Nuggets players of past take part in celebrating 1st NBA title in team history

· Jun. 13, 2023, 5:16 pm
Nuggets ABA Impact BasketballNuggets ABA Impact BasketballRichard Drew/AP Photo
Denver Nuggets' Bobby Jones, second left, Nets' Julius Erving, fourth left, and New York Nets' Jim Eakins, right, battle for a rebound during the ABA championship playoff game at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 14, 1976.

Jamal Murray cradled the NBA championship trophy, occasionally rubbing the shiny gold piece of hardware to make sure it was real. The Denver point guard wouldn't let it out of his sight for long.

This title, the first in the Nuggets’ long ABA/NBA history, of course meant so much to Murray, NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic and the rest of the cast. But they brought along a lot of people for the ride.

Nuggets greats like David Thompson, Dan Issel and Bobby Jones, who helped lead the team to its last finals appearance, in 1976, as members of the ABA.

Former coaches like Larry Brown, Doug Moe and George Karl. Other stars like Alex English, Dikembe Mutombo and Carmelo Anthony, along with any Nuggets player who ever wore a rainbow uniform, or saw their season end at the hands of the Lakers.

This, the Nuggets' 47th NBA season, finally ended with confetti, a trophy and an upcoming parade through the streets of downtown.

“These guys accomplished something that we all hoped to, but never came to fruition for us,” said LaPhonso Ellis, the fifth overall draft pick by Denver in 1992 who lingered at Ball Arena long after the fans trickled out, soaking in the moment following a 94-89 win over Miami in Game 5. “It just feels so doggone good.”

Nuggets coach Michael Malone wanted past players and coaches to realize they were an important part of this run. He appreciates what they've meant to an organization that was one of the four ABA teams absorbed into the NBA before the 1976-77 season — and the last one to make an appearance in the NBA Finals.

That's why Issel was part of the Game 1 festivities, pounding a drum to rev up fans. And English shot a pregame free throw before Game 2, and Thompson did the same before Game 5.

“I know they're so proud of what we’ve achieved,” Malone said.

This is a town that always passionately celebrates the orange and blue of the Broncos. It has fallen in love with the burgundy and blue of an Avalanche team that's won three Stanley Cup titles since moving to town before the 1995-96 season. But it has been waiting patiently — OK, maybe not so patiently — for this shining moment from the blue and yellow of the Nuggets.

“It’s a great, great city and in many ways, underrated,” said former Nuggets player and team executive Kiki VanDeWeghe, who tuned in to watch the finals from Southern California. “But don’t tell anybody; you don’t want too many people” moving to Denver, he added.

They've had their share of lows along the way. Like that 17-win team in 2002-03 — but that paved the way to draft Anthony, who helped the Nuggets advance to the Western Conference finals in 2009, before being knocked out by a Lakers team led by Kobe Bryant.

Anthony would be neither the first nor the last NBA star to look at Denver but see sunnier horizons on the East or West Coast (he was traded to New York). It was also neither the first nor last time the Lakers knocked the Nuggets out of the postseason, either.

Behind Jokic, a second-round pick from Sombor, Serbia, they vanquished their Lakers demons with a sweep in the West finals. Then, they took care of the Heat to earn a parade, which Jokic lamented is not until Thursday because he's ready to get home.

Jokic is unlike really any superstar to win a title before him, one who’s just as content swimming with his young daughter or tending to his racehorses in Serbia. Once he steps on the floor, though, he's a triple-double machine. He led a team that also was powered by Murray, who returned from a devastating knee injury, and Michael Porter Jr., whose balky back sidelined him for most of last season.

This version of the Nuggets was easy to support.

“Everyone looks at this as ‘Our Nuggets,'" said VanDeWeghe, a member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. “That’s certainly the way I look at it.”

These days, about the only thing around town that's talked about almost as much as the Nuggets is the reopening of Casa Bonita, the quirky Mexican restaurant bought by the creators of “South Park.” The establishment known for its decor, including a large indoor waterfall, as well as its cliff divers, reportedly has more than 100,000 signed up to sample the food.

Years from now, more than that probably will claim to have been at Ball Arena on Monday night.

Ellis was present and stopped several times by fans to reminisce. He was part of the 1994 team that as a No. 8 seed upset a top-seeded Seattle squad in the first round.

“We were young (back then) and thought we’d have an opportunity to compete for a world championship for years. But it wasn’t meant to be,” Ellis said. “It feels like in some small way we got an opportunity to contribute to this (title) — even though we were 30 years ago."

Now, a chance to win two straight, like the Broncos did under John Elway following the 1997 and '98 seasons.

“Obviously, it's tougher to go back to back, but you want to get that first one first,” Hall of Famer Steve Atwater said.

Mission accomplished — the first part anyway.

VanDeWeghe has a unique perspective, having been a Nuggets player (four seasons, three playoff appearances) and team executive. In his role as general manager, he made key decisions such as drafting Anthony and hiring Karl.

It didn't pay off with a title as a player or GM. But it has as a fan.

“Everybody takes great satisfaction and pride who has been part of the organization, in what they’ve accomplished," VanDeWeghe said. “This is what everybody dreams about and I dreamed about for the city.”

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