besides, had Uncle Marty - aka The Nuggets Curmudgeon - been able to watch that game, he would have just overlooked Jokic’s incredible triple-double performance and criticized him for missing that key free throw at the end of the fourth and final overtime.

Nuggets and Stiffs Nation is lesser off today without our Uncle Marty rooting for our favorite basketball team.