Aspen Times Weekly: Me and My Nuggets

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Photo by Aubree Dallas

ASPEN – My cell phone informed me a few days ago that if I didn’t do some deleting, I wouldn’t be able to receive any more messages. This was surprising, since I don’t use my cell phone all that often. But I also saw the opportunity in going back through my old messages, to see what was on my mind over the last eight months or so.

Some 75 percent of my messages were to my daughter, which makes abundant sense: Olivia’s a teenager, addicted to texting, and also in need of being picked up from ballet and school and friend’s houses, which involves minute-to-minute adjustments in plans. But the fact is that most of the messages had little or nothing to do with picking up or dropping off or reminding me to buy bubbly water from City Market.

Virtually all of the texts were about the Denver Nuggets: injury reports, TV-watching plans, jokes about the players, questions about former Nuggets, game updates. The March 21 game against the Philadelphia 76ers – the miracle finish where the Nuggets were down by five with 14 seconds to go and somehow won, without even needing overtime – prompted a flurry of texts back and forth: “Nuggs down 71-10” “No shaqtin on that play” “whose ball?” “NUGGETS BALL!!!” And finally: “unbelievable!”

If someone else had gone through these messages, it might make me squirm, the revelation of just how obsessed I am with how, as New York Knicks diehard Woody Allen put it in “Annie Hall,” “a bunch of pituitary cases stuff a ball through a hoop.” I’m 49 years old – and I can tell you, off the top of my head, the three teams the Nuggets have lost to at home this season (Washington and Minnesota, both of which still drive me up a wall, and Miami, which I’ve made my peace with). I’ve got many of the hallmarks of an adult (responsible parent, dependable employee), and I am still not over the giddiness from the Nuggets’ recent 15-game winning streak. I get my prostate checked, I get the oil changed in my car, I’ve even stopped wearing pajamas to work – yet I have staked a large portion of my happiness on the physical skills of a bunch of 20-something strangers who happen to be wearing Denver Nuggets uniforms this season.

Corinthians advises us to “put away childish things.” But just how childish is this obsession with professional sports? Sure, it makes me yell at the television and has me checking box scores the minute the game ends. But it also connects me to something bigger than myself, and at the same time allows me to lose myself in the small details of what is, ultimately, a harmless distraction. It gets my heart pumping. And putting an unreasonable amount of faith in the Nuggets makes me address life’s big issues: Expectations. Anger. Acceptance (of Danilo Gallinari’s season-ending knee injury). Even mortality: What if the Nuggets, who have never even been in an NBA finals, don’t win a championship in my lifetime? And compassion: My God, what it must be like to be a longtime Chicago Cubs fan!

Juvenile or not, this passion runs deep. In the last 20 or so years, there is exactly one book I’ve read more than once: Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball,” which, despite more references to heavy metal and porn than necessary, was an excellent (dare I say even mature? Hey, the foreword is by braniac Malcolm Gladwell!) look at NBA players and teams. When I first got my hands on the 752-page behemoth, I essentially disappeared for a week.

And that’s nothing compared to what’s going on now, with the Nuggets, along with 15 other teams, in the early stages of this compelling two-month slog known as the NBA playoffs. I know that I’m not alone in this. Millions of adults, many far more mature than I, have a similar devotion to their teams. The pro sports-industrial complex isn’t making its money off the disposable income of 8-year-old fans.

I also know that I’m Jewish, not Christian, and thus can exalt the wisdom of Nuggets coach George Karl over the teachings of Corinthians.

The house where I grew up, in Livingston, N.J., was on a flat, corner lot. It was bigger than the neighboring lots, so our yard became the sports yard. It was enough of a draw that kids from surrounding neighborhoods came to play football, baseball and basketball. If my memory is right, one of those was a kid who would put on too much weight for people to believe he was an athlete, but back then Chris Christie was a baseball player, a hard-hitting catcher who went on to play for our state-champion high school team.

My own talent level was modest – no varsity teams for me, no six-days-a-week of practice. Which meant I could round out my identity as a sports nut with TV-watching, and when my dad, through his jewelry business, got season tickets to the Knicks, games at Madison Square Garden. Still, I don’t remember being especially rabid or knowledgeable about basketball at the time. (This probably had much to do with the Knicks teams of the mid-’70s, which had collapsed with the same astonishing efficiency that Walt Frazier and Willis Reed had used to win championships just a few years earlier.) I was more passionate about baseball, and there were years where my day-to-day mood was dictated by whether the New York Mets won or lost.

When I moved to Aspen, as a 28-year-old, the first thing to fall away was sports on TV. I had other things to learn about: playing guitar, snowboarding, writing, concertgoing, and living in the mountains, which I was dangerously unequipped for. I remember watching the Nuggets stun the Seattle Supersonics in the 1994 playoffs – the first time a No. 8 seed beat a top seed – but I wasn’t a Nuggets fan, just a vestigial basketball fan.

Getting married and having a child gave me a lot more at-home time, which translated into a lot more sports-watching time. Because I hadn’t changed the default setting, the Knicks were still my team. But they weren’t Colorado’s team, and the local broadcasts I got on a nightly basis were of the Denver Nuggets. In the fog of early parenthood, my allegiance shifted almost without my noticing. The Nuggs were abysmal then, and part of the fun was rooting for them to lose. I didn’t have to root hard, and they rarely disappointed: In the 1997-’98 season, they threatened to match the worst record ever in the NBA.

The turning point for the Nuggets franchise came in 2003, when the Detroit Pistons, in the NBA draft, gambled on the Serbian Darko Milicic, leaving Carmelo Anthony, the star of NCAA tournament champion Syracuse, for Denver to snatch up. The turnaround was instant: the Nuggets became relevant, a perennial playoff team, and a team bold enough to add some truly interesting pieces: the enigmatic scoring machine and former MVP Allen Iverson, the erratic but explosive J.R. Smith, the intimidating and puzzling Chris “Birdman” Anderson.

They also added a steadying influence in Denver native Chauncey Billups, but the Nuggets seemed snake-bitten in the playoffs. There were Anthony’s migraine headaches; there was a blown goaltending call that cost the Nuggets a win in a series-opening game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. And there was the 2010 season, when Coach Karl was sidelined with cancer, and acting head coach Adrian Dantley, painfully overmatched, steered the team to an upset loss in the first round to the Utah Jazz. A recent report had Dantley working as a guard – not a point guard, but a crossing guard – in Maryland. I feel almost safe.

The major turning point for me, though, came on Feb. 15, 2009. It was a contest I barely cared about, the NBA All-Star Game, and I watched it as I often watched basketball: volume off, moderate focus. Ours just wasn’t a sports household. My wife, Candice, wasn’t a fan; my daughter was into dancing and books, with no apparent interest in team sports.

But on this day Olivia climbed onto my lap in the big chair and started asking questions: What were the rules? Who were these players? What were these teams? She hasn’t stopped asking questions – she occasionally answers mine – and while my obsession with basketball might be a childish one, it is not a solitary one. For four years, most of Olivia’s nights end with the lights being turned out and then, in an ascending, hopeful voice, the words: “Basketball story?” I oblige with tales of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point

game, the history of severe injuries to No. 1 draft picks, the time Kenyon Martin, then a Nugget, drew a technical foul for clapping in an opponent’s face. Olivia occasionally faults me as a parent for failing to teach her to play sports. I counter that, to my credit, she knows the middle names of most of the players from the Nuggets 2009-’10 roster.

Our obsession seems to have been blessed by a higher power – the Nuggets front office. Considering we live several hundred miles from Denver, we have had a mystical number of occasions of meeting people associated with the Nuggets (strength coach; p.r. director; an employee of the company, Kroenke Sports Enterprises, that owns the team), and invariably their initial response to hearing we are basketball fans is to jot down their contact info with a promise of tickets for a game. Maybe they figure we live in Aspen and don’t need free tickets? Maybe they figure we’re a four-hour drive away and won’t actually make it to the Pepsi Center? Our tickets generally come with a backstage pass that allows us to meet players after the game. I’ve never seen my daughter so excited as when she got to pose for a photo with Kenneth Faried. Of course, I was even more excited.

The first game we attended, we caught more magic. One of our favorite Nuggets, Ty Lawson, after a sluggish start, caught fire from the three-point line and ended up setting an NBA record, hitting 10 consecutive three-pointers.

The blessing we received on another front, from Mom, has been somewhat more mixed. She has been the responsible adult, imposing limits on TV time. But she has also been approving of the situation, even sharing our enthusiasm to a degree, and generously allowed the “special games” exception to the

no-games-on-weeknights rule, and we have been clever in invoking the clause. (“They’re playing the Celtics!” “We’re on a 22-game home win streak!” “But San Antonio is a potential first-round match-up!”)

There is one side benefit, largely overlooked, in my hoops obsession. It is so consuming that it leaves no room for other rooting interests. Once the NBA season ends, I’m wiped out and other than keeping an eye on offseason hoops developments, sports are done for me.

The other big factor, apart from father-daughter bonding, in my still-growing fanaticism is the Nuggets themselves. The organization has, over the past decade, proved itself savvy, grounded and resilient. They

have defused potential distractions (e.g., Iverson and Smith); consistently turned low draft picks into valuable players (Lawson, Faried); and found the talent in other team’s discards. When Carmelo Anthony essentially forced a trade two years ago, determined to be in a bigger, flashier city, it was widely predicted that the Nuggets were headed for a sustained decline: Who would stay in Denver when you could manipulate your way to New York or Miami? But Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri engineered a deal that brought to Denver a package of players who quickly proved they had been undervalued.

The strength of the organization, the skills of Coach Karl, and good fortune have come together in what has been a beautiful season to watch unfold. After stumbling through an early schedule that was brutally unbalanced between road and home games, the Nuggets came into their own around the holidays. On Dec. 26, they dismantled the Lakers, and my New Year got off to an even better start as the Nuggs thumped the other Los Angeles team, the Clippers, on Jan. 1, ending the Clippers’ 17-game winning streak. Beginning

Feb. 23, they started beating everybody, with a 15-game winning streak and a still-intact 24-game winning streak in Denver. Among those victories was the March 1 thriller against Oklahoma City, with Olivia and me in attendance, in which Lawson hit the game-winning shot with a second remaining. (Among the highlights of my 2013 has been Lawson developing that pull-up jumper. Deadly.)

Not only have they won, they’ve done it with style. Their uptempo approach is a pleasure to watch; I love hearing announcers on the national broadcasts, accustomed to a slower pace and more predictable strategy, gush over the Nuggets. They are lovable in their oddness, punctuated by Javale McGee’s tendency to alternate unique mishaps with equally unmatchable displays of athleticism. Most endearing has been their resourcefulness.

Commentators claim that an NBA team can’t compete for a title without a superstar, yet the Nuggets compiled the fourth-best record in the NBA this season by having a different player step into the starring role as needed. They handled the injury to Gallinari without breaking stride; the injury led to the emergence of 20-year-old French rookie Evan Fournier. In the first game of these playoffs, 37-year-old back-up Andre Miller stepped up with his best game of the season, a superstar-esque 18 points in the fourth quarter, and the game-winning basket – the first time in his life, he claims, to have ever hit a last second game-winner.

I close here the way I have closed numerous emails these past few years to friends who know of my obsession, unsuspecting people I’ve just introduced myself to, acquaintances who thought my music obsession left room for no other obsessions.

Go Nuggets.