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Yale 62

Can the Nuggets Finally Win a Title? Neal Freeman Hopes So.

Y62 Communications Team member Lee Bolman reports that classmate Neal Freeman has just published a charming and highly-readable article about his passion for the Denver Nuggets (in, oddly enough, the National Review). In an account filled with dark humor and genial self-deprecation, Neal tells how he became part of the ownership group of a team that was among the most hapless ensembles in the history of professional sports–in his first ownership year, the Nuggets stumbled to 11 wins in 82 games. Yet despite the fact that the team “was not good at basketball,” Neal became a passionate fan. Years after his group had sold the franchise, his faith is being rewarded. Read Neal’s article below.

Denver Nuggets: Long Journey to Championship Contenders
By Neal B. Freeman First published in National Review.

Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets tip off tonight [June 1] in the first game of the National Basketball Association championship series. There are fans who thought they would never live to see this day. I’m one of them.

The Nuggets played their first game 56 years ago, and in the intervening years they have never won a championship. Not even close.

In 1989, I came into the ownership group — not, of course, through the front door with a nine-figure check, but through the side door with a happenstance connection. I was a director of a company in the satellite business. At the end of a long board meeting, the chairman announced that a delegation from the NBA would soon be arriving and wondered if any of us would be willing to stay late for a meeting with them. The subject of the meeting, he added, would be the possible acquisition of an NBA franchise. All of us were overscheduled management types, and there were no takers. So the chairman “volunteered” three of us — Roscoe Robinson, Rudy Boschwitz, and me.

Roscoe was a leader of men. I don’t know whether it was he or Colin Powell who became the first black four-star in the U.S. Army, but by all rights it should have been Roscoe. While Powell was the master of the boardroom briefing, Roscoe was the commander of the 82nd Airborne, where he persuaded young men to jump out of airplanes and float slowly into live-fire war zones. He persuaded them, when necessary, by jumping first.

Rudy was a man of accomplishments. He had built a profitable lumberyard business, got himself elected to the U.S. Senate (as a Republican from Minnesota!), and then became a tireless global ambassador for human rights. If, anywhere in the world, a big guy was bullying a little guy, Rudy would barge in uninvited to stand with the little guy. Rudy was a man of passionate interests. I was never sure that pro basketball could be counted among them, but he was always dutiful, always congenial.

I was a young communications entrepreneur and a sports nut. My own basketball career had peaked in high school. I had a passion for the game, but a scouting report would have noted that I was short and slow and had no hops.

The NBA delegation arrived on time, settled into a conference room, and made its case. (Brilliantly, by the way. The commissioner at that time, David Stern, was a skilled and charming negotiator.) It went like this: The NBA was on a winning streak. The demographic and financial trends were good and getting better. The Denver franchise had a weak ownership group, but the upside was highly promising. Visions of a Ted Turner–like synergy between the Atlanta Braves and his satellite TV interests were made to dance in our heads.

We bit. The satellite company bought the Nuggets for what today would be considered a laughably low price but at the time seemed dauntingly high.

It was on one of our early trips to Denver that the three amigos – Roscoe, Rudy, and I — were able to visualize Stern’s vague concept of a “weak ownership group.” As we walked through the Denver airport one afternoon, we saw a striking picture on the front page of the local newspaper. It was a pile of stuff on a sidewalk — upholstered chairs, a lamp, wastebaskets, a mattress, and suchlike. A member of the previous ownership group, according to the story, had been evicted from his apartment.

And then there was the team. To put the matter plainly, the Nuggets were not good at basketball. One season, we were so bad that we won 11 games. That would be 11 games from a regular-season schedule of 82 games, which is to say that we won less often than once a week. How did we manage even that feat? By catching a tired opponent on the second game of a back-to-back, say, or lucking into an injury-depleted team at the end of a long road trip, or banking in a wild shot at the end of a sloppy, out-of-control game. Mostly, we lost and lost and then lost some more. Our fans stayed away in droves. At home games, when we would announce the night’s attendance, the small, beer-soaked crowd would laugh out loud, knowing that we had counted generously.

Our performance off the court was worse. From multiple visitations with members of the law enforcement community, we learned that one of our players, allegedly, had been beating up a girlfriend. Another player, allegedly, had been doing hard drugs. Another player, allegedly, was facing gun charges. And those were just the guys who got caught.

Back at corporate headquarters, testy managers had to remind raucous media gaggles that we were in the satellite business, not the basketball business. “Your Denver Nuggets” may now have had a strong ownership group, but it had a weak franchise. It was, to quote one of my plainspoken colleagues, “a frigging mess.”

The first ray of sunlight burst through in 1990. We drafted a high choice, third overall, out of LSU. (The lower you finish in league standings, the higher your pick in the college draft.) He was a sweet-shooting guard named Chris Jackson. When you think of Chris Jackson, you should think of the first coming of Steph Curry: As soon as he crossed over from the backcourt, Chris could chuck it up from almost anywhere and . . . swish! We hyped the kid feverishly, and he delivered for us. Lots of points, a few wins, a tremor (at last) of fan excitement.

It proved to be a false dawn. Returning from summer break for a new season, Chris announced that he would be leaving behind his old persona, the (athletic) Chris Jackson . . . and that he would be known henceforward as the (ascetic) Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Okay, then. This was not what our scouting department had been looking for. We had no immediate need for a 162-pound Muslim at the shooting-guard position. (Mahmoud, predictably, soon began to think ill of the United States in general and refused to stand for the national anthem. Kudos to Coach Dan Issel for sending him to the dressing room to have his ankles re-taped just as the soloist stepped to the mic.)

A good thing, at least on this occasion, came to those who waited. The next year, 1991, we drafted a kid out of Georgetown named Dikembe Mutombo. He was tall, somewhere north of 7-foot-2, and possibly the only player in league history who lied about his height downward. He was deceptively strong and relentlessly competitive, giving meaning to the newly fashionable jock-lingo “rim protector.” When opposing players would drive the lane for a layup or a floater, Dikembe would gather himself, leap, and then swat the ball away, sometimes, for emphasis, sending the ball several rows deep into the crowd. After which, we would play on the jumbotron a mini-video of Dikembe wagging his finger and saying in the deepest bass voice you ever heard, “Not in the House of Mutombo.”

Were visiting players intimidated? We certainly hoped so. We also hoped that they would remember the sign we had thoughtfully tacked over their dressing room in our decrepit building: “Welcome to McNichols Sports Arena, 5,200 feet above sea level.” Who knew — even when these magnificently conditioned athletes would forget the sign, their lungs, or their legs, might remember it late in the fourth quarter. (Here’s a tip for all of you future NBA owners out there: To establish the ultimate home-court advantage, try to build your arena on the top of a mountain.)

With Dikembe roaming the paint, we began to win a few more games and, in one heartening season, we managed to beat a top-seeded Seattle team in the conference playoffs. Even better for what was then routinely referred to as our “troubled franchise,” Dikembe was a good citizen. He did the right thing — in the locker room and in the community at large. The team’s morale, and behavior, began to improve. By the 1993-1994 season, we had achieved our proximate goal: Mediocrity. We won 42 games.

The pace of change began to pick up thereafter. Fans returned. The franchise stabilized. A new arena was approved. The sun had come up . . . tomorrow.

Rudy Boschwitz left the board. (More bullies required his personal attention.) And my friend Roscoe Robinson contracted a particularly virulent form of cancer and died as he had lived, bravely and inspiringly. He was buried with full military honors, a few of his broad-shouldered paratroopers spilling tears on their dress tunics. I spilled a few myself.

By the turn of the century, the satellite company owned a salable asset, and we chose, with barely disguised relief, to sell it. We had no shortage of buyers. We parted with the Nuggets for the going rate — three or four times what the team was actually worth — and the board of the satellite company (15 men and women, all of them now older and wiser) resolved unanimously to make themselves unavailable the next time a man with a basketball team came calling.

That was the end of the story for our ownership group but not, of course, for me. I was by then a fan. Hard-core. I continued to follow the team (on satellite TV!) and to root for my favorite Nugget of all time, the pogo-sticking Antonio McDyess, and then for the prolific scorer Carmelo Anthony and the exciting teams coached by the legendary George Karl. Year after year, the Nuggets were respectable, the franchise stable. But as for championships . . . no, not even close.

It wasn’t until 2014 that God finally intervened. With the 41st pick of the NBA draft, He instructed the Nuggets to pick Nikola Jokic, of whom the bewildered ESPN talking heads said, as if with one voice, “Who?” The meaning of God’s message, as so often in the past, was not made immediately clear. It turned out that Nikola Jokic was a big, fat kid out of that great Serbian program in Sombor. From film, the draftniks could see that he was slow; that he had the hops of a middle-aged executive; and that he always seemed to be shooting off the wrong foot. Could the Nuggets be up to their old, dysfunctional tricks?

Not even close. Within two years, tops, as he plodded productively up and down the hardwood, it became clear that Nikola Jokic, by then known universally as The Joker, should have been the first pick in the draft. In 2014 or, for that matter, in any other year. He could shoot with astonishing accuracy for a seven-footer. Still more astonishingly, he was perhaps the greatest passer in the history of the game. Watch tonight. When you see The Joker throw away a pass, think a moment before you shout at the TV, “Greatest passer, my elbow!” The chances are good that The Joker made exactly the right pass, but that his teammate had failed to imagine the same opportunity. The Joker may have passed to the spot where his teammate should have been.

Ladies and gentlemen, Your Denver Nuggets, after a brief delay, have reached the finals of the world championship.

Go Nugs!

3 comments to Can the Nuggets Finally Win a Title?

  • DAVID M HUMMEL JR

    I also have been a long time Nuggets fan and used to attend games in the 90’s when in Denver on business.It is a lot of fun to watch Jokic do his thing. He out lumbers almost anyone who attemps to guard him.I hope they do better in the next game in Miami.

  • I’ve been a Nugget fan for about a week in that when someone is called “possibly the greatest passer to ever play” one’s attention is sparked and one turns to the YouTube for a look see. Jokic (Yo kitch) is in fact a marvel, a clear genius level, magic touch big boy manifesting Einstein-like plays that nobody sees coming. Far out.
    That said, how can people who grew up with one step basketball really enjoy today’s game when the guys are running all over the court. I swear I’ve seen them taking three.
    PS What are “hops”?

  • Ken Merkey

    They did it

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