Legends profile: Alex English
Alex English was the NBA’s most prolific scorer during the 1980s and retired as the seventh-leading scorer with 25,613 points. After being underutilized by the Milwaukee Bucks and the Indiana Pacers during his first four years in the league, English became the most explosive member of a high-powered Denver Nuggets team that consistently ranked among the league’s top-scoring clubs.
English dominated during the 1980s. During his 10 full seasons in Denver he played in eight straight All-Star Games, won a scoring title, averaged more than 23 points nine years in a row and led the Nuggets to nine consecutive postseason appearances (although never to the Finals). The sleek, 6-foot-7 forward became the first player ever to string together eight straight 2,000-point seasons. And he led the Nuggets in scoring seven times en route to becoming the franchise’s all-time top scorer.
The soft-spoken English let his on-court performances do the talking; he was never one to boast of his abilities or draw attention to his achievements. When he did speak, it was always with eloquence. In fact, English had three books of his poetry published. Also, during his playing days, English appeared in a sensitive role in the movie Amazing Grace and Chuck, a film about the threat of nuclear war that starred Gregory Peck and Jamie Lee Curtis.
While Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson garnered much of the attention during the era, English quietly assembled one of the most impressive playing records in NBA history.
“I’m not so flashy, not so boisterous. I’m low-key. My job is to do the job I’m supposed to do,” English once said. “There are people who don’t see it. But they aren’t paying attention.”
Although English was never a media darling, those in the know were well acquainted with his brilliance. NBA scout Marty Blake told the Dallas Times Herald in 1990: “The thing that hurts Alex, at least when you try to compare him with the greats, is that he isn’t flamboyant. And his nagging problem is that he doesn’t get much recognition. [But] I’ve been associated with 18 players who made the Hall of Fame, and I think Alex is one of the great ones.”
Denver coach Doug Moe’s strength was in creating fast-breaking, high-scoring offenses. It was a system within which English thrived. And when he wasn’t scoring on the break, English was creating his own scoring opportunities. Few in the league were as creative or as daring. English managed to compile a .507 field-goal percentage during his 15-year career, and he remained remarkably healthy, playing in at least 78 games in all but his rookie season.
A native of Columbia, S.C., English stayed close to home when it came time to go to college. He posted an impressive though not eye-popping record at the University of South Carolina. After posting scoring averages of 14.6, 18.3, and 16.0 points per game in his first three seasons, respectively, English enjoyed his finest year as a senior when he scored 22.6 points per game. He compiled a .538 field-goal percentage over four years.
The 1976 NBA Draft included a host of promising young players, including John Lucas, Scott May, Adrian Dantley and Robert Parish. English wasn’t selected until the second round, joining Milwaukee as the 23rd overall pick.
The Bucks were a rebuilding organization. With former star center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already in his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee’s days of NBA glory were becoming history. A new team was being built around Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, Swen Nater, and Quinn Buckner. English played only about 10 minutes per game in 60 contests as a rookie. He saw more time in his second year, although the arrival of Marques Johnson and David Meyers kept English on coach Don Nelson’s bench much of the time.
Frustrated with his reserve role in his first two seasons, English became a free agent after the 1977-78 campaign. He signed with the Indiana Pacers, who gave the Bucks a first-round draft pick as compensation. Aboard another rebuilding team, English became a starter, though the bulk of the scoring opportunities went to Ricky Sobers, Johnny Davis and Mickey Johnson. Halfway through the 1979-80 season, English was traded to Denver for 29-year-old forward George McGinnis (who would only play for two more seasons).
English flourished immediately for the Nuggets, averaging 21.3 points in the final 24 games of the season. The Nuggets, who finished with a 30-52 record that year, were looking for a catalyst to ignite their stumbling offense. English answered their prayers.
Moe replaced Donnie Walsh as head coach midway through the 1980-81 season and saw to it that English had all the scoring chances he could handle. With a healthy David Thompson at his disposal and rookie forward Kiki Vandeweghe also aboard, Moe turned on the running game full blast. English (23.8 ppg) posted the first of nine straight seasons in which he averaged at least 23 points. Denver rocketed from 14th to first in the league in scoring. Unfortunately, the Nuggets also surrendered more points than any other club and posted a 37-45 mark.
English pulled out all the stops in 1981-82, averaging 25.4 points and leading the Nuggets into the playoffs after a two-year absence. He also made his first of eight straight trips to the All-Star Game and earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. In 1982-83, English won the scoring title with 28.4 points per game; Vandeweghe (26.7 ppg) placed second. The Nuggets with veterans Dan Issel and T. R. Dunn once again had the league’s strongest offense and weakest defense and finished at 45-37, eight games behind the first-place San Antonio Spurs in the Midwest Division.
In 1983-84, Vandeweghe emerged as the Nuggets’ premier scorer, tallying 29.4 points per game. He and English (26.4 ppg) finished third and fourth in the league, respectively, giving Denver one of the most dangerous frontcourt duos in NBA history. But the team still had problems in two critical areas: rebounding and defense. Dunn’s team-high rebounding tally of 574 was only about half the league-leading total. And the Nuggets surrendered an astounding 124.8 points per game. They fell below .500, to a 38-44 record.
In a busy offseason, the Nuggets acquired forward Calvin Natt, speedy guard Lafayette Lever, and back-up center Wayne Cooper — all from the Portland Trail Blazers for Vandeweghe. The Blazers also threw in two draft picks in what was the blockbuster trade of that summer. With Natt and Cooper both amassing more than 600 rebounds and English (27.9 ppg) picking up some of the scoring slack, Denver won its division in 1985. In doing so the Nuggets actually managed to score, on average, more points than they surrendered (120.0 ppg to 117.6).
In the playoffs, the Nuggets edged San Antonio and cruised past the Utah Jazz to meet Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals. The eventual NBA champion Lakers won in five games, and with that defeat went English’s best chance of reaching the NBA Finals.
English recorded a career-high 29.8 points per game in 1985-86, third in the league behind Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins and Adrian Dantley of the Utah Jazz. With no other 20-point scorers on the Denver squad, the Nuggets’ three-year reign as the NBA’s highest scoring team ended, and with it went their position atop the Midwest Division.
In the All-Star Game that year, English set his midseason classic career high by scoring 16 points on 8-of-12 shooting in 16 minutes off the bench. In recording another career best, he had a 54-point night against the division champion Houston Rockets. Only David Thompson had ever scored more points for the Nuggets — who tallied 73 on the last day of the 1977-78 campaign.
After a sub-.500 season in 1986-87, the Nuggets won another division title in 1988 with the help of new arrivals Jay Vincent and Michael Adams. English, although in his early 30s, was as spectacular as ever, leading the team with an average of 25.0 points per game. The Nuggets reached the semifinal round of the playoffs but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six games.
After the 1989-90 season, in which he dipped to 17.9 points per game, English became a free agent, and the Nuggets elected not to re-sign him. At age 36, he inked a one-year contract with the Dallas Mavericks. English left the Nuggets as the owner of nearly every team record, including most career points (21,645), assists (3,679), games (837) and minutes (29,893) in a Denver uniform.
English’s unceremonious departure left deep wounds. “I had envisioned that I would go out like Dan Issel and Julius Erving, that I would make the trip around the league and get to say good-bye to all the people in all the different cities,” English told the Rocky Mountain News in 1992. “Unfortunately, there’s not many players that can decide how their career is going to end.”
In Dallas, English joined a promising team that starred Rolando Blackman, Roy Tarpley, Derek Harper and James Donaldson, along with newly acquired forward Rodney McCray. “I finally feel like I’ll have a chance to play for an NBA championship,” English told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before the season began.
English and the Mavericks didn’t get close. As a backup to McCray, he averaged 9.7 points in 79 games for coach Richie Adubato. Tarpley’s continued drug and injury problems, along with an injury to Lever, contributed to the Mavs’ tumble to sixth place in the Midwest.
Dallas did not re-sign English. He retired from the NBA in 1991 having scored 25,613 points in his illustrious career. Only six players in league history-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek –had scored more at that time. At age 37, English played one year in Italy for Depi Napoli in 1991-92, averaging 13.9 points in 18 contests.
English’s chapter in Denver was finally closed in 1992 when the team apologized for its treatment of him and moved to retire his uniform No. 2. Team president Tim Leiweke said at a press conference in October 1992, “As an organization, the past five or six years the Nuggets have kind of lost our way. So first, to Alex, an apology for losing our way.” English finally got satisfaction. “I felt I needed closure because. something was missing,” he told the Rocky Mountain News. “Today is that ending, but it’s also a beginning. I look forward now to the challenge of untraveled roads.”
Years later, he would receive even more recognition after his retirement as his rainbow inspired 1980s Nuggets No. 2 jersey consistently ranked among the leaders in sales of NBA throwback jerseys.
And the untraveled roads he spoke of took him in different paths. He was hired for the newly created position of director of player programs and services for the NBA Players Association. His duties included overseeing alcohol, drug-abuse, HIV/AIDS, player-orientation and career-planning programs. His post playing career also saw him dabble into media ventures and then back onto the floor as a coach in the-then National Basketball Developmental League (now G League) as well as an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks.