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A Rocky Mountain low
John Papanek
March 19, 1979
The Denver Nuggets have had trouble on and off the court this season, and now this once-powerful team is struggling just to make the Western Conference playoffs
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March 19, 1979

A Rocky Mountain Low

The Denver Nuggets have had trouble on and off the court this season, and now this once-powerful team is struggling just to make the Western Conference playoffs

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His problems began in earnest during last year's playoffs, when the Nuggets signed Thompson to his now-famous $800,000 annual contract. When the team lost in the Western Conference finals, Brown made it known that he felt the contract brought undue pressure to bear upon Thompson and affected the team. Brown would usually begin his comments to the press by saying, "I don't want to sound like I'm blaming David, but...." Later he was quoted as saying, "I told management that if they jeopardize the franchise by signing David for an outrageous amount of money, then they're crazy. A 6'3�" guy doesn't win championships."

Such public utterances hardly enhanced the relationship between Brown and Thompson. And early this season. Brown also criticized McGinnis aloud. "I've been through so much, I don't pay any attention." said big George. "I know Larry's not a bad person." But with the taciturn Thompson it was much different. Brown made him the team example, harping on his penchant for arriving late at practice and missing team buses. Brown also was questioning the seriousness of Thompson's injuries, and generally felt that, as good as he was, Thompson was letting part of his extraordinary talent go to waste. Thompson believes that Brown was jealous of him and his huge salary, and overly concerned with his personal affairs.

"I was playing great after my injuries," says Thompson. "I was working so hard, but I always had Larry all over my back. I couldn't win. At one time he called me a selfish ballplayer. He'd let things build up, then he'd explode and catch you unaware. Larry had this thing about power. If I came in late, he thought it was just to spite him. The next day I would read in the papers that my lateness caused problems. But if it did cause problems, it was only because they were problems to Larry."

"This thing between Larry and David was terrible," says McGinnis. "Worse than I could have ever dreamed."

Brown steadfastly insists that the blame for his leaving should not be placed on the players, though after a stretch of nine losses in 10 games in November, he grew tense and haggard. He decided that Issel, who was coming off his best all-round year, was no longer right for the Nuggets, and let it be known that he wanted to trade him. He continued to complain to reporters about Thompson. After a loss at Philadelphia in which Thompson shot 3 for 16, Brown said, "I don't feel comfortable with anything about David right now," and there was a rumor that Thompson would be traded. A week later, during a team meeting. Thompson finally blew up, saying, "If I'd known I wasn't wanted, I would never have signed." Brown's response was that most of the unflattering quotes about the players attributed to him were taken out of context or wholly made up by reporters. "But I knew he was lying," says Thompson.

After a 117-100 blowout at Milwaukee on Nov. 28, Brown went public for the first time with the idea of quitting. For what seemed like the ninth or 10th time. Walsh talked him out of it. Two nights later, in New Orleans, McGinnis and Scott went to Brown's hotel room and told him, in effect, that if he quit, for whatever reasons, they would get the blame; that they had come to Denver hoping to put their controversial reputations behind them.

Brown was moved and decided to stick it out. But he continued to press for a trade involving Issel—there was a possible deal with New Orleans for Rich Kelley. He also wanted a point guard—there was an attempt to get Butch Lee from Atlanta, and later to get Scheer to re-sign Brian Taylor, who had walked out on the Nuggets the year before in a salary dispute. ( Taylor wound up signing with San Diego.) Scheer says he finally told Brown there would be no trades, that every time the Nuggets sputtered Brown came rushing in demanding a trade. "This kind of panicky action has to stop." Scheer told him.

Next came a Denver newspaper article in which Scheer was portrayed as the cool head prevailing over Brown's irrationality. Their relationship, often likened to a marriage, was definitely and violently on the rocks. "As far as I'm concerned," Brown told Scheer, "you no longer exist. You're just going to have to fire me."

Said Scheer, "If you can't work with me I can't work with you."

Brown reflected on all this with great bitterness last week. He would like to be a college coach, he says, "because players are not spoiled by long-term contracts and are willing to work hard and respect their coach." Yet Brown, who has a combined .641 winning percentage in the ABA and NBA, better than that of any active coach, would still prefer to see his philosophy triumph in the pros. Thinking aloud, his eyes brimming with tears. Brown said, "Bringing winning basketball back to New York, working with Red Holzman, that would be great.... Looking up from that parquet floor in Boston.... Al Attles was the first person to call me and Rod Thorn visited from Chicago.... Hey, maybe I'm not so bad after all...."

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