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Bad breaks, a weak roster and a decision to sacrifice the season have Denver lurching toward the worst record in NBA history
by Richard Hoffer
Posted: Wed January 21, 1998
At the moment, this lab study in catastrophe may be careening a little bit out of control. Denver's mad scientists, the management that boldly decided to throw this season away in hopes of laying the groundwork for a championship team, have without doubt engineered their team into lottery land, if not NBA history. (Bad luck helped, too.) But in doing so, they may have exceeded their subjects' capacity for embarrassment. By Sunday night, after a 94-82 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Nuggets were 2-35, and their normal air of surrender, more or less mandated by the team's front office, was beginning to give way to a seething anger, one that could yet blow up in ownership's face.
Watching Denver walk through a 99-74 home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers last Friday was poor entertainment, to say the least. The Nuggets, whether they are only the worst team in the league (uncontested) or in history (to be determined), are not even amusing in their incompetence. However outmanned they may be (struggling rookies, CBA veterans and a couple of bona fide role players dominate the roster these days), they do not bumble or otherwise offer comic relief; they maintain, if only in spurts, the pretense of professionalism and are all the more pathetic for that. But the really uncomfortable part of the spectating experience, which is not shared by all that many (at week's end the team's average home attendance, 11,658, was the third lowest in the NBA), was witnessing the players' growing resentment over their part in this little planthis "strategy," as they call it.
Suddenly, sulky looks were beginning to be exchanged between teammates, between players and coaches. Fingers were being pointed afterward, destinies understood. It was as if the players, good company men up to this point, have finally recognized that as a condition of their employment, they had been made to incorporate into their personalities a willingness to suffer ritualized defeat.
Garrett's already there. In late December he caused a ruckus within the team by telling reporters, "There's a lot of selfishness in this room." After Friday's loss to the Cavs he was going off on his teammates' continued lack of effort. "It would be nice if all 12 guys left the room knowing they'd played as hard as they could," he said. "But they can't."
This is the kind of talk that tears teams apart, but Garrett was not likely to be chided for it. In a room nearby, first-year coach Bill Hanzlik, whose decency could yet be consumed by this experience, was pointing his own finger, identifying only three players who that night had given an NBA effort: veterans Garrett and forward LaPhonso Ellis, and rookie point guard Bobby Jackson.
The 6'7" Hanzlik, a beloved figure in Denver who as a hustling Nugget in the 1980s put up heroic defensive struggles against bigger and better players, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Patrick Ewing, had lit into his players after the game and was now showing an uncharacteristic impatience with them. The man for whom the refs have had to recalibrate their tolerance for profanity downwarda "jeez Louise" out of Hanzlik's mouth will get him T'd upwas lacing his postgame talk with "dang," and it was not pretty to hear.
"It's beating me down, too," he finally admitted, his ever-present smile fading, if only for a few seconds.
It's not going to get better, and even if Hanzlik can smother the anger that's flaring here and there, it will most likely get a lot worse. Despite the anticipated February effectother bad teams throwing in the towel on their own dismal seasons, starting to roll over, allowing Denver to pick up a few winsthe Nuggets have a very good chance of surpassing the Philadelphia 76ers' benchmark for futility, the 9-73 record that has stood for a quarter century. Fred Carter, who had the dubious distinction of being the MVP on the NBA's worst team ever, expressed some unseemly confidence in comments to the Los Angeles Times recently. "Not only are they going to break the record," said Carter, "they may shatter it."
With that as their fate, the players have begun to wonder if the season is being conducted with more regard for the science of systematic humiliation than the playing of basketball. They don't really get it. Jackson, something of a find as a low first-round pick, can't quite get used to the idea of these regular whippings. A year ago he was instrumental in getting Minnesota into the Final Four. "I mean, high school on up, I always won," he says. "This is tough."
Issue date: January 26, 1998
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