"O.K., you look at Denver," says Leiweke, the young marketing wizard who came to the Nuggets in 1991 from the Timberwolves. "It's the 18th-largest TV market in the league. Then you look at Dikembe, and you say, 'How do we lock him up long term?' " Currently Mutombo is in the fourth year of a five-year, $13.7 million contract. "You have to use the synergy of sports, entertainment and communications," Leiweke continues. "What the arena and entertainment park means is an opportunity to remain competitive. The fiber optics gives us a chance for pay-per-view. Without the added revenue streams, it all comes back to ticket prices, and we'd just price ourselves out of the market."
The taxpayers can't be relied on for help, because they're a little steamed these days over a city airport that they financed for several billion dollars and that can't be opened because its machines haven't figured out how to move luggage without destroying it. And Mutombo is necessary because, well, without him the Nuggets are the L.A. Clippers. Or—worse—they're the Nuggets of four years ago. The honor! That was Paul West-head's lab experiment that finished 20-62 while trying to become the first NBA team to score 200 points in a game. The closest the Nuggets came to that goal was allowing the Phoenix Suns to score 107 points against them in one half. So dismal were matters that in a 20-month span from 1989 to 1991, the Nugget organization fired four presidents. Team p.r. chief Tommy Sheppard keeps a thick file of clippings from that era, entitled "Negative Press." Its highlight: a Rocky Mountain News column stating, "Credibility? There is none.... And there's no hope, none at all, of ever recapturing it."
This is not turf the Nuggets would like to revisit. General manager Bernie Bickerstaff, who had taken a flier on the raw Mutombo with the fourth pick of the 1991 draft, hired Issel in 1992, and things have headed upward ever since. But coaches come and go—not agile big dudes. "Look," says Mutombo's agent, David Falk. "If you take Gheorghe Muresan half seriously, what do you think of Mutombo, who can change games? Where are you going to find another Mutombo? Where?"
Falk continues with his analysis. "The identity of a team is a critical thing. When you get into concepts like theme parks, you need a clearly identifiable person to build around. And what is that worth? Just look at the Lakers. Who are they? The Celtics. Who are they? You used to know, but not anymore."
The scary point here is that if Mutombo is the Nuggets, he might break the Denver mint getting what Falk thinks he deserves. So, is Leiweke just going to shove all the new money straight to the tall man?
"I didn't say that," he says laughing. At this moment Mutombo himself walks into the president's office, bending at the waist to duck under the door frame, and sits in Leiweke's chair.
"As I was saying," continues the president, "he's a jerk and a rotten apple."
Mutombo nods and rocks in the chair. "I like this chair," he says.
"You want it?" asks Leiweke. "You want my problems?" Just a few days ago the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, Herb Kohl, sarcastically offered to give holdout first-pick Glenn Robinson the Buck franchise instead of the $100 million contract Robinson was demanding.
Mutombo smiles. "I think the NBA is in a good position right now," he says. "The company you work for should make money and then make the workers satisfied. Pride is the thing. The Lakers and Celtics and Bulls had pride. They didn't play for money. Magic, Larry, Michael—look at what they made. They played for pride."