Oct 252004
 
Authors: Bob Fernandez

As the final seconds ticked off the game clock, Denver Nuggets

center Dikembe Mutombo reached in the air and grabbed the rebound

of an errant last-second shot by a Seattle Supersonics player. He

took the ball, tucked it against his chest, and then as the final

horn sounded, his 7-foot-2-inch frame fell to the ground. He lay on

his back with tears in his eyes and a wide grin on his face,

holding the ball toward the sky.

It was a game in the 1993-94 season, and as the victory was

sealed, I exploded from my living room sofa, giving high-fives to

my brother and my dad. The Nuggets had just pulled off the biggest

upset in NBA Playoffs history.

We were all in disbelief. The Nuggets came back from being down

zero games to two to win the best-of-five series and advance past

the first round of the 1994 playoffs. This was the first time in

NBA history that an eighth-seed team defeated a first-seed team.

Later in the playoffs, the Nuggets would lose to the Utah Jazz, but

not without establishing themselves as one of the most exciting and

promising young teams in the league.

After struggling during most of the early 1990s, the Nuggets

seemed destined to become a perennial playoff team and perhaps a

future championship contender. No one could have expected that the

worst years of the franchise’s history were yet to come.

Over the next year, following their playoff shocker, the Nuggets

would collapse and once again become the laughingstock of the NBA.

The Nuggets seemed like a cursed franchise that was destined for

mediocrity, at best.

During the next seven years, the Nuggets posted an embarrassing

record of 165-377. Being a Nuggets fan was not easy during these

seven years.

Despite the grief I often received for being a Nuggets fan, I

never felt ashamed or embarrassed. There was a type of pride I felt

every time I stood in the empty stands of the Pepsi Center and

cheered on the Nuggets. I cheered as loud as I could, even though

my cheering rarely led to a win.

From 2001 to 2003, Nuggets General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe

worked on rebuilding the team. He traded almost all of the Nuggets’

core players including stars Nick Van Exel, Antonio McDyess, Raef

Lafrentz and James Posey.

At the time, Vandeweghe received a lot of criticism for

stripping an already bad team of most of its remaining talent. But

what happened after the 2002-2003 season was remarkable. Vandeweghe

engineered one of the biggest turnarounds in NBA history.

On June 26, during the 2003 NBA Draft, NBA Commissioner David

Stern stepped up to a podium and announced on a microphone: “With

the third overall pick, the Denver Nuggets select Carmelo Anthony

from Syracuse University.”

A superstar and potential franchise savior had become a Nugget

after the Detroit Pistons had inexplicably used the second overall

pick to select Darko Milicic, a relatively unknown and unproven

18-year-old player from Yugoslavia. Anthony was coming off an

amazing college season that resulted in the 18-year-old freshman

leading the Syracuse Orangemen to their first ever NCAA National

Championship.

In addition to acquiring Anthony, between June 2001 and August

2002, Vandeweghe also acquired point guards Andre Miller and Earl

Boykins, Brazilian power forward Nene, center Marcus Camby and

shooting guards Jon Barry and Voshon Lenard.

I attended the first home game of the season. I was shocked to

see thousands of fans piling into the Pepsi Center.

“What’s the date? Did we accidentally come to an Avs game?” I

sarcastically asked my brother.

At the end of the 2003-04 regular season, the Nuggets shocked

fans everywhere by qualifying for the playoffs for the first time

in eight years. The Nuggets were back, and so were millions of

Nuggets fans.

Unlike previous Nuggets’ GMs, Vandeweghe wasn’t content with

being average. This past summer, Vandeweghe pulled off perhaps the

biggest coup of the offseason when he pulled the trigger on the

blockbuster trade that sent New Jersey’s Kenyon Martin to the

Nuggets in exchange for three first-round draft picks.

The Nuggets now start their regular season next week, in Los

Angeles, against the Lakers, with one of the most intimidating

lineups in the league.

The Nuggets look poised to make noise this year with a backcourt

of Miller, Boykins, Lenard, free agent acquisition Greg Buckner and

perhaps sharpshooter DerMarr Johnson, a lottery pick from a couple

years ago, who is just now recovering from a near fatal car

accident he was involved in during the summer of 2002.

Their frontcourt is loaded with talent, with Anthony and Rodney

White at small forward, and Nene, recently acquired All-Star power

forward Kenyon Martin, Camby and Francisco Elson at power forward

and center.

Just a little more than a year ago, the Nuggets were coming off

their woeful 17-win season, a season in which they fell out of the

playoff picture within the first few weeks. And now, the Nuggets

are getting ready to kick off a season in which anything shy of 50

wins and a trip deep into the playoffs would be considered a

disappointment.

If dominating preseason performances are any indication (and

considering it’s just preseason, they may or may not be), this team

looks like it has the talent and chemistry to compete for a

championship.

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