“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

-Patti Digh

I’d spent three months working across a desk from one of the biggest curmudgeons I’ve ever met in my life. If I said it was a nice day, he had something bad to respond with. If I told a joke or a story, he’d never respond, let alone laugh. My usual ability to break down walls with people had been met, matched, and checkmated. This gent wanted nothing to do with me, and the feeling was slowly getting to be mutual. After 100-or-so days, I finally wandered into work one morning and sat quietly at my desk. The silence lasted for five minutes, tops.

“Have a decent night?” He ventured.

“Does it really matter?” I shot back a little too quickly.

My desk mate looked like I’d punched him in the nose, but only for the second it took before the tears started to roll down his face. I was shocked, and felt like a grade-A A-hole, even if he had been a churl all that time. I walked over to his side of the desk to apologize, and before I got it all the way out, five minutes of apologies, stories, and tears spilled out of him. We went for a walk to talk without 200 co-workers around.

You see, his wife was about to lose a long battle with cancer. They had been fighting the fight for over a year, and the unfortunate finish line was now staring them directly in the face. The gentleman I’d been working with left a long and thankless job every day to go home to take care of the love of his life until he was so exhausted he passed out. Day after day, this was his routine, one he’d decided to not burden any of the rest of us with, as the sympathy stares only made him feel worse. In the midst of more tears than he wanted to spill, he let this all spill out. I’d had no idea, and felt like a complete jerk. I felt helpless, and he felt hopeless.

I’m lucky to still call that man my friend, and we are long past those dark days he was enduring. It was a difficult but valuable lesson to me. Sometimes there’s a ton going on underneath a surface that looks perfectly placid, things you’d never begin to suspect. The situation taught me a lot about remembering how little I know in the moment someone bites my head off, cuts me off in traffic, or dismisses me out of hand. You never know what the container holds until you get a peek at what’s inside.

I was reminded of this story over last weekend when I was fortunate enough to get to sit down with the staff of Denver Stiffs to map out our plans for the upcoming season. As we were discussing some of the exciting pieces that will come into play this year, a couple of the writers were reflecting on how we’d written about players and coaches alike. I remembered a moment or two that I’d been pretty tough or dismissive of a guy after he’d struggled, without a moment’s thought as to why that might be. It made me think of the change in attitude I’d had toward my friend when he had finally shared his story. With that in mind, here’s a few words about a very few of the less-usual suspects, human beings who play, contribute, or coach for the Denver Nuggets:

Michael Malone (head coach): Coach is a family man to the core, always with great words about his parents, wife, and kids, and deeply dedicated to them all. He’s an avid explorer, whether in a new place across the world, or right in his backyard.

Ryan Bowen (assistant coach): Ryan has been with the Nuggets as both a player and assistant coach, and is long a fan favorite. Did you know that as soon as he left pro basketball, he became a video coordinator at his alma mater, the University of Iowa? Or that he’s the youngest of three kids? How about that he and his wife Wendy have a daughter and two sons, or that his yearly summer basketball camp back in Iowa is called “Floor Burns”.

Dan Shimensky (head athletic trainer): Dan has been with the Nuggets for 11 years now, including the last four in the top spot. He came to the profession naturally, as his dad Mike was also a long-time athletic trainer in the NBA. Dan’s crew at home looks a lot like Bowen’s in makeup, with a little alliteration to boot. Dan’s wife Heather may have gotten to name everyone, since their sons’ names are Hudson and Harris, and their daughter is Henley.

Arturas Karnisovas (general manager): In addition to being one of the key components of the Nuggets draft success in Europe, Karnisovas brings quite a basketball journey of his own. After playing his college ball at Seton Hall (and unable to speak a word of English upon his arrival), Arturas also helped his native Lithuania to bronze medals in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games. In addition to his hoops prowess on and off the court, Karnisovas and his wife Gina have two sons, Eric and Michael. Eric plays ball at Valor Christian High School.

Paul Millsap (power forward): Paul is a notoriously quiet and guarded guy, who is slow to warm to you, but loyal as hell once you’re a part of his circle. Millsap was born in Louisiana, and got to go to his first All-Star game as a participant in his home state. His younger brother Elijah plays in the G League, and his high school mascot was… you’ll never believe it… the Kittens.

Tyler Lydon (also power forward): Tyler comes from a small enough town in New York (Pine Plains, population 2,422) that his high school football team is a terror in the eight-man game. Lydon took his high school basketball team to the State Class C Finals before a transfer and two year stint at home-state Syracuse. Lydon calls himself a “country boy”. When he grew a mustache his freshman year at Syracuse, he named it “Rico”.

Mason Plumlee (also also power forward): OK, I’m wearing out the power forward joke, but Plumlee played ball at Duke, both with his older brother Miles, and eventually his younger brother Marshall. Speaking of alliterative families, younger sister Madeleine broke suit, and played volleyball at the University of Notre Dame. The family came by their basketball genes and jones naturally. Dad Perky played for Tennessee Tech (yes, his name is Perky Plumlee) and mom Leslie played at Purdue. Mason’s grandpa on his mom’s side played ball for Michigan Tech back in the 1940’s. Also fun to note, when Marshall won a championship with Duke in 2014, all three brothers were then able to claim that distinction, a real rarity.

You get the point. The guys mentioned above are just people, like you and me. At some point, Tyler Lydon gets cut off in traffic. At some point, Arturas Karnisovas is cursing at a toilet with a plunger in hand at 3 am. If it happens to you, odds are very good it’s happened to or happens to one of the many folks at the Pepsi Center as well. There are over a hundred more men and women who make up the team and staff of your Denver Nuggets, Nuggets Nation. Each and every one with a beating heart, a brain between their ears, and feelings just like you and me. Though it will be tempting to lay waste with your rocket-hot verbal flamethrower at some disappointing point during the season, try and remember that the guy you’re lambasting may already be having a tough time for a million different reasons. Not that criticism isn’t fair game, but try to remember that it’s just a person on the other side.

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