While Julius Erving received the lion’s share of praise during the heyday of the American Basketball Association, there was a rim-rattler playing for the Denver Nuggets who was making just as much noise. David Thompson, awesomely known as “Skywalker,” earned league Rookie of the Year honors in 1976 on the strength of his 26 points per game. However, it was his tit-for-tat showing versus Dr. J at the first-ever Slam Dunk Contest in ‘76 that made him a national attraction. When the Nuggets joined the NBA the next season, they did so armed with a bona fide superstar.
The only player ever to be named MVP of both the ABA and NBA All-Star Games, Thompson gave the young Denver club an identity. Of course, winning games also helped shape perceptions, and the Nuggets were pretty good at that too. During the early days, they won 60 games twice while still in the ABA and posted 50 victories in their inaugural season in the Association. “Skywalker” would leave the Mile High City in ‘82 with 11,992 career points, and ten years later, saw his number #33 raised to the rafters by the organization. In ‘96, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. While the loss of a once-in-a-generation talent would be devastating for most franchises, another all-time great was just beginning a storied career with the Nuggets.
Alex English arrived in Denver midway through the ‘79-80 season, but didn’t stage a coming-out party until the ‘81-82 campaign when he averaged 25.4 points per game and powered the Nuggets into the playoffs. The big year resulted in his first All-Star game nod, setting off a string of eight straight appearances. English led the league in scoring in ‘82-83, while Denver booked yet another trip to the postseason (they would qualify for the playoffs nine times with English on their roster.) Just like Thompson before him, English’s #2 was retired by the Nuggets in ‘92, and five years later, he was inducted into the hallowed halls in Springfield.
Serving as home to the game’s best and brightest has remained the franchise’s calling card to this day. Whether it was the defensive excellence of the finger-waving Dikembe Mutombo in the ‘90s or Carmelo Anthony’s colossal scoring outbursts in the aughts, opponents across the league know that they’re in for a fight when they visit Denver. At the Pepsi Center, the team’s home since ‘99, more than 19,000 ecstatic fans pack the house and attempt to raise the decibel level to mile-high proportions. Leading the charge is Rocky, the mountain lion mascot who has thrilled fans for more than 20 years with his penchant for high-flying slam dunks and big-time high fives.
Just like the mountainous backdrop found on the team’s jerseys in the ‘80s, Nuggets diehards are no strangers to peaks and valleys. It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll, and so far, Denver supporters have given no indication that they’ll be slowing down anytime soon.