There are few franchises in professional sports—and none in the NBA—that have more closely resembled a fairytale kingdom than the Denver Nuggets. During the past four seasons, while most of the other clubs have had their ups and downs, been in or out of the playoffs and changed coaches and players like dirty socks, the Nuggets have been the most consistent and successful team in pro basketball.
Though they have never won a league championship, the Nuggets have averaged 55 victories a year, won their divisional title three of four years, and for the past two seasons led the NBA in attendance. Their success has depended as much upon their imaginative and efficient front office as on their play on the floor. Presiding over the team is President and General Manager Carl Scheer, who has been known to subsist on a single Diet Pepsi and a couple of chocolate bars a day. His other source of nutrition was Coach Larry Brown, with whom Scheer coexisted in a happy symbiosis that promised to go on and on forever. "We fed off each other," said Scheer the other day.
But this season the Nuggets tempted fate by trading their beloved Bobby Jones to Philadelphia for George McGinnis and bringing in Charlie Scott from Los Angeles. After these moves the Nuggets declared themselves stronger than ever and all but guaranteed their fans the elusive championship. But now, with only a few weeks remaining in the regular season, Denver's Camelot is beginning to resemble a faded memory.
Nagging injuries to David Thompson and Scott, Forward Anthony Roberts' illness, the clash of McGinnis' outside ball-handling game with that of high-post Center Dan Issel's, and a shallow bench have resulted in a decline in the Nuggets' fortunes, and they are immured in second place in the Midwest Division for the first time since joining the NBA two years ago. Moreover, on Feb. 1, when the team was 28-25 and 3½ games behind Kansas City, Brown acted on a threat that players and management had grown tired of hearing. At a tearful press conference, he announced that he was resigning immediately; he was in the first year of a lucrative five-year contract.
Brown talked of pains in his chest and his side, and mentioned that his father had died of a heart attack at 43. That very day Brown had been pronounced fit by a doctor and had run seven miles. His "poor health" story got little credence. "I've got coaches' disease," he admitted. While that malady is not to be found in medical texts, it is truly a disease of the heart, particularly for an emotional 38-year-old who knows of no greater job than coaching.
Last week in Phoenix, where he was supposedly on R & R, Brown spent more time agonizing over his past and future—while jogging himself toward exhaustion—than playing tennis with his wife Barbara. "I turn on the Nuggets game on the radio," he said, "and my insides churn." He has received a very generous offer to coach Memphis State and a few others from some major collegiate basketball powers; he could take a college job now, or wait for the expected flood of pro offers next month. One that he would dearly love could come from the New York Knicks, whom Brown has dreamed of coaching since his Long Island childhood.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets, now under the direction of Brown's best friend and former assistant, Donnie Walsh, are in deep and unfamiliar waters. McGinnis, contrary to some expectations, is having his finest year in the NBA, but the team is 9-8 under Walsh and it is locked in a desperate battle with San Diego and Portland for the last two Western Conference playoff spots. The Nuggets began a crucial seven-game home stand last week with a 119-118 loss to Houston, and after suffering their worst home defeat ever, 119-98 to Washington, they were 37-33, a half game behind San Diego and a half game ahead of Portland. The Nuggets must win on this home stand to stay alive; their last five games are on the road, including dates with the world-champion Bullets, Philadelphia and much-improved New Jersey.
The shock waves from Brown's departure have hardly died down. Clearly Scheer sees the breaking up of a successful working relationship and close friendship as tragic. "I suppose I should have seen something like this coming," he said last week, "but when you're too close to a situation you can't always see it for what it really is."
"I think Larry just burned out," says Walsh. "He'd been doing the same thing for six straight years without once forgetting basketball—in the summer, at home, in restaurants. His problem was that he intensified everything so, particularly the negative things. He was upset with the fans; he wanted more from the players than they were willing to give. I kept telling him, 'Larry, these guys are pros. They don't need a brother or a father or another friend.' "
But Brown doesn't buy it. "When I grew up," he says, "a coach was someone you looked up to and went to when you had a problem. I don't want these guys going to the general manager. I want them to trust me."
His problems began in earnest during last year's playoffs, when the Nuggets signed Thompson to his now-famous $800,000 annual contract. When the team lost in the Western Conference finals, Brown made it known that he felt the contract brought undue pressure to bear upon Thompson and affected the team. Brown would usually begin his comments to the press by saying, "I don't want to sound like I'm blaming David, but...." Later he was quoted as saying, "I told management that if they jeopardize the franchise by signing David for an outrageous amount of money, then they're crazy. A 6'3½" guy doesn't win championships."
Such public utterances hardly enhanced the relationship between Brown and Thompson. And early this season. Brown also criticized McGinnis aloud. "I've been through so much, I don't pay any attention." said big George. "I know Larry's not a bad person." But with the taciturn Thompson it was much different. Brown made him the team example, harping on his penchant for arriving late at practice and missing team buses. Brown also was questioning the seriousness of Thompson's injuries, and generally felt that, as good as he was, Thompson was letting part of his extraordinary talent go to waste. Thompson believes that Brown was jealous of him and his huge salary, and overly concerned with his personal affairs.
"I was playing great after my injuries," says Thompson. "I was working so hard, but I always had Larry all over my back. I couldn't win. At one time he called me a selfish ballplayer. He'd let things build up, then he'd explode and catch you unaware. Larry had this thing about power. If I came in late, he thought it was just to spite him. The next day I would read in the papers that my lateness caused problems. But if it did cause problems, it was only because they were problems to Larry."
"This thing between Larry and David was terrible," says McGinnis. "Worse than I could have ever dreamed."
Brown steadfastly insists that the blame for his leaving should not be placed on the players, though after a stretch of nine losses in 10 games in November, he grew tense and haggard. He decided that Issel, who was coming off his best all-round year, was no longer right for the Nuggets, and let it be known that he wanted to trade him. He continued to complain to reporters about Thompson. After a loss at Philadelphia in which Thompson shot 3 for 16, Brown said, "I don't feel comfortable with anything about David right now," and there was a rumor that Thompson would be traded. A week later, during a team meeting. Thompson finally blew up, saying, "If I'd known I wasn't wanted, I would never have signed." Brown's response was that most of the unflattering quotes about the players attributed to him were taken out of context or wholly made up by reporters. "But I knew he was lying," says Thompson.
After a 117-100 blowout at Milwaukee on Nov. 28, Brown went public for the first time with the idea of quitting. For what seemed like the ninth or 10th time. Walsh talked him out of it. Two nights later, in New Orleans, McGinnis and Scott went to Brown's hotel room and told him, in effect, that if he quit, for whatever reasons, they would get the blame; that they had come to Denver hoping to put their controversial reputations behind them.
Brown was moved and decided to stick it out. But he continued to press for a trade involving Issel—there was a possible deal with New Orleans for Rich Kelley. He also wanted a point guard—there was an attempt to get Butch Lee from Atlanta, and later to get Scheer to re-sign Brian Taylor, who had walked out on the Nuggets the year before in a salary dispute. (Taylor wound up signing with San Diego.) Scheer says he finally told Brown there would be no trades, that every time the Nuggets sputtered Brown came rushing in demanding a trade. "This kind of panicky action has to stop." Scheer told him.
Next came a Denver newspaper article in which Scheer was portrayed as the cool head prevailing over Brown's irrationality. Their relationship, often likened to a marriage, was definitely and violently on the rocks. "As far as I'm concerned," Brown told Scheer, "you no longer exist. You're just going to have to fire me."
Said Scheer, "If you can't work with me I can't work with you."
Brown reflected on all this with great bitterness last week. He would like to be a college coach, he says, "because players are not spoiled by long-term contracts and are willing to work hard and respect their coach." Yet Brown, who has a combined .641 winning percentage in the ABA and NBA, better than that of any active coach, would still prefer to see his philosophy triumph in the pros. Thinking aloud, his eyes brimming with tears. Brown said, "Bringing winning basketball back to New York, working with Red Holzman, that would be great.... Looking up from that parquet floor in Boston.... Al Attles was the first person to call me and Rod Thorn visited from Chicago.... Hey, maybe I'm not so bad after all...."