1967 to 1979
|1967 - 71||1971 - 74||1974 - 81|
They Do Run, Run, Run, They Do Run, Run
1967-69: Denver Once Rooted For The Rockets
1969-72: Spencer Is Hired
1972-74: Julius Is A Big "Keye" To Rockets Success
1974-75: From Worst To First
1975-76: Thompson Turns Down NBA, Signs With Nuggets
1975-76: Denver Rides Its "Horse" To ABA Finals
1976-77: Nuggets Are Golden In NBA Debut
1977-79: "Skywalker" Vs. "The Iceman "
Season Recaps Homepage
They Do Run, Run, Run, They Do Run, RunThe Denver Nuggets franchise traces its origins to 1967-68 in the American Basketball Association. A stable ABA franchise for nine years, Denver carried its winning ways into the NBA when the two leagues merged in 1976.
During their early NBA years the Nuggets boasted a deep and talented roster anchored by such superstars as David Thompson and Dan Issel. Although the franchise had its down periods, the team always retained its character as a freewheeling, high-scoring unit. After Alex English assumed the team's scoring mantle in the 1980s, the Nuggets played in the highest-scoring game in NBA history and established the all-time single-season record for scoring average. After another downturn the franchise again reloaded with young talent in the early 1990s, and in 1994 made history by becoming the first No. 8 seed ever to beat a No. 1 seed when they shocked the Seattle SuperSonics.
When the NBA was formed in 1949, the original Denver Nuggets (who bore no relationship to the later franchise, aside from the name) played in the Western Divison. Their rivals included such franchises as Sheboygan and Waterloo. Denver, led in scoring by Kenneth Sailors with 17.3 points per game, struggled to an 11-51 record and met its own waterloo during the offseason when the club folded after just one year.Return to top of page
1967-69: Denver Once Rooted For The RocketsThe pro game resurfaced 18 years later in the Mile High City for the 1967-68 season, this time in the form of the ABA's Denver Rockets. The team played its first game on October 15, 1967, and defeated the Anaheim Amigos, 110-105. Under Coach Bob Bass, Denver went 45-33 in its inaugural campaign before being eliminated by the New Orleans Buccaneers in the first round of the 1968 ABA Playoffs. Larry Jones, a 6-3 guard with a deft shooting touch, registered a league season-best 52 points against the Oakland Oaks; Denver won the contest, 126-108.
In the Rockets' second campaign the team went 44-34 and finished in third place in the Western Division. Denver met Oakland in the division semifinals and stretched the series to seven games before losing. Walt Piatkowski, a 6-8 forward who averaged 12.2 points, was named to the ABA All-Rookie Team.Return to top of page
1969-72: Spencer Is HiredIn 1969-70 the Rockets signed 6-9 Spencer Haywood fresh from his sophomore year at the University of Detroit. As a rookie, Haywood turned in one of the greatest single-season performances in ABA history. He didn't waste much time making his mark in the Denver record books-on November 13 he pulled down 31 rebounds against the Kentucky Colonels, a franchise record that still stands more than two decades later.
Haywood scored 59 points in a 152-116 April blowout of the Los Angeles Stars, the highest single-game total in Denver's ABA tenure and second in team history to David Thompson's 73 against Detroit in 1978. For the season, Haywood averaged 30.0 points and 19.5 rebounds, was the ABA All-Star Game MVP, and won the league's Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards.
Haywood's inspirational presence helped Denver capture the best record in the ABA's Western Division at 51-33. The Rockets defeated the Washington Capitols in the opening round of the playoffs but fell to the Los Angeles Stars in the division finals. The 1969-70 coaching duties were split between John McClendon, under whom the team stumbled to 9-19, and Joe Belmont, who took over and guided the club to a 42-14 mark the rest of the way. Under Belmont, Denver put together a franchise-best 15-game winning streak between December 20 and January 15.
The great forward then jumped to the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics for the 1970-71 season, creating a legal stir that led the NBA to relax its guidelines prohibiting the admittance of college underclassmen. Haywood went on to play a dozen NBA seasons with Seattle, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Washington, earning four All-Star selections and two berths on the All-NBA First Team.
Though Haywood was a one-year wonder in Denver, a fixture on the ABA-era Denver teams was 6-9 Byron Beck, who played his entire career with the franchise. Beck averaged 11.5 points and 7.0 rebounds before being waived by the team and retiring in 1977. A hometown favorite, he had played college ball in Denver, and his hardworking attitude was much admired by ABA fans. Beck's No. 40 is one of four uniforms retired by the franchise, the others belonging to the better known David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Alex English.
Although Beck was a popular player, the real star of those teams was Larry Jones, who made the All-ABA Team three times. Jones averaged better than 20 points for three straight seasons starting in 1967-68.
Without Haywood the Rockets came back down to earth. Under Coach Stan Albeck, Denver's 1970-71 record nose-dived to 30-54. Their collapse included an eight-game losing streak.
Alex Hannum took over as head coach for the 1971-72 season, and the team went 34-50. Despite the subpar record the Rockets featured some good players and some strong performances. Ralph Simpson, a 6-5 guard, scored 27.4 points per game and made the first of his five consecutive ABA All-Star Game appearances. Larry Brown, who later became one of the most successful coaches of the 1980s and 1990s, set the franchise record for assists in a game, with 23 against the Pittsburgh Condors on February 20. The Rockets' losing record didn't keep them out of the playoffs, but the team made a quick exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers.Return to top of page
1972-74: Julius Is A Big "Keye" To Rockets SuccessThe 1972-73 team improved to 47-37, playing steady ball for most of the season. Julius Keye, who made the ABA All-Defensive Team, blocked 12 Virginia Squires shots on December 14, a franchise record that went untouched for two decades until Dikembe Mutombo matched it in 1993. Simpson and Warren Jabali represented Denver in the 1973 ABA All-Star Game, and Jabali was named the game's Most Valuable Player. Denver made the playoffs but lost a first-round series to Indiana for the second consecutive year.
In 1973-74 Denver slipped to 37-47 and missed the postseason. Although center-forward Mike Green was named to the ABA All-Rookie Team and 6-10 shotblocking specialist Julius Keye repeated on the All-Defensive Team, the Rockets were going nowhere.Return to top of page
1974-75: From Worst To FirstCarl Scheer was brought in as president and general manager before the 1974-75 season. Scheer, who had been with the Carolina Cougars organization, brought a whole Carolina contingent with him: Coach Larry Brown, Assistant Coach Doug Moe, All-ABA guard Mack Calvin, and Bobby Jones, a rookie from the University of North Carolina who developed into one of the greatest defensive forwards in the history of the game.
Within two years the Denver franchise was revitalized. The team was renamed the Nuggets for the 1974-75 season, with new uniforms and a new roster. Suddenly the Nuggets went from being one of the worst teams in basketball to the best team in the ABA, finishing at 65-19. They defeated Utah in the first round of the playoffs but fell in seven games to Indiana in the Western Division Finals. Larry Brown was named ABA Coach of the Year, and Bobby Jones made both the All-Rookie Team and the All-Defensive Team. Mack Calvin also had a sensational season, averaging 19.5 points.Return to top of page
1975-76: Thompson Turns Down NBA, Signs With NuggetsThe team's biggest coup was its signing of David Thompson, a three-time All-American and two-time College Player of the Year at North Carolina State. Thompson had been selected by the Atlanta Hawks with the No. 1 pick in the 1975 NBA Draft, and he had been picked No. 1 in the ABA Draft by the Virginia Squires. Virginia traded his rights, along with George Irvine, to Denver for Mack Calvin, Mike Green, and Jan van Breda Kolff. When Thompson opted to sign with the Nuggets instead of the Hawks, it marked the first time in nine years that a No.1 pick had chosen the ABA over the NBA. The ABA was still striving for legitimacy, and Thompson's affiliation brought major credibility.
Thompson averaged 24.1 points in his seven seasons with the Nuggets and earned two All-NBA First Team selections after the leagues merged. Although he had highly publicized personal problems, he was trouble-free on the court, accumulating fantastic numbers in spectacular fashion. The 6-4 Thompson's acrobatic maneuvers earned him the nickname "Skywalker." He played in an era when the game was evolving into an above-the-rim affair, and he and Julius Erving were major proponents of the new high-flying style. Thompson's uniform No. 33 was retired by the Nuggets after he left the game in 1984.Return to top of page
1975-76: Denver Rides Its "Horse" To ABA FinalsAnchoring the Nuggets' front line in 1975-76 was 6-9 Dan Issel, who had played five years with the Kentucky Colonels before coming to Denver prior to the season. Issel had first established himself in basketball circles at the University of Kentucky, where he set 23 school records including total points (2,138). As a senior Issel averaged 33.9 points. After turning pro Issel helped the Kentucky Colonels win the ABA Championship in 1975, his fifth season. Following that season Kentucky dealt Issel to the Baltimore Claws-a team that never played a game-and the Claws sent Issel to Denver in exchange for cash and Dave Robisch on October 8, 1975. Known as "the Horse," Issel was remarkably durable-in his 15-year pro career he missed only 24 games. Like Thompson, Issel had the honor of seeing his uniform (No. 44) retired by the Nuggets. He was also elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
With a talent-packed lineup of Thompson, Issel, Bobby Jones, Ralph Simpson, and Mack Calvin (all five starters averaged double figures in scoring), the Nuggets were a terror at home in the ABA's final season. They started winning at McNichols Sports Arena just after Christmas and didn't stop until three months later. The 28-game home winning streak was the longest in franchise history. After putting together a 60-24 regular-season record, the Nuggets eliminated Kentucky in the playoffs before running into Julius Erving and the New York Nets in the ABA Finals. The Nets took the series in six games.
In each of the previous two seasons the Nuggets had won more games than any other team in either the ABA or the NBA, but they still didn't have a title to show for it. The consolation prizes were a repeat for Larry Brown as ABA Coach of the Year and David Thompson's selection as ABA Rookie of the Year.Return to top of page
1976-77: Nuggets Are Golden In NBA DebutWhile Denver was flourishing, most ABA franchises were floundering. In June 1976 the league went out of business, and the Nuggets, Nets, San Antonio Spurs, and Indiana Pacers became part of the NBA after paying $3.2-million entry fees.
Although most of the new teams adjusted slowly to the NBA, Denver thrived right from the start. The Nuggets won their first eight games of the 1976-77 campaign, the all-time franchise record for a season-starting winning streak. They lost little momentum, posting a 23-10 mark by the new year and keeping the pressure on for most of the campaign. Denver finished with a 50-32 record, won the Midwest Division, and tied the Philadelphia 76ers for the second-best record in the league behind the Los Angeles Lakers' 53-29 mark. But the Nuggets faltered in the playoffs and were eliminated by the Bill Walton-led Portland Trail Blazers, the eventual NBA champions.
Denver had stormed onto the NBA scene in more ways than one. The Nuggets led the league in attendance, averaging 17,150 fans per game. David Thompson ranked fourth in the NBA with a team-high 25.9 points per game, and Dan Issel added 22.3 points per contest. Slender 6-9 forward Bobby Jones was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team after having received the same honor the previous two years in the ABA. He finished the season with 186 steals and 162 blocked shots, both team records at the time. A valuable role player in every city he went, Jones was already demonstrating the hardworking, dependable character that would make him an integral part of the great Philadelphia teams of the early 1980s.Return to top of page
1977-79: "Skywalker" Vs. "The Iceman"Denver finished the 1977-78 season at 48-34, good enough for a second straight Midwest Division title. With Coach Larry Brown at the helm, the Nuggets penetrated deep into the postseason. After winning a hard-fought seven-game series against Milwaukee in the Western Conference Semifinals, Denver drew Seattle in the conference finals. The Nuggets won the opening game of the series, then dropped the next three, eventually losing in six games.
That season's biggest drama was played out on the final day of the regular season, in one of the greatest displays of individual scoring pyrotechnics in NBA history. Heading into the final game, David Thompson and the San Antonio Spurs' George "the Iceman" Gervin were in a virtual tie for the NBA scoring title. In the Nuggets' last game of the regular season, on April 9 at Detroit, Thompson exploded for a team-record 73 points. It was the third-highest output ever in an NBA game; only Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 100 in one game and 78 in another, had racked up higher point totals.
Unfortunately for Thompson, Gervin lit up the New Orleans Jazz for 63 points later that same day. It was just enough to give Gervin the scoring crown, 27.22 points per game to Thompson's 27.15, the tightest one-two finish ever.
The 1978-79 Nuggets team went 47-35, but it was not a calm season. The team got off to a stumbling start, lost six straight in November, and was struggling with a losing record through December. Things began to turn around in January, but on February 1 Larry Brown abruptly resigned to take the head coaching job at UCLA. Donnie Walsh took over as coach, and the team responded with a seven-game winning streak in March.
As usual, Thompson, the 1979 NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, led the Nuggets in scoring, with 24.0 points per game. George McGinnis, who had come from Philadelphia in an offseason trade for Bobby Jones and Ralph Simpson, contributed 22.6 points and 11.4 rebounds per contest. Issel added 17.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.Return to top of page