Exploring the Nuggets' relationship with Denver's Black community

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

Life is easier in straight lines. It is simpler. Conclusions are much easier drawn. Praise, to an individual or an organization, is clearer.

But many times — perhaps even most times — the lines aren’t straight. They are the subtle examples, the shades of gray you have to examine more closely to understand the impact made. The Nuggets’ impact in the African-American community in its years in Denver largely lives in those more nuanced areas. 

It is in Alex English setting the example of service in support of others worldwide. While he played in Denver, he championed the cause of NBA All Stars donating their monetary shares to aid in the relief of Ethiopian famine. He won the NBA’s Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award in the 1987-88 season for his good works.

This wasn’t in-your-face stuff. It was a black athlete putting time and effort, and money, into being a selfless citizen of the world. It was noticed.

Kenneth Faried also won this award, in 2012-13 — the last Nugget to do so. When he was involved in community events, he dove in with the biggest of hearts and best of intentions. And surely no one forgets the images and the impact he had in particular on young Gertie Munholland, the girl with Down Syndrome who lit up every room regularly flashing the brightest smile. The two met at a Nuggets Special Olympics event and bonded instantly. Faried ended up escorting her at a Down Syndrome fashion show.

Bernie Bickerstaff was the Nuggets first black general manager, starting at the position in 1990. He led the construction of the 1993 Nuggets team that shocked the NBA world by becoming the first No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed (Seattle) in the playoffs. 

For young Nuggets fans, and young African-American children in specific, Bickerstaff was the up-close example that having a job in the NBA didn’t just mean you were a player. You could make the decisions. You could be the architect of something special. You could dream beyond the court. A living example of that meant something. It was a big deal.

There are straight-line examples as well.

Chauncey Billups was an enthusiastic ambassador for the city (Denver) and the community (Park Hill) he grew up in. He didn’t play the majority of his professional career in Denver, but he never once shrugged his shoulders and turned his back on the city. He dove in and was ultra-active in the community, and still is. He helped start a pro-am basketball summer league in Park Hill in which he got NBA players and big-time college athletes to participate. He’s got a leadership academy that mentors young minority kids to this day, continuing to set a positive example of not just being a talented athlete, but being a productive member of society and of achieving your goals, no matter what area of life they are in. And of holding yourself to a high civic standard. Billups provides that example himself as television basketball analyst and family man.

Joe Barry Carroll was a star at East High School and played a season for the Nuggets as well. When he was just 26 years old, Carroll established the BroadView Foundation, which financially supported and provided hands-on help to organizations aiding lower socioeconomic groups and persons in communities of color.

As a black woman hosting Nuggets coverage for Altitude Sports in the early 2010s, Maya Starks’ presence on television bridged both racial and gender areas, giving children of color and young girls a glimpse at what it looks like to host studio shows covering an NBA franchise.  

On the court, the Nuggets have been the basketball standard to reach for in the city. The ferociousness of LaPhonso Ellis; the smooth scoring of English; the relentless bucket-getting dominance of Carmelo Anthony; the toughness of Kenyon Martin; the winning touch of Billups; and, now, the unabashed fearlessness of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and all of their teammates, the Nuggets have provided a high-quality basketball blueprint for aspiring athletes to emulate. More importantly, they’re also providing a blueprint for how teammates support each other and the region they represent. 

And the team has never been more intertwined with the city. Mile High Basketball is, yes, a style of play — one of the most unique in the NBA — but it is also modern connection to a growing city and state. There’s arguably never been a bigger and more enthusiastic following of the team than there is now. 

And as Denver grows, as more young people of color take notice of the Nuggets franchise, as the state becomes more diverse, and as the Nuggets continue their upward march toward being among the NBA’s elite teams, any and all connections, subtle or not, are significant.

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