Remember that other team from Denver? That lovable bunch of boys called the Nuggets who never, never grow old, at least not until playoff time? Well, while the Broncos were down in New Orleans getting their oranges crushed, the Nuggets were out running, gunning, skying, flying, wheeling and peeling off a 10-game winning streak to open up a five-game lead over Chicago in the NBA's Midwest Division. True, the Nuggets always seem to have a 28-15 record this time of year, and so you may think you didn't miss anything while you were down with Broncomania.
But if you had been watching last week, for instance, you could have seen Coach Larry Brown go through agonies worthy of the soaps, first choking back tears when starting Guard Brian Taylor walked out on the team after its ninth straight win, then consoling the sick and the lame on his shrunken 10-man roster. A 104-89 home win over Cleveland Tuesday was merely a break in the clouds. A streak-snapping 114-109 loss at Milwaukee Thursday darkened the skies once more. On Friday, the Nuggets found themselves snowbound for 5½ hours in Chicago's O'Hare Airport. As bad as that was, everyone had to agree it was better than going to snowbound Buffalo where Denver was scheduled to play that night.
"This was a great cancellation for us," deadpanned Brown, breaking everyone up during a pause in a marathon poker game. "The best thing that's happened to us all week."
Winning streaks and being in first place are nothing new to the Nuggets. Last season, its first in the NBA, Denver won 50 games—second-most in the league—and was the only team to lead its division from wire to wire. And over the past three seasons the Nuggets have the best record of any pro team. Even so, to the rest of the NBA Denver is considered a tough home club—they are currently 19-2 at McNichols Sports Arena and have lost only 12 there in 3½ seasons—but not a threat to win the championship.
NBA people joke about the Nuggets' rah-rah collegiate attitude and Brown's "passing game" offense, both of which Brown has held onto, like an old fraternity blazer, from his days as a North Carolina Tar Heel.
The digs bother Brown not at all. "If you take a poll in the NBA," he says, "you'll find a lot of guys saying 'I want to play in Denver.' They want to get excited and have fun. As for the passing game, the reason people laugh is that nobody ever called it that before. In the NBA, they call it 'freestyle.' "
Denver's front line of Center Dan Issel and Forwards Bobby Jones and David Thompson is also maligned, many believing it to be too light. That charge. Brown admits, has some merit. Last season he tried to add some bulk by trading for Paul Silas, but the 33-year-old Silas was woefully out of place in Denver's jump-switching defense and high-speed offense. Though the Nuggets roared out to a 29-12 start, they lumbered home a tired 21-20, and in the playoffs with Portland found themselves overmatched inside against Bill Walton. Maurice Lucas and Bobby Gross, losing 4-2 in the Western Conference semifinal.
But these shortcomings seemed irrelevant while the Nuggets were mowing down opponents both home and away during their recent streak. What is notable about the team's fast start this year is that seven of the 12 players who finished last season in Denver are gone, and four of the current Nugget squad are rookies.
Thompson, a consummate player in only his third year, is having his best season. Shuttled between forward and guard, the 6'3½" jumping jack has scored fewer than 20 points only six times in 41 games, is averaging 26.1 points on 53% shooting and is second on the team in assists. "Yeah, I guess I'm playing pretty good," he says.
Jones, the leading vote getter on the NBA All-Defensive team last year, continues to push his stringbean 6'9" body to its very limits, blocking shots—he slapped away eight last week against Cleveland—making steals and averaging 15 points on short-range 57% shooting. "If there was an all-white league," said a Denver writer, "Bobby Jones would be David Thompson."
Issel has been merely sensational—and was the key to the streak. During those 10 games he averaged 12.4 rebounds and 24.1 points on 54% shooting while holding opposing centers, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Artis Gilmore, to 9.6 rebounds and 10.1 points. And his excellent outside shooting draws the big centers away from the basket, opening up the middle for Thompson and Jones. Issel has always bristled at the suggestion that at 6'9" he is not a legitimate NBA center. Last year, in fact, he was voted the West's starting center in the NBA All-Star game.
"It was the worst experience of my life," he says. Having beaten out Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Gilmore and Bob Lanier, among others, Issel was booed mercilessly for the rest of the season every time he played on one of their home courts. "The worst thing was when they introduced the 24 All-Stars before the game in Milwaukee. I was the only one who got booed. I'm not pretentious enough to think that I deserved to start, but I was having a good year. I went to Kareem and said, 'I didn't vote once. Honest.' "
Denver's most important acquisition this season was Taylor, the outstanding defensive (and high-scoring—17.0 last year) guard whom Brown had been after for two years. To get him from Kansas City, Denver traded away backup Center Marvin Webster, Silas and Willie Wise. Taylor was just getting comfortable with the Nuggets, averaging 15 points in his last six games, when he walked out. Taylor claimed, among other things, that Denver defaulted on several riders concerning payments that were added to his contract last summer. Taylor further felt that because he was pressuring them, the Nuggets were desperately trying to trade him. On the advice of his adviser, Abdul Jalil, Taylor declared himself a free agent and left the team last Monday without a word to Brown or any of his teammates.
Carl Scheer, Denver's president and general manager, was shocked. "We told Brian we would try to do some things to make him happy," he said, "but not a single one of his contentions was ever agreed upon. Why would I do that? He is already making $320,000 a year."
"The agreements were made," says Taylor. "Not on paper, but we have everything on stereo tape. I'll be a Muhammad Ali. I'll be a Curt Flood. I replace fear with faith in the Lord."
Brown expected Taylor to play against Cleveland on Tuesday night and was stunned when he did not show up. "He won't be back," said Brown. "How could I have him back and look my kids in the eye after what he did to us?" Management hastily scrapped 1,700 game programs that featured Taylor's picture on the cover.
On Thursday, before the Milwaukee game, Brown said, "I really feel sorry for Brian. He doesn't know what that guy is doing to him. Two years ago, when Brian was walking out on the New York Nets, he agreed to play with us. He said the Lord wanted him to be in Denver. Two days later the Lord offered him more money in Kansas City."
"Did we miss Brian?" Brown snapped after losing to the Bucks but before the inevitable question had been asked. "That's like asking the Boston Celtics if they're waiting for Bill Russell to come back. The guy's gone."
Just as tough a question for Brown involves Bobby Jones, who has had an intermittent rapid heartbeat problem for several years and usually runs himself down badly enough to have an occasional vitamin B-12 injection. After a three-game road trip early in the winning streak, he looked like Rocky in the 14th round. Against Golden State on the eve of the trip, he severely sprained an ankle. Two nights later against Atlanta he aggravated the sprain, chipped a tooth on Steve Hawes' shoulder and scored only six points. At Washington, an Elvin Hayes elbow opened a three-stitch gash over his right eye. Back home, he came down with the flu and collapsed in his living room, hitting the same eye on a coffee table, and needed 17 more stitches. He was kept in the hospital for two days of tests, after which the collapse was verified as an epileptic seizure. Now he is taking a regular dosage of Mebaral, a kind of sedative which, he says, "really spaces me out. I've lost a lot of intensity. I've only made one steal in the last five games."
To take up the slack, Brown has had to play 6'5" Anthony Roberts, a rookie out of Oral Roberts and the nation's second-leading scorer last year (34.0) with 65- and 66-point games to his credit. Against Chicago, Roberts was in for 32 minutes and scored 18 points. Against Los Angeles he came off the bench to score 21 points in 24 minutes. His defense has been getting better and Brown loves him. "He's learning," says the coach.
Another thing Roberts probably has learned is that as long as Larry Brown is coaching, Denver will be in the playoffs. No coach in the NBA can match Brown's 5½-year record: 307-154, a winning percentage of .666. But even as the Nuggets are trying to get back to their regular winning thing, Brown must be wondering how long his luck can hold.