Denver: The NBA’s Blind Spot

Imagine you’re having a conversation with an avid NBA fan. One of those people who will tell you how much they loved the 1980’s Milwaukee Bucks with Sidney Moncrief, Terry Cummings and young Ricky Pierce in that ever-so-slight hipster tone. Just to let you know how much they love the NBA.

In the course of this conversation you ask casually: “Oh, do you know who the leading scorer of the 1980s was?”

What you get in return is a blank stare, then a furrowed brow and their eyes going up and to the left in that searching for the answer mode. After a good minute or two goes by, the avid NBA fan gives up and asks you who it was.

Then you tell them: Alex English of the Denver Nuggets.

Whereupon the furrowed brow returns as the person tries to recollect who Hall-of-Famer Alex English is. This is despite the No. 2 ‘Rainbow Skyline’ jersey being one of the most, if not the most popular throwback jersey in the NBA (there’s a paradox for you).

You can repeat this scene with many an NBA fan. I asked another person that same question, and they proceeded to insist that it was Bernard King of New York Knicks and the Washington Bullets fame. As a longtime Nuggets fan, you either begin to lose the will to live or you’ll start berating them about how King was overrated by playing on the East Coast. None of which is productive; you’ll leave grasping your head from the headache it causes.

Denver, my friends, is in what you call an ‘NBA Blind Spot.’ A phenomena that, yes, goes on with many other teams in so-called ‘flyover country,’ but rarely has a team that is entering its 51st season of existence ever had to crow about the good-to-great players that have come through its ranks so loudly, yet still get so little recognition. As frustrating — and championship-less — as Nuggets history is, it’s not as if they’ve been the the worst NBA franchise during that span. Far from it.

Still…

A more modern example of how the all-too-real ‘NBA Blind Spot’ appears when it comes to Denver has been the overwrought reaction — or blowback, rather — to the recent hype that Nikola Jokic has received (largely from Nuggets fans and the analytics crowd). Those people understand what Jokic brings to the game; an unusual skill-set and rare court vision that borders on magical. Nevertheless, few casual NBA fans have even seen the big Serbian. You’ll regularly see Internet-troll phrases (“He ain’t all that!” is popular) from fans who may have heard of Jokic only in passing. It’s simply unfathomable to many that top-tier NBA talent could ever — would ever — play in Denver.

A combination of the Nuggets’ stumbles over the last four seasons and the simple fact that it’s happening in Denver has directly led to average basketball fans resenting Jokic’s hype. Yet it’s not confined to when the Nuggets are down, as the shocking lack of respect for English’s brilliance proves. Somehow, it extends even to when the Nuggets had a coveted ‘star’ of their own in recent history.

Those of you who were in Colorado during the insanity that was the Carmelo Anthony trade saga (aka ‘The Melodrama’) will remember a famous radio spot with longtime Nuggets broadcaster Scott Hastings. It was early 2011, and the trade speculation surrounding ‘Melo’ was enormous. Chris Broussard, then of ESPN, called into Hastings’ talk show to discuss Anthony and the trade speculation at the time. In a moment that stunned Hastings, noted NBA national analyst Broussard uttered words that I had never heard associated with the Nuggets’ star forward before:

“Melo isn’t known as a ball-stopper…”

Only a year and a half removed from the Nuggets’ trip to the Western Conference Finals, before heading into a season that would see them win 53 games while appearing on national television almost constantly, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that any analyst worth their salt could be that… wrong. Carmelo was not only a ball-stopper, it was — and still is — the thing he’s known best for! Presumably, Broussard simply lost the plot — except it wasn’t just him. Multiple TV analysts, legions of blog-commenters and countless others made remarkably similar assertions. How could anyone who’d even had a cursory glance at Carmelo Anthony’s game come back with such a ridiculous impression?

Denver is the NBA’s ‘Blind Spot’; it defines it in ways that no other franchise could, even in their worst nightmares. Nuggets fans not only have to battle recognition within Denver itself (the NFL Broncos lap the field in terms of media attention), but in the very league in which they play. The Nuggets always have to fight a two-pronged, uphill battle, both locally and nationally. It’s as reliable as death and taxes.

This is the Nuggets’ 51st season as an ABA and NBA franchise. Nuggets fans will hope that their team plays exciting, winning basketball, all the while knowing that national recognition will never come. It’s the price paid for being a ‘Blind Spot’ city; but perhaps it’s time for Nuggets fans to flip the script and wear it like a badge of honor.

There have been many brilliant, unheralded players that have come through Denver who deserve recognition. Some of them (David Thompson, Dan Issel, Dikembe Mutombo and English, among others) can be found in the NBA’s Hall of Fame. So as the Nuggets celebrate their 51st season of professional basketball this year, it’s worth taking some time to remember the great moments. They’re better — and far more numerous — than most ‘knowledgeable’ fans think.

Perhaps as soon as this fall, Nikola Jokic uses his first full season as a starter to begin paving his own path in Denver; a potentially lonely one, in which he’s doomed to be forever underrated… until he’s not.

That’s the long and winding road that Alex English took while forging a well-deserved Hall of Fame career, and today, those same casual, ‘knowledgeable’ fans learn about his sterling legacy in the hallowed halls of Springfield, Massachusetts — whether they remember him or not.

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