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
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
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
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
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
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