The Denver Nuggets are playing basketball this season with an antique philosophy. In a sport where internal strife is now the rule, the Nuggets appear to believe that the family that plays together stays together. And they have started off 32-5. America, don't you just love it?
By eliminating ennui and jealousy from their game plan the Nuggets have become a tougher ticket in Colorado than a ride with Jerry Ford on a ski lift. They played Indiana last Friday night before another sellout crowd and won their 20th consecutive home game, tying a league record. That put them on top of the ABA's Western Division by 12 games, making the rest of the league look like one big turkey farm.
Most pro basketball players never get a floor burn unless they trip over their wallets, but the Nuggets have this old-time thing about hard work and togetherness. They labor over such rudimentary concerns as shooting layups in practice, they offer solace to teammates from the bench, play defense like suspicious bank tellers, keep the ball moving and display an exuberant collegiate style that is effective without being affected.
The team wins with a cast that is virtually anonymous. Mike Green, Byron Beck and Fatty Taylor have not become the subjects of playground chants. Probably five or six other clubs in the ABA have more pure talent, but none has Denver's heart or familial character. Much of the credit goes to sporty 34-year-old Coach Larry Brown, a handsome fellow with sensationally white teeth, a man whose byword is communication. Denver tied for last in its division in 1974, took to sniveling and forced the resignation of Coach Alex Hannum. Brown came in before the season started and revamped the team's mental as well as court style. If the Nuggets keep on winning, the rest of pro basketball might start wearing letter sweaters instead of surly frowns.
Brown lives in a Denver condominium with friend and trivia expert Larry Rubin, and his one weakness is his collection of superstitions. His pregame rituals include playing racquetball with General Manager Carl Scheer on the day of every home game, driving the identical route to the arena, parking in the same spot and even shaving the same way. Brown's unshakable belief is that one bad cat can turn a good team into a dog.
Before he got to Denver, Brown coached for two years at Carolina, where his innovative style quickly brought the Cougars from next-to-last to first, for which he was named ABA Coach of the Year the first year. The following season Joe Caldwell and Jim Chones caused dissension and the team lost six of its last seven regular-season games and four straight in the playoffs. Brown was crushed and bitter and, when the franchise was sold to St. Louis last July, also out of a job. "There were unbelievable egos involved," says Brown. "I've never been so miserable in my life. I'd go into the dressing room and be too embarrassed to say anything. The thing I couldn't understand was why some people could not lose themselves in the team. Chones and Caldwell split the team down the middle."
Scheer was Brown's general manager at Carolina, and Brown followed him to Denver, where the franchise was withering from a bad case of apathy both on court and off. Scheer changed the team's colors, logo and nickname—from Rockets to Nuggets—signed rookies Bobby Jones and Jan van Breda Kolff and All-Star Guard Mack Calvin from the old Carolina franchise and traded for Fatty Taylor, a scrappy guard whose style of defense caused one exasperated coach to comment, "It's like playing through a rosebush."
Brown sold new hope to Guard Ralph Simpson, Denver's best player, made skinny Mike Green the starting center and convinced everyone on the team that he could contribute significantly. "We work hard," says Simpson. "Most pros loaf through practice, but we come to work and get better. Up until this year I was the kind of player who wanted to be cool on the floor. I don't know any team that is willing to sacrifice and play together and do the things we do."
Simpson and Calvin form the league's premier backcourt, although half of it is now temporarily on the shelf. Calvin's father, a Baptist minister, and his mother flew in from the West Coast to see him try for his 10,000th career point against Indiana, but in the second quarter Calvin dislocated an index finger and will be out for about a month. It is Calvin's first serious injury. In the previous five years he missed only six games, averaged 20 points and commanded universal respect. He is a second-degree brown belt in karate.
At 6'5", Simpson complements the 6-foot Calvin and third guard Taylor. Simpson left Michigan State after his sophomore year to become an instant star; he averaged 27 points in his second ABA season. Last year the cream curdled. His shooting was off, injuries and illness sapped him and, to make matters worse, Hannum started taking him out at the end of tight games, further bruising his confidence. Simpson asked to be traded but changed his mind when Brown arrived. He had had his best season at Denver in 1971-72, when Brown was his running mate at guard in his last year as an active player.
Simpson is a sensitive and dedicated person, devoted to supporting his mother, his eight brothers and sisters and his wife and young son. He is clean-shaven, dresses neatly and doesn't drink or smoke because he believes children idolize athletes. He talks of raising his son to be humble and honest. Simpson is 15 pounds lighter since switching to a vegetarian diet, but supplements his meatless fare with prodigious amounts of vitamins and food supplements and feels stronger. Above all, Simpson has a marvelously congenial attitude and is respected by his teammates. Against Utah early in the season, he made 14 straight field goals. After the 12th, Assistant Coach Doug Moe could kid him: "Don't choke."
Bobby Jones is the first first-round draft choice ever signed by Denver, and his 60% shooting average is leading the league although his range is limited. With his quick first step and great spring, Jones spends most of his time dunking the ball over opponents too dazed to get his license-plate number. Already he is considered the top defensive forward in the league and he is challenging Taylor for the team lead in steals. Jones made eight of nine shots against Indiana and harassed his man all evening long.
Jones' quiet demeanor is typical of most of his teammates. Early in the season Taylor approached Brown and complained that the black players could not get the white players to talk.
"You think they don't like us?" he asked.
"Heck no, Fatty," said the coach, gesturing at a table where a group of white players were eating dinner in silence. "They don't even talk to each other."
In previous years Brown led the league in temper, but after he was thrown out of the Nuggets' opening game, reserve Guard Pat McFarland told him that that sort of thing was hurting the club. Brown has been a paragon of decorum ever since. He now chastises his players if they get in a spat with the referees. Brown is frank about his mistakes. A few weeks ago he started riding hard on backup Center Dave Robisch, a hulking man nicknamed the Ruptured Rhino. When Robisch's shooting touch went into a sulk, the coach recognized his error and shut up. Against Indiana, Robisch made eight of 13 shots, scored 19 points in 24 minutes and worked General Manager Scheer into a frenzy.
During games, Scheer, a lawyer by profession, haunts one corner of the court where he acts like a man undergoing labor pains, alternating cold sweat with warm applause. Brown's roommate, Larry Rubin, is nearby. He has an entire section of season ticket-holders orchestrated for cued encouragement. In fact, the audience at Nugget games is about as impartial as an average Za√Øre fight crowd. Facing that music, the mile-high altitude and lighting that could be improved by miner's lamps, visiting teams usually expire midway through their warmups.
Last week Indiana played with all the zing of leftover boiled potatoes in the first half, and the Nuggets built a big third-quarter lead, survived a Pacer surge and went on to win 120-111.
Afterward Brown congratulated his players and summed up the harmonious situation in Denver. "Our players aren't embarrassed to be excited. Things may be screwed up everywhere else, but they're not screwed up here."