There are few franchises in professional sports—and none in the NBA—that have more closely resembled a fairytale kingdom than the Denver Nuggets. During the past four seasons, while most of the other clubs have had their ups and downs, been in or out of the playoffs and changed coaches and players like dirty socks, the Nuggets have been the most consistent and successful team in pro basketball.
Though they have never won a league championship, the Nuggets have averaged 55 victories a year, won their divisional title three of four years, and for the past two seasons led the NBA in attendance. Their success has depended as much upon their imaginative and efficient front office as on their play on the floor. Presiding over the team is President and General Manager Carl Scheer, who has been known to subsist on a single Diet Pepsi and a couple of chocolate bars a day. His other source of nutrition was Coach Larry Brown, with whom Scheer coexisted in a happy symbiosis that promised to go on and on forever. "We fed off each other," said Scheer the other day.
But this season the Nuggets tempted fate by trading their beloved Bobby Jones to Philadelphia for George McGinnis and bringing in Charlie Scott from Los Angeles. After these moves the Nuggets declared themselves stronger than ever and all but guaranteed their fans the elusive championship. But now, with only a few weeks remaining in the regular season, Denver's Camelot is beginning to resemble a faded memory.
Nagging injuries to David Thompson and Scott, Forward Anthony Roberts' illness, the clash of McGinnis' outside ball-handling game with that of high-post Center Dan Issel's, and a shallow bench have resulted in a decline in the Nuggets' fortunes, and they are immured in second place in the Midwest Division for the first time since joining the NBA two years ago. Moreover, on Feb. 1, when the team was 28-25 and 3� games behind Kansas City, Brown acted on a threat that players and management had grown tired of hearing. At a tearful press conference, he announced that he was resigning immediately; he was in the first year of a lucrative five-year contract.
Brown talked of pains in his chest and his side, and mentioned that his father had died of a heart attack at 43. That very day Brown had been pronounced fit by a doctor and had run seven miles. His "poor health" story got little credence. "I've got coaches' disease," he admitted. While that malady is not to be found in medical texts, it is truly a disease of the heart, particularly for an emotional 38-year-old who knows of no greater job than coaching.
Last week in Phoenix, where he was supposedly on R & R, Brown spent more time agonizing over his past and future—while jogging himself toward exhaustion—than playing tennis with his wife Barbara. "I turn on the Nuggets game on the radio," he said, "and my insides churn." He has received a very generous offer to coach Memphis State and a few others from some major collegiate basketball powers; he could take a college job now, or wait for the expected flood of pro offers next month. One that he would dearly love could come from the New York Knicks, whom Brown has dreamed of coaching since his Long Island childhood.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets, now under the direction of Brown's best friend and former assistant, Donnie Walsh, are in deep and unfamiliar waters. McGinnis, contrary to some expectations, is having his finest year in the NBA, but the team is 9-8 under Walsh and it is locked in a desperate battle with San Diego and Portland for the last two Western Conference playoff spots. The Nuggets began a crucial seven-game home stand last week with a 119-118 loss to Houston, and after suffering their worst home defeat ever, 119-98 to Washington, they were 37-33, a half game behind San Diego and a half game ahead of Portland. The Nuggets must win on this home stand to stay alive; their last five games are on the road, including dates with the world-champion Bullets, Philadelphia and much-improved New Jersey.
The shock waves from Brown's departure have hardly died down. Clearly Scheer sees the breaking up of a successful working relationship and close friendship as tragic. "I suppose I should have seen something like this coming," he said last week, "but when you're too close to a situation you can't always see it for what it really is."
"I think Larry just burned out," says Walsh. "He'd been doing the same thing for six straight years without once forgetting basketball—in the summer, at home, in restaurants. His problem was that he intensified everything so, particularly the negative things. He was upset with the fans; he wanted more from the players than they were willing to give. I kept telling him, 'Larry, these guys are pros. They don't need a brother or a father or another friend.' "
But Brown doesn't buy it. "When I grew up," he says, "a coach was someone you looked up to and went to when you had a problem. I don't want these guys going to the general manager. I want them to trust me."