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The first skeptic Moe encountered when he took over as head coach in Denver was Donnie Walsh, whom Moe replaced and subsequently hired as his assistant before the 1981-82 season. "When Doug told me what he wanted to do, I told him he was out of his mind, that it would never work," says Walsh, now general manager of the Indiana Pacers. "But after a while I realized that whatever he was doing—and I never did really figure it out—he was getting the kind of good shots that every coach in the league wanted." In Walsh's first full season with Moe, the Nuggets scored an astounding 126.5 points a game and gave up an equally breathtaking 126 points, both NBA records.
The thing that made these scoring prodigies even more impressive was that Denver has never been particularly adept at running a fast break, supposedly the NBA's shortest distance to two points. "Teams always worried about our running," Moe says, "even when we couldn't run."
Surprisingly, Moe adopted his radical ideas from North Carolina coach Dean Smith, a noted conservative theorist. "Smitty thought the passing game would be fine if you had players who could do it, but he didn't think players were smart enough to do it all the time," Moe says. Other NBA coaches have come to Denver hoping to learn the passing game from Moe, the most notable example being then Phoenix Suns coach John MacLeod, another conservative, who tried it during the 1985-86 season—with almost predictably disastrous results—before returning to a lockstep offense he was more comfortable with. "I don't know if many people can coach Doug's offense because you need his personality to make it work," says Bill Ficke, one of Moe's former assistants. "Coaches would come up to me in coffee shops and ask, 'How does Doug make the passing game work?' But they never gave him the respect in public. Everybody made him out to be the NBA clown."
Moe didn't exactly go out of his way to change that image. He is the only coach in the league who seldom watches videotapes of an upcoming opponent's plays because he's afraid it might discourage him. "A lot of teams scout us and don't think we're that good," Moe says. "Jerry West [general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers] scouted us once and told me we stunk. I say, 'Fellas, that's why I don't look at films.' "
A reporter from Philadelphia called Moe before the Spurs' playoff series with the 76ers in 1979 to ask if he had watched any films. Moe thought about that for a moment. "Well," he replied, "Big Jane and I watched Gone with the Wind the other night." This, of course, is not the kind of thing you say if you're trying to build a cult following among hoops purists. "You've got to coach to suit your own personality," Moe says.
Most NBA coaches would probably have to have a personality transplant before they could accept giving up the number of points that Moe's teams routinely do. There have been times when the Nuggets appeared willing to give a basket in order to get one, as they did in a 1983 game with Detroit in which they scored 184 points, only to be beaten by the Pistons, who went for 186. "Most of my career, we've been first in offense and last in defense," Moe says. "But what people don't realize is that total scores have nothing to do with defense or offense, just the pace of the game. It's the dumbest statistic ever, totally wacko, and yet everyone uses the total scores as an indication of the kind of defense you play. I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but as long as people go by that stat, I know there's someone out there dumber than I am."
Whether or not the Nuggets play a traditional scratch-and-sniff defense—and they finished second in the league at forcing turnovers last season, so there is solid evidence that they do play effective D—Moe seems to care passionately about it. "Eighty percent of the times Doug is having tantrums on the bench, it's about defense," Bristow says. Actually there's almost no time when Moe is not having tantrums on the bench, for it is during games that his carefree character suddenly vanishes and its nasty twin emerges. Moe used to be among the NBA's leaders in getting technical fouls, but nowadays his tirades are usually directed at his own players and not at the officials, although in 1983 he did feel compelled to throw a cup of water at a referee whose imagination Moe evidently thought had become overheated.
Then there was the time, during a preseason game last year, that Moe became so upset with the officiating that he put on a pair of sunglasses and began walking up and down the sideline like a blind man. But for the most part his behavior in 1987-88 was so decorous that he went through the season with only one T, an accomplishment he attributes to better communication with the referees. "Before the game I talk to them and try to explain that if I tell them to go——themselves, they shouldn't take it personally," he says. "A person with a vocabulary as rich as mine should get a warning on the first——."
None of Moe's players has ever stirred him to probe more deeply into the depths of his vocabulary than Kiki Vandeweghe did. A prolific scorer whose timid disposition made him a soft touch on defense, Vandeweghe played for Moe for four seasons before the Nuggets traded him to Portland in 1984, probably to prevent Moe, who was then on medication for his dangerously high blood pressure, from having a stroke. Vandeweghe was getting beaten so badly one night in a game against the Seattle SuperSonics that when Moe finally cornered him at halftime, the veins that were standing out in Moe's neck looked as if they were about to rupture. "Just go out there and hit somebody!" Moe implored. "Go out there and put your body on somebody."
The first time Seattle got the ball in the second half, Lonnie Shelton, a muscular 250-pound forward, tried to drive the lane and Vandeweghe decked him. The Nuggets' bench stood and cheered wildly. When Vandeweghe also leveled the next Sonics player who crossed his path, the officials were so aghast they didn't even call a foul. "What's Doug done to Kiki'?" asked referee Jake O'Donnell of Nuggets trainer Chopper Travaglini. "Whatever it is, the poor guy has taken so much abuse, there's no way I'm going to call a foul on him now. Tell Kiki he can do whatever he wants."