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I was working at a trendy Denver restaurant called the Colorado Mine Company in 1975 when the Denver Nuggets brought North Carolina State phenom David Thompson in for dinner during his recruiting visit.
I was horrified to learn that restaurant owner Buck Scott had presented Thompson with a garish pair of cowboy boots as a gift. Denver was still desperate at that time to shed its reputation as a cowtown, but in the end, it didn’t matter.
This was before the merger, when the National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association would engage in bidding wars for the best players. Thompson was drafted No. 1 by the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, but they were in the middle of an ownership change at the time and were in no position for a bidding war.
Thompson came in a package deal with pint-sized point guard Monte Towe, his friend from NC State. And Thompson was jaw-dropping right from the start.
Early in his career, Thompson could go head-to-head with Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins, anybody when it came to amazing dunks. He is still included on the Sporting News list of top 10 dunkers of all time.
Thompson and the Nuggets tore up the ABA his rookie year, going 60-24 and advancing all the way to the finals before falling to Erving and the New York Nets. When Phoenix Suns center Alvan Adams won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, he thanked Thompson for signing with the ABA and its signature red-white-and-blue basketball.
That signing was likely a big reason for the merger that came the next year, and for the fact Denver was one of the four ABA teams selected. The team had previously changed its name from Rockets to Nuggets so as not to conflict with Houston.
The sad truth is, the Nuggets have been noncompetitive ever since changing to the traditional brown basketball. After routinely challenging for the ABA championship, the Nuggets have not had a sniff of an NBA title.
The NBA franchise highlight prior to this year came in 1994 when Dikembe Mutombo laid flat on his back at midcourt and held the ball aloft in celebration of their win over Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. It was the first time an eight-seed had beaten a one-seed, which was impressive. But, when your greatest moment came in the first round, that’s just sad. Utah knocked them out in the next round.
As for Thompson, after that blazing start his career was slowed by a foot injury and drug addiction. Former Nuggets center Dan Issel wrote in his 1985 book “Parting Shots” that Thompson would smoke dope in the bathroom on the team bus after the game because he couldn’t wait the 10 minutes it took to get back to the hotel.
All of which makes this year’s Denver championship run so much sweeter. Nuggets fans may not moan as loudly as fans of other beleaguered teams like the Cleveland Browns or pre-2016 Chicago Cubs, but we’ve experienced just as much disappointment.
It turns out the ticket to success was not the can’t-miss, top-pick bonus baby. It was an out-of-shape center from Novi Sad, Serbia, Nikola Jokic, who was taken with the 41st pick of the 2014 draft.
The Nuggets are playing the Miami Heat in the NBA finals. If Miami wins, it will be their fourth championship since 2006. Ho-hum. If Denver wins it will be something special.
Walter Rubel is a freelance journalist based in Las Cruces. His 40-plus-year career includes work in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and— since 2002 — in New Mexico, covering Las Cruces and the state Legislature. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Las Cruces Bulletin. Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.