[If Denver had been healthy this season, it’s easy to make the argument that the Nuggets were talented enough to vie for the NBA championship. How all that talent—Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter, Jr., Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, Will Barton—ended up in the Mile High City is a testament to a savvy front office and an organization that’s run the right way.
But things haven’t always run smoothly for the NBA Nuggets. In the early 1990s, the Nuggets were in complete, head-scratching disarray, and reporter Mark Kiszla does a fantastic job of chronicling those hard times in this article published in Dick Vitale’s 1991-92 Basketball magazine. For a die-hard Nuggets fan, the early 1990s may be worth forgetting, but Kiszla’s story definitely isn’t. Kiszla, today one of the best sports columnists in the business at the Denver Post, writes a real gem that’s worth recovering and posting here to enjoy again.]
After the worst season in the franchise’s 24-year history, the Denver Nuggets didn’t produce a highlights film; they issued a formal apology. The videotape, mailed to season-ticket holders to beg forgiveness for the team’s atrocities, lasts 11 minutes, which is longer than Denver stayed competitive in many games. “Yes,” acknowledged co-owner Peter Bynoe, apologizing into the camera, “mistakes have been made.”
Bynoe could have saved his breath. The errors last season were apparent, leaving Denver the laughingstock of the NBA. In the autumn of 1990, Bynoe foresaw 40 victories while the roster was being transformed from old and tired to young and exciting. Determined to revolutionize professional basketball, new coach Paul Westhead promised his hyperactive game plan from “outer space” was “going to knock your socks off.” With each passing week, the predictions proved hilarious. Denver finished 20-62.
How did the Nuggets—the league’s top gate attraction during the mid-1970s and Midwest Division champion just four years ago—become a joke so quickly? The startling answer is: By design.
“We thought we had to tear it down and start over again,” Bynoe says. “If there’s blame for any lack of performance, I have to accept it. If somebody’s in trouble, if somebody’s at risk, if it’s somebody people have a right to be mad at, it’s me.”
The words seem hollow, given ownership’s proclivity to shift blame. In a 20-month span, from October 1989 to June 1991, four team presidents and one coach were fired. The dismissals often became more entertaining than the club’s oncourt performances. The past June, former president Carl Scheer rambled philosophically and wiped away tears without shame. Sixteen months earlier, former president Jon Spoelstra sat as rigid and stoic as a statue during the announcement of his release. Upon leaving, he sued the team for breach of contract.
Former coach Doug Moe showed up for his September 1990 dismissal wearing a tropical-print shirt, perfect for lounging on the beach. He announced, “Here today, gone to Maui.” Moe, who had taken Denver to the playoffs nine consecutive seasons, was fired primarily because co-owner Robert Wussler didn’t like cheap sportscoats and blue language. The lunacy of the decision wasn’t lost on Jane, Moe’s wife. “As his business manager and companion for life,” she said, grinning, “all we have to worry about is, ‘Do we pick up the check, or do they mail it?’”
Severance pay leaves the Nuggets office in huge sums. The outstanding debt to former executives is $6 million, which exceeds the salaries paid to the starting lineup last season. Denver’s 1990-91 league-worst average attendance of 10,658, combined with heavy debt service on the $54 million paid for the club, has left the franchise struggling financially during a time of unprecedented NBA prosperity. Ownership lost almost $10 million for the year.
When Bynoe, a Chicago lawyer and businessman, and Bertram Lee, a Boston entrepreneur, announced intentions in July 1989 to purchase the Nuggets from Sidney Shlenker, they were applauded as the first Black owners in U.S. professional sports. But four months passed, and they still lacked proper financial backing to close the deal. Commissioner David Stern, who had pushed for minority representation among the league owners, salvaged the deal by persuading Wussler, a longtime friend, to rescue Bynoe, Lee, and the NBA from embarrassment.
The hastily reconstructed purchase required COMSAT, an East Coast communications corporation that employs Wussler, to control 62.5 percent of the franchise. This was not the civil rights history Bynoe and Lee intended to make. Wussler, seldom seen in Denver, privately tells NBA associates that he determines important team policy from COMSAT headquarters in suburban Washington, D.C. “I will not be a front for anybody,” says Bynoe, who serves as managing general partner without the clout of being majority owner. Lee was booted from the partnership early this year, after refusing to meet cash calls required by the franchise.
Turmoil seldom promotes sound basketball decisions. The Nuggets operated more than three months in 1990 without a general manager. At least three candidates, including Georgetown University coach John Thompson, turned down the position before former Seattle SuperSonics coach Bernie Bickerstaff accepted.
With the offseason trades of center Blair Rasmussen and guard Michael Adams for draft picks, Bickerstaff continued the practice of eliminating established players and their hefty salaries. Alex English, Fat Lever, Dan Schayes, and Walter Davis preceded Rasmussen and Adams in the team’s purge. The GM’s willingness to radically alter the team has earned him the nickname “Slash and Bernie.”
Bickerstaff insists no personnel move has been dictated by a need or desire to reduce the payroll. Nonetheless, the Nuggets have not been able to conceal an inclination toward parsimony. Players were billed for chewing gum made available in the locker room. After forward Jerome Lane requested a trade, he was fined $500 for comments detrimental to the franchise.
“You had a team that was respectable by any NBA standard,” says John Roche, a Denver attorney and former Nuggets player, “and by smooth moves, it was converted to a team that won 20 and was significantly worse than the expansion teams.”
Two summers ago, Bynoe envisioned Denver in the 1994 NBA Finals. With the timetable on his dream almost half gone, the organization is coping with the grim reality of being the league’s worst team. The two most-memorable plays last season were collisions. In January, Adams had a fastbreak halted by the chest of Milwaukee Bucks coach Del Harris, who had stomped onto the court to protest a call. Adams suffered only minor bruises. In February, while attempting a trampoline-aided dunk during a timeout, the Nuggets’ mascot miscalculated his leap and slammed his face into the backboard. The man walked away from the accident, his mountain lion costume having cushioned the impact.
Bynoe acknowledges that ownership sometimes created a “perception of instability.” What other perception could there have been on the chilly morning when Lee, still with the club, discovered his dishes, pillows, and other personal belongings strewn outside his Denver condominium? He had failed to pay his rent and been evicted.
Last spring, disgruntled season-ticket holders formed an organization to protest the club’s lack of credibility. In response, Nuggets coaches, executives, and owners held public forums where gripes could be aired. The complaints got ugly. In front of a crowd of 350, Nuggets fan R.K. Wilson angrily told owners, “You guys came here as carpetbaggers. You don’t know Denver, and you don’t know the Denver Nuggets. If you guys were on city council, this would be a recall meeting.”
After listening to the vitriolic criticism for two hours, Wussler no longer could contain his exasperation. He asked, “What do you want us to do? Would you like us to sell the team? Would you like us to get the franchise away?”
Without pause, a Nuggets fan replied, “In a perfect dreamworld, yes.”
Ownership has sworn the team is not for sale, though Wall Street analysts predict COMSAT’s board of directors will force Wussler to sell if the team’s financial losses continue. “We’re not looking for the fastest way to make a buck,” Bynoe says. “What we’ve said all along is we want to rebuild the team.”
A wrecking ball has been taken to the Nuggets. Jerome Lane and Todd Lichti are the only players left from the 12-man roster inherited by Bynoe and Wussler. Anybody can tear down a franchise. Skilled, steady hands are required for renovation. The danger is evident. “In pro basketball, bad has a tendency to perpetuate bad,” says Houston coach Don Chaney, who suffered with the Los Angeles Clippers from 1985 to 1987.
The Clippers, as well as the New Jersey Nets and Sacramento Kings, are as wretched today as they were five years ago. The three teams produced 65 victories in the 1986-87 season; they combined for 82 last season. That’s hopelessness, not progress.
“You have to be very careful,” Chaney says. “Once you’re known as a team that has lost in the past, even if you keep bringing new people in, that same losing atmosphere keeps creeping right back again.”
By trading Adams, the team’s top scorer and competitor, to the Washington Bullets, the Nuggets acquired the second of two lottery picks in the past summer’s NBA draft. They selected Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo and Temple guard Mark Macon. Both choices were overwhelmingly approved in Denver. The team’s fresh start had faces to match.
Mutombo never guided Georgetown to a Final Four, but Bickerstaff hopes the center can lead Denver out of despair. Westhead fears the 25-year-old rookie is being asked to do the impossible. “We would not want to have expectations that in game one he will all of a sudden score 35 points and play like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” Westhead says. “And the world has already said he’s going to be like Bill Russell on defense. It’s very hard to be all that.”
The players most likely to be in the Nuggets’ starting lineup when the season opens are Chris Jackson, Todd Lichti, Anthony Cook, Lane, and Mutombo. Together, they have started fewer than 150 NBA games. Their inexperience is a certain detriment, perhaps more so than the Nuggets anticipate.
“You just can’t start with a young group of kids and expect them to develop in three years. It doesn’t work that way,” Chaney says. “Ideally, all rookies sound great. You collect all young players, all high draft choices, and let them grow together. But you can’t just throw a kid in a hot situation and expect him to become a great player down the line. Young players get scarred from the losing.”
Westhead no longer dreams about pushing basketball strategy into the 21st century. Last season, the coach wanted the Nuggets to be the first team to score 200 points in a game. It didn’t happen, but opponents registered big numbers, averaging an NBA-record 130.8 points. On opening night, Golden State beat Denver, 162-158, setting a league record for most points scored in regulation. Phoenix scored 107 points in one half. Orlando guard Scott Skiles had an NBA-record 30 assists in a game; in 78 other games, he averaged 8.1 assists. Fourteen players, including Greg Kite, William Bedford, and Alec Kessler, established career highs in points, rebounds, or assists while competing against Denver. Boston forward Kevin McHale, an astute student of the game, quickly dissected the Nuggets’ strategy. “They just let you score, so they can run,” he said. “But if they just want to run, there are tracks for that in Denver, aren’t there?”
The frenzied game plan that made Westhead a hoops genius at Loyola Marymount failed him in the NBA. After Denver lost its first five games, he quietly scrapped his nonstop, fullcourt press. Spectators in McNichols Sports Arena started wearing Doug Moe masks, hoping the former coach would return. Frequently waved in the stands across from the Denver bench was a sign that read, “Turn him a loose. Fire Westhead.”
Westhead’s mission is surviving this season without losing his job. He intends to employ more conventional tactics at both ends of the court. “The students have to learn, and the teacher has to learn,” says Westhead, finally convinced the Nuggets must go slower if they are to catch up. “And if we can’t learn from last season, then we’re all in trouble.”
Realizing the team must regain support without the promise of victory, the Nuggets are trying to woo fans with friendliness. Tipoffs for home games will be 30 minutes earlier than last season, so families can attend and still “get the kids home and in bed by 10,” says Tim Leiweke, the latest Nuggets president. He didn’t mention what the franchise would do to combat the resulting nightmares.
The Nuggets are so anxious to prevent the club’s league-low, season-ticket base from dwindling below 5,000 that they are offering a moneyback guarantee. Anyone dissatisfied with the product after opening night will be given a refund for the final 40 games.
Bynow vows ownership will shut up and stay out of Bickerstaff’s way as the GM reloads through the draft. The promise, however, conflicts with past actions. Stability hasn’t been the Nuggets’ forte. “A lot of times, owners set out by promising, ‘Oh, we’ll sit back; we can handle the losing,” Chaney says. “But all of a sudden, after about a year of it, you find they can’t stomach it.”
Denver needs to make immediate progress in the standings, if only because losing perpetuates the torch-and-rebuild philosophy. The player roster might maintain the 50 percent annual turnover rate established last season. After a poor start, Westhead could be fired. If finances dictate, a new corporation distrusted by fans could become primary owner. Everything in Denver could change—except the losing. The Nuggets operate under the strain of skepticism and derision from their hometown. “The noose is . . . around our neck,” Bynoe says. “It’s up to us to either tighten it or take it off.”
[Westhead survived the season and the noose, though just barely. The Nuggets canned him in April 1992. “We made considerable strides this season with the acquisition and development of Dikembe Mutombo and Mark Macon,” he evaluated his final season. “With another draft, I feel the team will be on its way to a bright future. It is unfortunate for the team and for me that I will not be a part of this positive swing now in progress.” And about that final season. The Nuggets finished 24-58, fourth in the six-team Midwest Division (just ahead of expansion Dallas and Minnesota).