NBA ALL-STAR GAME Game stirs ABA memories
Basketball will be Denver's center of attention for the first time in years.
DENVER (AP) -- These days, the arena is a parking lot, Dr. J's big, frizzy afro is a closely cropped shade of gray and the red-white-and-blue ball is nothing but a memory.
The best basketball moment in Denver's history? It may very well have come before the NBA even arrived -- back in 1976, when the old ABA celebrated its final season with a slam-dunk contest during its All-Star game at McNichols Arena.
"That was a pretty amazing weekend," said Larry Brown, then the coach of the Nuggets. "It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had."
Back then, the slam-dunk contest was new and original. Unlike now, there was no debate over whether the contest should be held, no begging people to participate. Julius Erving and David Thompson wowed the crowd that January night in Denver, but Artis Gilmore and George Gervin were along for the show, too.
The dunk that won the contest might not seem so special in this era. But back then, nobody thought a player could elevate from the free throw line and make it to the rim to dunk. Dr. J. showed he could, and "only when the ball hit the floor did the crowd react. People just went crazy," former Nuggets general manager Carl Scheer recalled in the book "Loose Balls," a history of the ABA.
The Nuggets had the best record in the ABA at the All-Star break and because the league -- struggling with only seven teams -- wasn't big enough to field two full All-Star teams, it was Denver versus the All-Stars in the All-Star game. Led by Thompson's 29 points, the Nuggets won.
With Thompson, Bobby Jones, Dan Issel and Ralph Simpson, they went on to play the New York Nets for the ABA title. Denver blew a 22-point lead over the last 14 minutes of Game 6 and lost the series 4-2. The Nuggets haven't come that close to a championship since.
This weekend, Denver is again the center of the basketball world. That's quite a rare status for a city that has had a pro basketball team for nearly four decades, almost all of which has been spent playing second fiddle to something else, both around the NBA and in Denver.
A few years ago, The Denver Post asked readers to list their favorite sports teams. In the unscientific poll, the Avalanche and Broncos got the biggest share of votes. The Rockies got a good number. The Nuggets? They were favored by a grand total of 32 out of the more than 2,700 respondents.
That's not to say there haven't been moments.
Thompson scored 73 points in Detroit on the last day of the 1977-78 season in a vain attempt to beat out Gervin for the NBA scoring title.
The NBA's highest-scoring game was played in Denver: Pistons 186, Nuggets 184 in triple overtime in 1983. Kiki Vandeweghe, now the general manager of the team, scored 51 points that night. Alex English had 47.
They were part of coach Doug Moe's decade of success -- 10 seasons of high scoring, fast-breaking fun that wouldn't be recognizable in today's NBA.