Commentary: This Nuggets Playoff Run Is Making It OK To Feel Good Again

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5min 56sec
APTOPIX Nuggets Clippers Basketball
Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, right, celebrate their win over the Los Angeles Clippers in an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

I was 8 years old when I dressed like a disheveled old man for Halloween.

This was Longmont, Colorado, in 1985, at a time when all my friends went trick or treating as the Karate Kid. And with my old man look, some people probably confused me for Mister Miyagi.

But “wax on, wax off” wasn’t what I was going for. 

I was Doug Moe.

As in, the eccentric, gray-haired, foul-mouthed coach of the Denver Nuggets who wore his emotions on his sleeve as if they came with the suit. Chances are, I was probably the only kid in the entire state of Colorado dressed like an NBA coach for Halloween.

“You’re WHO?” my bewildered Ralph Macchio-wannabe friends would ask.

When the Nuggets were on national TV in the 1980s, stations would often have to bleep out the many, many obscenities that came out of Moe’s mouth during a game. I found that endearing.

“Dad, he sounds like you!” I would shout. My mom sighed. 

I wanted to pay tribute to a Nuggets team that was really good that year. I mean, that team was legendary. The run-and-gun Nuggets, led by all-time NBA great Alex English, seemed to score at will. His teams led the NBA in scoring for most of the 10 years he coached in Denver. Moe’s philosophy for the passing game was like my philosophy when I would babysit my nephews: Do whatever the hell you want.

In 1985, the Nuggets made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals against Magic Johnson and the famed Los Angeles Lakers. Denver lost to LA, but that season was memorable, even for an 8-year-old kid.

That year, Nuggets fever swept through Colorado in a way that’s usually only reserved for the Broncos. And that magic was felt again in 2009 when Denver was led by the dynamic duo of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, the pride of Park Hill. The bruising “Thuggets” — who led the NBA in player tattoos that season — once again would clash with the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. And once again, they came up short.

So, the Nuggets have had some memorable moments in history. But not many. And it’s appropriate that I dressed like a disheveled old man for Halloween years ago because being a Nuggets fan ... has aged me. Big time. 

The Nuggets have never played in the NBA Finals. And over the years, Denver has had some really, really bad teams. I’d be the first person to call myself a Nuggets homer … but I’ve certainly been a long-suffering Nuggets homer.

But since Michael Malone took over the team as head coach in 2015, the Nuggets have actually given fans something to cheer about. And this year, boy howdy have they arrived! The Nuggets are back in the Western Conference Finals, once again against those hated Lakers. And I dunno what’s gonna happen after tip-off Friday night. But I gotta say, it feels good … to feel good again.

For Coloradans like me who care about sports, there’s this feeling of something that’s been absent from a lot of our lives in 2020: hope.

Yeah, it’s been a bad year.

People are losing jobs. Parents are worried their kids are falling behind in school, all while trying to grasp this online learning thing. Police brutality against people of color continues to make headlines. Neighbors are shouting at each other over politics, and of all things — masks. And about 200,000 people have died from a virus we were unprepared to fight.

So, there hasn’t been a whole lot to celebrate this year.

And I guess that’s why, when Denver beat the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night to advance to the Western Conference Finals, I jumped up and down in my living room. I pumped my fist and shouted with glee at the TV. Just like when I was that 8-year-old kid in a Doug Moe costume.

I even got choked up a little bit.

Because the Nuggets have finally given us something to celebrate in 2020. 

They’re a young team that nobody outside of Colorado thought would get this far. Denver had to overcome back-to-back three-games-to-one series deficits in playoffs — becoming the first team in NBA history to ever do so — just to make it as far as they have!

Jamal Murray is lighting up the court and lighting up our faces. Nikola Jokic, that big goofy white dude from Serbia, is amazing to watch. And Coach Michael Malone, who often wears black shirts paying tribute to Elijah McClain, a Black man who died after an encounter with Aurora police, continues to keep the focus on racial justice. 

Malone has become not just the Nugget’s leader … but a leader for all of us.

“We still have much work to do,” Malone said a few weeks ago. He wasn’t talking about his team’s performance in the playoffs. He was talking about police shootings of Black people that continue to happen. “Outside the game of basketball, as a community, as a nation. And I hope that we can get to a place where we don't see this violence continue to repeat itself, time and again.”

I’m an optimistic person who believes in staying positive. But even my philosophy has been greatly tested this year. But when Denver won Tuesday night to advance in the playoffs, I had a perma-smile on my face all night, something that hasn’t been there in a long, long time.

It’s only sports. I get it. What happens on the basketball court means little in the grand scheme of things. 

But it sure is nice to feel good about something again, isn’t it?

LeBron James and the Lakers are a mighty foe. And Denver has to be exhausted after playing 14 nail-biting games over the last few weeks. Vegas money is all over the Lakers.

Jamal Murray doesn’t care.

“It’s just fun to silence everybody. We love it,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “And that’s what makes it so special. We play with no pressure and we go out and play free and trust each other. And it shows in our playing, and it shows in our energy, and how we talk and how we celebrate. And, when we’re down, how we react and take action.”

When Michael Malone says his team is special, it’s time people should start believing him.

“That commitment, that toughness, you don’t see that around very often,” Malone said of his team’s performance this postseason, one that has been played in the “bubble” of Walt Disney World in Orlando. The Nuggets haven’t been in Denver since July. “And that speaks to the guys in that locker room and how much they truly love each other, and care about each other, and are willing to fight for each other. And that’s why I enjoy being around this group every single day.”

Nobody gave Denver a chance to get this far. So let’s just enjoy the ride. 

And enjoy some hope in 2020. We can use it.

And maybe, just maybe … the Nuggets will keep playing into October …

…  And I can dust off that Doug Moe costume for Halloween again.