The Big Five Oh! (50 reasons we love the Denver Nuggets)

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

Happy birthday, Nuggets.

Just as you’ve been for (most of) your 50 years, this one is simply golden. You were Denver’s first real championship-caliber team (yes, even before the Broncos) and – through thick and thin, sickness and health, richer and poorer – we’ve loved you ever since. The folks who have called themselves Nuggets (or even Rockets) over the years are as colorful as the jerseys you wore in the high-flying ’80s.

Just as a mother loves each one of her children the same, we’ve cheered for Skywalker, The Silent Assassin and Melo no differently than we’ve applauded the whimsical performances of Schayes, Rasmussen and Goldwire (Anthony, that is).

You’ve been great (see ’85 and ’09), and you’ve been downright dreadful (11-71? How in the world!?), but we’ve never left.

In the ’80s, your marketing slogan, set to a catchy jingle, made a simple claim: “Denver Nuggets… So Exciting!

And you were.

Then in the ’90s, you asked: “Nuggets Fan?”

“Yes, I am” was the answer, just as it will always be.

For 50 years, it’s been a ton of fun.

– Doug Ottewill {Editor-in-Chief} and Casey Light {General Manager}

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The Rainbow Skyline

Ever since its debut in 1981, Nuggets fans have held an affinity for the logo that features the city skyline in rainbow colors set against a mountainous backdrop. The mark became so popular that it returned as an alternate uniform in the 2000s after being retired in 1993.

Byron Beck

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The first Rocket/Nugget to have his jersey retired, Byron Beck was a University of Denver alumnus who played all 10 years of his career in the Mile High City. He was one of only six players to participate in all nine seasons of the ABA. Never the most athletic player on the court, Beck was always the hardest worker and his hook shot was a thing of beauty.

Jordan vs. Mahmoud – Feb. 4, 1996

The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls lost only 10 games in the regular season, a record that would stand for 20 years. One of those losses came in Denver, when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Michael Jordan battled with 32 and 39 points, respectively, in a now legendary shootout.

Dan Issel locks the Suns out of McNichols

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Having made a verbal commitment to return to the Nuggets as a free agent, Antonio McDyess was taking in an Avs game when three players from the Phoenix Suns traveled to Denver to try and convince him otherwise. Dan Issel, then the team’s GM, ordered security to lock them out of the arena (in a blizzard, no less).

Alex English

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The NBA’s leading scorer of the 1980s, Alex English led a golden era of Nuggets basketball during his 10-plus seasons in Denver. He still owns franchise records for games, minutes, points, field goals and points per game. The Nuggets made the playoffs in each of his final nine seasons in Denver, advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 1984-85. English was the first player in NBA history to score 2,000 points in eight consecutive seasons, all coming with the Nuggets.

Melo drops 41 points as a rookie

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The Nuggets knew they had a prolific scorer in rookie forward Carmelo Anthony. The 19-year-old confirmed that on March 30, 2004 against the Sonics when he became only the second teenager in NBA history to score at least 40 points in a game (joining LeBron James, who did it just three days earlier).

Maxie the Miner

The Nuggets logo of the ABA and early NBA days featured a bearded miner toting a pickaxe and the iconic red-white-and-blue basketball of the ABA.

11-71

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For all the great seasons the Nuggets have put together over the years, there’s also the 1997-98 squad led by head coach Bill Hanzlik. Their 11-71 record was the second-worst in league history for many years and still ranks third in all-time Association futility.

Pistons 186, Nuggets 184

The Nuggets came out on the wrong side of a 186-184 triple-overtime thriller on Dec. 13, 1983 that still stands as the highest-scoring game in NBA history. Twelve different players scored in double-figures, including 51 from Kiki Vandeweghe, 47 from Alex English and 28 from Dan Issel.

George Karl beats cancer… twice

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Nuggets players had to look no further than the front of their bench to find the fighter’s mentality that made them so successful from 2004 to 2013. Head coach George Karl beat cancer twice while coaching in Denver, first defeating prostate cancer in 2005, then throat and neck cancer five years later.

The 1976 ABA All-Star Game

Not only did the game feature the first ever Slam Dunk Contest (in which Dr. J defeated Denver’s David “Skywalker” Thompson in a battle that is still considered one of the best in contest history), the Nuggets defeated the ABA All-Stars thanks to a 52-point offensive explosion in the fourth quarter.

Spencer Haywood

The Trinidad State Junior College product played just one season in Denver – his first as a pro – but it was arguably the greatest season in franchise history. Haywood averaged 30 points and 19.5 rebounds in 1969-70 to lead the ABA in both categories, earning him Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. He picked up ABA All-Star Game MVP honors that season, as well.

K-Mart shows Dirk who’s boss

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Barely six minutes into the 2009 Western Conference Semifinals, Kenyon Martin gave Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki a shove the German would not forget. Denver would go on to dominate the series, winning 4-1, and Martin’s bank account would take a significant hit after a $25,000 fine for the flagrant foul.

Al Albert and Irv Brown

When Irv Brown said, “Another big night, Al,” you knew things were going well for the Nuggets. The duo of Brown and Al Albert remains one of the legendary pairings in Denver broadcasting history.

Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo

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“Mount Mutombo” was one of the most menacing defensive figures of his era and one of the greatest characters and philanthropists in league history. The Hall of Famer’s iconic finger wag came to prominence in Denver and every child of the ’90s still knows his full name by heart. Still the franchise’s all-time leader in blocked shots, the Nuggets retired Mutombo’s No. 55 in 2016.

Dunn’s Guns

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One of the top defenders and rebounding guards of his era, T.R. Dunn ranks second in team history in steals and sixth in offensive rebounds. Pair the biceps with the Jheri curl and Dunn was a man that every junior high basketball player in the 1980s aspired to be.

Nuggets give up 107 points… in the first half

Three days after Paul Westhead’s Nuggets set an NBA record with 90 points in the first half of a game (an eventual 161-153 loss to the Spurs), Denver coughed up the record by allowing Phoenix to score 107 points in the first half of a 173-143 loss. The marketing campaign promoting Westhead’s brand of ball said, “Turn ‘em loose!” Unfortunately, the Nuggets and their opponents were turned loose nightly.

The Long Ranger

Nuggets guard Michael Adams had more than a few quirks to his game. From his “push” jump shot to lining up on the far right side of the free-throw line, Adams’ unorthodox style was a fan favorite in the late ’80s. He set a then-NBA record (now belonging to Steph Curry) by connecting on a 3-pointer in 79 consecutive games from Jan. 28, 1988 to Jan. 23, 1989.

Foolin’ Around

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Whether it was putting first-round draft pick Mo Martin’s BMW on the roof of McNichols or having a ball boy fill Kenyon Martin’s Range Rover with popcorn, the Nuggets have a storied history of pranking their fellow players via their cars. It was no laughing matter for Martin, though, who threatened to fight the responsible party. (It was J.R. Smith).

Amazing Grace and Chuck

Fear of nuclear war was still front and center of the American consciousness in 1987 when Alex English starred in the film “Amazing Grace and Chuck,” as the titular NBA star who protests nuclear armament by sitting out of games. Call us biased, but it should have won an Oscar.

“The Answer” arrives in a blizzard

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In one of the biggest in-season trades of the decade, the Nuggets acquired 76ers guard Allen Iverson on Dec. 19, 2006 – pairing the NBA’s two top scorers (Iverson and Carmelo Anthony) on the same roster. “The Answer” barely made it to Denver for his debut on Dec. 22, as a blizzard blanketed the city with more than 20 inches of snow.

Bobby Jones

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Nicknamed “The Secretary of Defense,” Bobby Jones was a key figure in the Nuggets’ run to the 1976 ABA Finals. Named to the ABA or NBA All-Defensive first team for 10 consecutive seasons (four in Denver, six in Philadelphia), Jones was much more than an interior defensive presence. He led the ABA and NBA in field-goal percentage three of his four years in Denver and ranked third once.

The Melee at MSG

On Dec. 16, 2006, the world learned why Carmelo Anthony pursued basketball instead of boxing. The NBA would dole out heavy punishment (10 players were ejected) for an on-court fight that even spilled into the stands between the Nuggets and Knicks. Melo’s sucker punch of Jared Jeffries (and subsequent retreat) was arguably the low point.

Rodney Rodgers’ 9 seconds of fame

Rodney Rodgers spent most of his rookie season on the bench in Denver, but he did endear himself to fans in the closing seconds of a February 1994 game against the Jazz. Rodgers knocked down three 3-pointers in nine seconds to bring the Nuggets back from an 86-94 deficit and take a one-point lead. Jeff Malone hit a jumper in the closing seconds to win it for Utah.

Rocky

Hands down the best mascot in Denver, “Rocky” has been thrilling Nuggets fans for nearly 30 years. His high-flying dunks have wowed crowds since his debut in 1990. The self-appointed “Supermascot” knows no fear, as evidenced by his annual “Nutcracker” bit and the countless injuries (a broken back, asphyxiation, etc.) he’s suffered at the cost of fan entertainment.

Robert “Chopper” Travaglini

The longtime Nuggets trainer was much more to Denver than the man who kept their favorite basketball team healthy from 1976 to 1991. Since 1987, “Chopper’s Dinner” has been a marquee fundraising event for the organization, raising funds for children’s charities. An outgoing personality in all he did, “Chopper” left a positive impression on everyone he met.

J.R. Smith posterizes Gary Neal

The San Antonio Spurs always seemed to have the Nuggets’ number in the late 2000s, and they did on Dec. 16, 2010, eking out a 113-112 victory at Pepsi Center. But the most-memorable part of that game was J.R. Smith dunking on Gary Neal. Smith, who never met a shot he didn’t like, flew from nearly the free-throw line to throw down a two-handed slam that sent Neal flying flat on his back. The foul, however, was on Neal.

Carmelo and CP3 go to Sterling

Carmelo Anthony sightings in Downtown Denver were a common occurrence during his tenure in the Mile High City. Not so much in remote Sterling, Colo. near the Nebraska panhandle. Melo took a road trip (with Chris Paul along for the ride) to Northeastern Junior College to see his friend Tyler Smith hoop it up for the Plainsmen, much to the delight of the NJC crowd.

Skywalker scores 73 in ’78

The race for the 1978 NBA scoring title was one of the greatest individual battles in league history. David Thompson scored 73 points against Detroit on the final night of the season in a Herculean effort that fell just short after George “Iceman” Gervin scored 63 against the New Orleans Jazz. Thompson’s effort that night still ranks fourth (tie) all-time in NBA history for single-game scoring.

The King of Park Hill Returns

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Chauncey Billups was a Denver basketball legend long before he played for the Nuggets, but his second stint as a pro in the Mile High City was the stuff of lore. Acquired from Detroit in a midseason trade, “The King of Park Hill” averaged 20.6 points, 6.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game in the 2009 playoffs to lead Denver all the way to the Western Conference Finals.

Nuggets down the 73-win Warriors

The Nuggets were already a footnote in the story of the greatest regular-season team in NBA history, as one of nine teams to defeat the 72-win 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (Indiana beat Chicago twice). They added to that legacy as one of nine teams to beat the 73-win 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. Denver is the only one of those 17 clubs to defeat both Chicago and Golden State.

Jeff Bzdelik

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Many observers will credit Carmelo Anthony for the Nuggets’ turnaround in 2003-04, but no one should overlook the contributions of head coach Jeff Bzdelik. After finishing a paltry 17-65 in 2002-03, Bzdelik helped guide Denver to 43 wins and a playoff berth. While Anthony played a huge part (remember, LeBron James missed the playoffs in his rookie season), Bzdelik’s coaching was just as important and kicked off a run of 10 consecutive playoff appearances.

Karl fired after winning Coach of the Year

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Denver capped a run of 10 years making the postseason with a disappointing first-round loss to the sixth-seeded Warriors in 2013. Head coach George Karl was relieved of his duties after winning NBA Coach of the Year and setting a franchise record for wins, proving that the bar forever had been raised in the Mile High City.

Alex English for George McGinnis

Of the many rabbits Carl Scheer pulled out of his hat in 10 years as the Nuggets’ top executive, perhaps the greatest was his 1980 trade of George McGinnis to the Indiana Pacers for Alex English and a first-round pick. The Pacers hoped McGinnis (previously a star for Indiana) would reignite a lethargic fan base. English went on to lead the NBA in scoring over the next decade, while McGinnis was out of the league two years later.

The Stiffs

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To this day, no self-respecting NBA team goes without a bona fide “stiff” (a leggy, un-athletic, and typically white, big man – unofficially dubbed by Doug Moe, no less). Denver has proudly been home to a lengthy list of stiffs, including but certainly not limited to: Danny Schayes, Blair Rasmussen, Joe Wolf, Bill Hanzlik, Raef LaFrentz and Nikoloz Tskitishvili.

A big, easy win in the playoffs

Denver claims a number of scoring records, both good and bad, over their 50 seasons. Count their 2009 playoff win over the New Orleans Hornets among the good. Coming off a 93-95 loss in Game 3, the Nuggets demolished the Hornets 121-63. The 58-point difference tied a NBA record for largest margin of victory in a playoff game.

Mahmoud protests the National Anthem

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Long before Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players protested oppression by sitting or kneeling for the national anthem, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf caused a national firestorm by sitting during “The Star Spangled Banner.” The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf, who eventually agreed to a compromise in which he would stand, but close his eyes and pray silently during the anthem.

Fat Lever

Long considered one of the most-underrated players in NBA and Denver Nuggets history, Lafayette “Fat” Lever ran the point for one of the greatest eras of Nuggets basketball. Although he played only 474 games for Denver, Lever ranks in the top 10 in franchise history in minutes, points, rebounds, assists and steals. He still holds the Nuggets all-time record for steals. Lever’s jersey No. 12 will be retired this season.

Nene battles cancer

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There was nothing funny for opponents when they faced Maybyner Rodney Hilario, a.k.a. Nene. A ferocious defender for eight-plus seasons in Denver, Nene’s biggest battle came off the court when he defeated testicular cancer in 2008. In the season that followed, Nene posted career-highs of 14.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.31 blocks, appearing in 77 games (76 starts).

Detroit drafts Darko

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The Nuggets learned that proverb when the Detroit Pistons drafted Darko Milicic with the No. 2 overall pick in 2003, placing Carmelo Anthony in Denver’s lap. (The Nuggets entered the draft lottery tied with Cleveland, who took LeBron James No. 1 overall, for the best odds at landing the top pick.) Anthony would lead the Nuggets to the playoffs every year of his time in Denver, while Milicic never materialized as an NBA talent.

David “Skywalker” Thompson

You’ve read many of David Thompson’s accolades throughout this list, but the accomplishments of “Skywalker” go beyond those individual moments. After earning the 1976 ABA Rookie of the Year and being named an All-Star, Thompson ushered in the NBA era in Denver with flair. The inventor of the “alley-oop” earned three more All-Star nominations in Denver (four overall) and two first-team All-NBA nods. Although drug abuse ultimately derailed his career, his No. 33 now hangs in the rafters at Pepsi Center.

What could have been with The Fonz

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One of the saddest tales in Nuggets history has to be that of LaPhonso Ellis. A key figure in the upstart Nuggets of the early ’90s, Ellis suffered a knee injury that limited him to just six games in the 1994-95 season. Though he still had an impactful career over six seasons in Denver, he was never the same player afer that injury.

The trade that defined the ’80s

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Nuggets fans weren’t pleased to lose Kiki Vandeweghe in the summer of 1984. They were, however, pleased with the end results. In sending Vandeweghe to Portland for Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, Wayne Cooper and two draft picks, Denver landed a group that made a run all the way to the 1985 Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets made the playoffs in each of the next six years following the trade.

Big Mac

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While the Nuggets have called four different arenas home (Denver Auditorium Arena, Denver Coliseum, McNichols Sports Arena and Pepsi Center), McNichols holds a special place in the hearts of Nuggets fans. Completed in 1975, “Big Mac” housed the Nuggets (and numerous Denver hockey teams) until 1999 and was home to many of the great games showcased throughout this list.

Dan Issel

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A Hall of Fame player, coach, broadcaster and executive, no individual spans the decades of Denver basketball more than Dan Issel. He ranks first all time in rebounds for the Nuggets, second in games, minutes and points, and in the top 10 in steals and assists. He finished 388-100 as a head coach. While his post-playing career was filled with highs (the 1994 playoffs) and lows (resigning after an altercation with a fan), Issel remains one of the key figures in Nuggets history.

Chris Jackson’s draft party

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Before he was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, one of the greatest free-throw (and pure) shooters in NBA history, he was a high-scoring guard out of LSU named Chris Jackson. After selecting Jackson with the No. 3 overall pick in 1990, the Nuggets held a raucous party with a packed house at the newly opened convention center.

The Duke fires up Denver

Not once, but twice the most-famous man in Denver sports has been called upon to rally the Nuggets’ faithful. With Denver down 0-2 to the Sonics in the 1994 playoffs, John Elway gave an impassioned locker-room speech before firing up the fans from half court. Then, in 2009, Elway was called upon again, this time to introduce another Denver legend, Chauncey Billups (now donning Elway’s No. 7), in his return to the Nuggets.

Doug Moe

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Denver’s all-time wins leader as head coach, Moe is one of the franchise’s all-time great characters. His often-disheveled fashion sense made fans snicker and his candor made executives cringe (he said the Nuggets had “no shot” against the Lakers in the 1987 playoffs). The 1988 NBA Coach of the Year toasted himself with champagne in a Hawaiian shirt when announcing his own firing in 1991.

The Melo Drama

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The arrival of Carmelo Anthony ushered in an era of prosperity for the Denver Nuggets, who never missed the playoffs in his seven-plus seasons with the team. Longing for a bigger stage, Melo effectively forced a trade to the New York Knicks. Denver landed a haul in return, though, and went on make the playoffs three more times after his departure.

The Nuggets upset the Sonics

The 1994 first-round playoff series between the Denver Nuggets and Seattle SuperSonics remains one of the greatest upsets in sports history. The 42-40 Nuggets, with the No. 8 seed, defeated the top-seeded Sonics (with a record of 63-19) in five games. Dikembe Mutombo falling to the floor and clutching the basketball at the Seattle Center Coliseum is a moment Nuggets fans will remember forever.

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