Denver sports fans finally have something to cheer about: the Denver Nuggets face off against the L.A. Lakers in the Western Conference finals this week. It's been 25 years since the Nuggets made it this far, and we're excited! But that's all I'm qualified to say on this topic, so I'll turn this post over to my brother, Tony, whom happened to play against star guard Chauncey Billups back in middle school.
By Tony Deligio
The symmetry is undeniable; nearly 25 years removed from its last trip to the conference finals, the Denver Nuggets return, squaring off against the same team they met in 1985. To fully appreciate the gaping chasm separating the series consider some of the names involved in that mid-‘80s match up (held at the now demolished Forum and McNichols arenas)—Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for L.A. and Alex English, Fat Lever, and Dan Issel for Denver. An individual could have be born in that gap and grown into a young adult. I was one month removed from my eighth birthday, and for me, the Nuggets were background noise at dinner, with a radio broadcasting 85KOA’s play-by-play of the games, as my family ate and my dad divided his attention between seven kids and game action.
It’s impossible to understand these things at the time, but those five games in May would mark the team’s apogee from which it would slowly slide for a time, before dropping off a cliff at the end of the ‘80s with the departure of Doug Moe and the catastrophic experiment of Paul Westhead.
During Westhead’s first year, 1990-1991, my father and I began to attend games, seeing 10-15 a year for several years. Hopes were pinned on promising rookies garnered from high draft picks, but the team that year, and for most of the ‘90s, was inept, winning only 20 games. I cared little, loving the time spent with my dad and the game experience. If the Bulls were in town, more folks came to cheer on Chicago than the Nuggets, but that didn’t deter me and my dad from rooting for our hometown, if atrocious, team.
By 1993, the addition of Dikembe Mutombo and Laphonso Ellis, as well as role players like Robert Pack and Brian Williams, pushed the team to a 42-40 record, good enough for the eighth seed and match up with top-seed Seattle Supersonics, coached by none other than George Karl. The Nuggets would go on to shock Seattle, becoming the first eighth seed to topple a number one, with the image of an overjoyed Mutombo clutching the ball over his head while lying on the court becoming part of the NBA’s visual lore. Denver would push the Jazz to seven games in the second round, before losing by 10 and once again beginning a descent to more than a decade of mediocrity.
That same year the Nuggets flirted with a return to the Western Conference Finals, a George Washington High School guard named Chauncey Billups was garnering national attention and becoming a school-boy legend in Colorado. Now Billups is the floor general for the team he watched growing up; Karl coaches the squad that served him his most ignominious defeat; and the team’s winningest coach, Moe, paces the arena’s bowels during games, as the squad comes full circle and once again faces the Lakers.
In ’85, L.A. won the series 4-1, taking the final three games after dropping the second game in L.A. Those Lakers went on to defeat the Boston Celtics in six games and win the NBA championship. This year the Nuggets and the Lakers played four times, with L.A. winning three of the four. In those games, Laker star Kobe Bryant certainly got his points (33, 29, 29, 33) but Carmelo Anthony, who has come of age this postseason, averaging 29, struggled, scoring only 13, 10, 12, and 23.
When the playoffs started, I would have been happy to just see Denver get past the first round, but after dominating both series (Denver’s two playoff losses are only bettered by Cleveland), myself, and the team, seemingly, expect much, much more. An aging Kobe will be reluctant to abdicate the throne, but to complete the symmetry of this postseason, a Melo-Lebron match up in the finals, pitting the No. 1 and No. 3 picks in the 2004 draft, seems inevitable.