one reporter's opinion
0. the world according to nouns
I've seen some shit that nobody else has. A willowy poet putting up either 7 or 8 points every quarter of every game for a decade, turning nonce-jumpers and floaters from a defense's seams into inevitability incarnate. A 6-3 would-be shooting guard running a team, leading it in assists, rebounds, steals, teleportation, dark conjurings, impossibility. Piles of high-post centers, I've seen. One-skill specialists in a league of multitaskers, a decade of drafting I can prove was the worst any NBA team ever perpetrated, thick veins of talent and relevance shrouded by distance and awful uniforms, buried under injured, old and overrated players. I've seen what I know to be the fourth-winningest team of the 80s, the highest scorer of the 80s; I've seen other satisfactions of and from the margin, not exactly 9 in a row nor 11 of 13.
I've seen rookies frag overwhelmed coaches like a savvy sergeant would a lieutenant, and I've seen pillars of the community drummed out of their profession for spectacularly unwise moments of verbal abuse.
I've seen a ton of shitty coaches make difficult-to-defend decisions and I've seen enough reclamation projects to last any sports fan a month of drunken arguments. But I never have quit on watching the Nuggets.
1. futurism restated
"If you grew up in the 70s, you liked Aerosmith."
--R.E.M., liner notes for Dead Letter Office
Or, as others have pointed out, if you came up in the 80s, you liked either the Lakers or the Celtics. In the beginning, I kind of liked them both. My then-stepdad hipped me to Dr. J, just in time for his precipitous decline and eclipse by the irresistible round mound of rebound. Reading Giant Steps put me on Team Kareem for life. But really, my basketball fandom is and always has been bound up with the Nuggets.
Two anecdotes about the early days of my NBA fandom.
Sometime in 1985, for no reason I have ever understood, my family was visiting LA. To shut me up, the truth box was clicked on, and I was duct-taped to the couch in front of the Lakers game. An announcer--I remember it as Brent Musberger, but that's almost certainly wrong--was explaining the Lakers' opponent;
You may not know this team, but keep your eyes open for #2, Alex English, one of the league's truly great scorers
Hip to the ways of watching TV, I bent my attentions to the task. The game ended, and I had not perceived this #2 at all. "Ov-er-rate-ed," I thought, smugged "The Lakers are better" just before the TV mentioned that he'd put up 30-some points.
"I gotta get better at watching this stuff," I realized.
We moved to Denver. I continued to watch every game I could; I'd listen to games on the radio and score them with a home-brewed technique that tried to count misses as well as makes; I bought Strat-O-Matic NBA for the 85-86 season and played hundreds of games (against myself), keeping box scores and inventing ranking and rating systems, sitting alone on the floor of my room.1
First game of the 86-87 season, all was rosy and surely the team would rebound from the frustrations of 85-86, maybe surge all the way to the west finals again. That lasted less than a half.
Calvin Natt, face-down and screaming. Banging his fists against the hardwood.
Calvin Natt shredded his Achilles tendon opening night, cratering the team's chances; that is what it means to be a Nuggets fan.
Natt was an undersized but rugged player, a meaty power forward once name-checked by Larry Bird, who said of the 6-6 frowning enforcer, "If he was 6-9, he'd be illegal." His was the kind of toughness-aura that was only enhanced by constant injuries; seeing him helpless in teary pain? like suckerpunching the Champ and getting away with it. Certain fantasies you can never entertain, after.
2. suburban dialectic
--KARP, "meet me in Lacey"
Shoals once mused "why aren't the 80s Nuggets a cult favorite"2 and the actual reasons are depressingly external-conditions-conditioned; the Nuggets were never on TV, and a bunch of other shit that contributes to that. I mean, the Velvets may be the ultimate cult band, but fuck: they were on Warner Brothers, you know?
They're not a cult band b/c they never had a chance to be: you never saw them. But what you didn't see in the 80s was a Nuggets team you would have liked. You really would.
For me, the Platonic ideal of a basketball team was that 85-86 squad, a scrambly adhocracy; a high-post (offensive) shotblocking (defensive) center (4th in the league!), a pair of guards pressuring the ball (both in the top 5 in steals!), a transcendently wonderful set of starting forwards, both .500/.800 men who put up better than 20 a game, scoring anywhere inside the three-point line.3
The Nuggets were a running team--perhaps the league's greatest proponent of pushing the pace--without a single player you'd identify as particularly fast. They were a high-scoring team--perhaps the league's best--without a single player who could consistently create his own shot. They were a team with a clear defensive strategy--revolving around relentless ball-hawking and guard pressure in the backcourt, a team you could not dribble against and whose forwards glided (English) and collided (Natt) through the passing lanes, funneling everything toward a shot-blocker--who were thought to play no defense at all. This was a team whose own coach caricatured his finicky, delicate system as "just rolling the balls out at the beginning of the game". A team, then, of contradictions, if not quite one of paradoxes; and they won more than they lost--you would have liked them. How could you not?
And then, out of nowhere, there was Fat Lever.
3. Bob Dylan wrote propaganda songs
There is, I would argue, no such NBA thing as being transcendently versatile. Them what are held to be the primary exponents of everything end up with epithets like "greatest second banana" or "underrated overachiever" or some such horseshit. Beyond a certain level, there's no category of anything like good-at-everything, there is only a category of being-great; I claim that Fat Lever, from 1986 to 1990, was great.
There will be those who claim that Lever's achievements were an epiphenomenon of a bad team where somebody had to put up numbers, or perhaps an artifact of a system whose accelerated pace allowed (f)rank scrubs to accumulate hated, fetid "counting statistics". And yet two things are indisputably the case.
- Fat Lever, for four years consecutive, had points-rebounds-assists numbers associated--and associated exclusively--with the following names:Larry Bird (5x)
Oscar Robertson (5x)
Ervin Johnson (1x)
Wilt Chamberlain (2x)
John Havlicek (2x)
Billy Cunningham (1x--in the ABA)
Grant Hill (2x)
- While this system was attempted in other places at other times, nobody else ever attained these heights.
And there was watching him, which the numbers only hint at. A small, scrawny guard, he was no spectacular leaper grabbing his 7+ boards. He wasn't a particularly gifted ballhandler, nor did he have that weird intuition the best point guards have, and yet he cranked out assists. His own desires embodied the conflict: nothing at all like a dead-eye shooter, he craved being a scorer, but was asked to run the team--thus perceiving a promotion as a demotion.
His greatness was not in the way of the world's greatest jack-of-all-trades: his greatness was the not-that-common-anymore phrase "nose for the ball" at its apotheosis. And watching it was like nothing else I have ever gotten to see. I don't expect to see its like again.
4. the politics of time
There's a bad memoir or a worse novel to be written about the rest of something like the meaning of the Nuggets 85-11.4 From the GM locking his
beloved prized free agent in the arena and bullying him into signing to catastrophic injuries to coaches bellowing in crunch time merely "EXECUTE!"5 to players refusing to report to GMs letting free agents walk without extracting compensation to GMs mastering the new salary cap era and getting fired for it to having two of the league's most central figures of an era and somehow remaining peripheral, there's a lot I've been thinking about (and occasionally writing about) for a long, long time. I'm enough of a hack to want to suggest that if your team has "a Bernie Bickerstaff era", you are an ABD of despair-of/from-mediocrity, but, now and forever, oughtn't we use this Internet to celebrate the worthy, rather than to savage the busted?
I've seen things like Fat Lever appear anywhere he might do some good, and only slowly, over an entire quarter, be overwhelmed by a cresting Lakers team capable of posting up a point guard taller than our power forward--when they tired of going to the single most potent halfcourt option the game has ever known.6 I've seen an 8 seed beat a 1. I've seen the most important player of the decade go to my team, and I've seen an entire season when it was plausible--and compelling--to argue that Carmelo Anthony was better than LeBron James. I've seen a rainbow skyline and a god-awful attempt to co-opt the terrible-in-its-own-right baby blue of UCLA.
What I've seen is a franchise supporting two writhing snakes of my fandom, one of attentiveness and (yes) love, the other of loss--in both its aspects, sometimes not-win and sometimes thing-taken. The snakes crawl over each other. Time passes. I never saw a championship, or an MVP, or even a rookie of the year7. But I saw things you never did.
I still think about Bill Hanzlik, fan favorite white dude, with his weird little white spot and his ability to make Ralph Sampson play like dogshit. I still think about tiny Mike Evans, supplanted by tinier Mike Adams, 3-point addicts before the league figured it out7; I still think about Danny Schayes, so awkward with hands and feet he should have been wearing wrestling headgear over his goggles. I still think about Walter "the Greyhound" Davis, wraith of the 80s, with canonical form on his jumper and a world-historically ugly coke fiasco in his past, and how I hated him utterly when I thought he'd forced out Alex English. (My first sports hate was for a guy on my own team.) I still think about Jerome Lane, 6-6 guy drafted to solve the team's rebounding problems, who showed up to practice one day midseason and was judged by St. Coach Doug Moe "he hasn't been to bed yet".
I think about magic, and I think about loss, the hidden world and the inaccessible ones. I think about the Nuggets, the least influential cult band ever, the players defining overlooked achievement, and their rewards.
1Strat-O-Matic's suggestion for adding new players was simply "find a comparable player and copy their stats over". I thought this was lame and reverse engineered the game's numbers, including figuring out their prehistoric version of "usage rate", a four-tiered system that they fucked up a lot, meaning bench players often had absurdly high rebounding numbers.
2I guess I don't count as a cult of one. I can live with this.
3That was from memory. Looks like the guards were both top 10, not 5, and Calvin Natt put up 17.7 ppg that year.
4This would have been a hell of a lot better if it came out the day before Carmelo attained his whatever-the-opposite-of-exile-is, I know, trust me.
5Thanks, Dick Motta.
6After dicking around with it for a while, I conclude I was at one or both of these games. I hung out after one to get Kareem to autograph my copy of Giant Steps but he never showed.
Other research demonstrates that one of my founding myths is incorrect: since 1986 or so, I have known--known as night follows day--that the 76rs were knocked out of the final playoff round of Dr. J's career because he missed a jumper against the Bucks. Turns out: not true.
7Deke was fucking robbed by Larry Johnson.
I cherry-picked his best numbers, just to see, and at 1400 points, 660 rebounds, 500 assists and 160 steals--which he did four consecutive times--Magic and Bird, once each, and Billy Cunningham (!) in the ABA, are his only company. (Because they didn't count steals 'way back in the day.) I dunno if god bows to math? but Fat Lever's peak should be bowed to by all.