The Denver Nuggets, Colorado’s professional basketball team, compete in the National Basketball Association (NBA) as part of the Northwest Division in the association’s Western Conference. While an amateur-league team named the Denver Nuggets competed in the 1930s and 1940s, the current Nuggets team was founded in 1967 as the Denver Larks, then part of the American Basketball Association (ABA). With a change of ownership in 1972, the team was renamed the Nuggets.
The Nuggets joined the NBA in 1976 and have since posted nine straight playoff appearances between 1981 and 1989 and ten straight playoff appearances between 2003 and 2013. Denver has yet to appear in the NBA Finals, having lost twice in the Western Conference finals to the Los Angeles Lakers (1985 and 2009). The Nuggets play home games at the Pepsi Center, a venue they share with the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche.
Basketball in Colorado
In 1891 James Naismith invented the sport of basketball while teaching physical education at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Six years later, Naismith was listed as director of the Denver YMCA, making Denver the second city to be introduced to his new game. Denverites played Naismith’s game by rigging up any kind of baskets they could find and tossing around leather balls. Under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), basketball flourished as Colorado’s first great indoor spectator sport.
In 1932 Colorado’s first AAU team, the Denver Piggly Wigglys, played in the Denver Municipal Auditorium, where it shared scheduling and space with stage plays, the symphony orchestra, wrestling, and other events. In 1934 the Mile High City captured the AAU national championship tournament by promising to prohibit smoking in the seats and offering free use of the auditorium. The playoffs, like regular season games, were held on the auditorium stage, prompting Rocky Mountain News sportswriter Howard “Ham” Beresford to quip, “The crowds expect some sort of coloratura soprano, ballet, historic pageant or pipe organ solo.” The most dedicated fans paid extra to sit on the stage. The 1941 addition to the Auditorium’s arena gave the team a larger place to play ball.
In The Golden Age of Amateur Basketball, historian Adolph Grundman notes that Denver fielded an AAU team called the Nuggets, an homage to the Colorado Gold Rush. The Nuggets won the amateur league’s national championship in 1939 before it joined the professional National Basketball League for the 1948–49 season.
In 1967 the Denver Larks, named after the Colorado state bird (lark bunting), failed to fly past one season. Denver trucking magnate Bill Ringsby bought the Larks for $350,000 and renamed them the Rockets, after his company’s long-haul truck logo. In 1972 he sold the team to San Diego businessmen Frank Goldberg and A. G. “Bud” Fisher, who changed the name to the Denver Nuggets. With the arrival of journeyman coach Larry Brown and stars Dan Issel and David Thompson, the team reached the ABA finals in 1975–76 and then moved to the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, New York Nets, and Indiana Pacers. The Nuggets continued to win division titles but advanced no further.
As more and more fans showed up, the Nuggets yearned for a grander home. That came in 1975 with the opening of the city-owned McNichols Arena near Mile High Stadium.
David Thompson, the Nuggets’ superstar, was nicknamed “Skywalker” for his vertical leaps, his alley-oops, above-the-rim dunks, and for starring in the first NBA slam dunk competitions. He played in Denver from 1975 to 1982, shining as an NBA All-Star for four years and leading the Nuggets to the NBA playoffs in 1978. Once the highest-paid player in the NBA, he succumbed to the substance abuse that still haunts professional sports. He overcame his cocaine addiction only after it ended his career and landed him in jail.
Another Nugget became an exemplary role model both on and off the court. Alexander English starred on the team from 1979 to 1990. At his peak he was the NBA’s top scorer and a frequent All-Star. Off the court he acted in movies, wrote poetry, and pursued philanthropy.
Dan Issel also excelled as a Nuggets player from 1975 to 1985. Returning as head coach in 1992, he transformed a lackluster franchise into a 1994 playoff contender. In 1994 the Nuggets became the talk of the town when seven-foot-two, finger-wagging shot blocker Dikembe Mutombo led Denver past the Seattle SuperSonics in a stunning first-round upset in the playoffs. Unfortunately, that first-round win—the first time an eighth-seeded team had defeated a top-seeded team—became a high point for the franchise instead of the start of something bigger. Issel’s coaching career crashed in 2001, when he was pressured to resign after directing an ethnic slur at a taunting Latino fan.
Former Sonics coach George Karl became head coach of the Nuggets in 2005 and compiled an overachieving win-loss record in the regular season that was tempered by playoff frustrations. Hoop fans gloried in hometown star Chauncey Billups and star shooter Carmelo Anthony until both were traded away in 2011. In 2013, despite being named NBA Coach of the Year, Karl was fired because the team again fell short in the playoffs. He left the franchise with a record of 423-257, recording the second-most wins in franchise history—and a reputation as perhaps the best coach never to win an NBA championship.
In a town where money seemed no obstacle when it came to sports facilities, McNichols, which cost $16 million, was replaced with the $180 million Pepsi Center near Speer Boulevard and the Auraria Parkway in 1999. Although the arena enjoyed tax breaks, the public did not have to foot the bill for the Pepsi Center because it was built with private money. The Nuggets and the Pepsi Center found big-league financing in Kroenke Sports Enterprises, which bought the team and the Center in 2000. In partnership with his son, Josh, founder-owner Stan Kroenke—a son-in-law of Wal-Mart co-founder Bud Walton—also owns the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer, the Colorado Mammoth of the National Lacrosse League, the Colorado Avalanche of the National Hockey League, and the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League.
Parts of this article adapted from Carl Abbott, Stephen J. Leonard, and Thomas J. Noel, eds., Colorado: A History of the Centennial State, 5th Edition (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2013).