Monday, May 25, 2009

Western Conference Finals, Lakers vs. Nuggets

I just saw Denver is up by 7 early on the Lakers. I watched a good amount of Game 3--sort of caught Nuggets Fever again due to the media. But, as always when I watch the NBA, I tired quickly of motionless offenses. I DO NOT WANT TO WATCH THE BEST ATHLETES IN THE WORLD STAND STILL. Please, SOMEBODY move away from the ball!

But that's not what this is about. It's about a statement I heard that the Game 2 victory for Denver was their first playoff victory over the Lakers since 1985.

My mind went back to the 84/85 Nuggets as if to an old crush. That's the first team that I honestly, totally, 100% fell in love with. And nothing's been the same since.

Sure, I liked the Nuggets equally-good teams of the late '70s--these were my first-ever pro sports events. But I was only 7 or 8...not enough to REALLY understand what it means to commit to a team. At 15, I got it.

Denver had traded Kiki Vandeweghe to Portland in the off-season and acquired Calvin Natt, Fat Lever, and Wayne Cooper in return. Dan Issel, who was going to hang it up at the end of the year, was a bench player. And Doug Moe, the coach, was still running his players like hell (an earlier Doug Moe version of the Nuggets had set records for most points scored AND most points against...128.7 and 128.0, if I remember correctly). So the games were ADD eye candy...constant set-ups and shots. Alex English, the NBA's top scorer of the 1980s (look it up! it's true!) was a silky mid-range jumper guy (who the hell is his current NBA equivalent? I can't think of any either). And T.R. Dunn would come out to stop the opponents' #1 guard--but Moe had ordered him to never, ever shoot.

The team got out to a good start--they were 11-2 at one point--and won the division quite handily. Dad and I jumped on the phone for playoff tickets as soon as they were available, buying game 2 tickets since they sold out sooner. And we watched the Nuggets LOSE to the Spurs by two in the 2-7 matchup.

Great! But we came back around and won the series in 5 (the first round was a best-of-5 in those days...as all series should be now, possibly excepting the Finals).

We put away the Jazz 4-1 in the second round (I was present for an overtime win in Game 2...which I can't remember anything about these years later) which set up the Western Conference Final. Nuggets and Lakers.

Remember: The 1985 Lakers were the absolute zenith of Showtime. I'd rank it as the #1 single-year team of the decade...I wonder if the experts would agree. Magic was at his peak, Kareem was still an honest threat, James Worthy had developed into the real deal, Bob McAdoo off the bench, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, Kurt Rambis...hell of a team.

Dad and I bought tickets for game 4. I hoped we could poach a game in LA and ride out a 6-game series in the altitude at home.

We lost game 1 by 17. Game 2 was a late-night affair, starting at 9:00 Mountain on a Tuesday night. Parents would not permit me to stay up to watch the second half.

I was PISSED. Pissed until, alas, I went to school the next day and found nobody else had been allowed to watch the game. I also learned that, when he saw how special Game 2 turned out to be, he thought of waking me up to see the end.

I did watch the third quarter over my breakfast.

The Nuggets SLAUGHTERED the Lakers. In the Forum. They couldn't put anything together.

Our white stiff backup center, Danny Schayes, muscled Kareem into losing his cool and getting into a huge fight in the fourth quarter. Both were ejected. I remember him trying to gouge Schayes' eye out while saying "How does it feel to have your eye gouged out?"

I kinda wish they'd suspended both players for a game--that'd have been awesome for the Nuggets. But they didn't. While I listened on the radio from my grandparents' house in the mountains, I heard the Lakers win game 3 handily in Denver. We needed--NEEDED game 4.

The game I was headed to.

Here's what I remember. It was close throughout. There were signs under every seat that said "BEAT L.A." When they played Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part Two" ("Don't worry, you'll recognize it," said the directions on the back of the card), we were to shout "Hey! Beat L.A!" in the part where Gary shouted "Hey!" It sort of worked. It was DAMN LOUD. And we improvised, just chanting "BEAT L A! BEAT L A!" to the beat during the "verses" of the song (if you could call them that).

I don't remember the specifics, but Denver was down by 2, or maybe 4, late, when we popped back to a tie with a couple of buckets. 116-116. One minute on the clock. (Or was it 59 seconds? What I think I remember and what is true may be different here.) The L.A. time out...the sound never went down the whole time. I just wanted that one damn win at home.

L.A. came back out and scored. If I remember right, it was a damn skyhook.

Denver ran RIGHT down the floor. A pass, a pass, and Danny Freakin' Schayes had a step on Kareem! He's going to score on the break!

The ball bounced off of his hands and out of bounds.

Shit.

L.A. scored again, and we didn't. Final: Lakers 120, Nuggets 116.

"I just don't want this to be the way Issel's career ends!" I said.

(I knew damn well we wouldn't win Game 5.)

Issel did get a last hurrah. In the 44-point loss in Game 5 to end the series, Moe sent him back out for a goodbye stretch, and Issel hit a 3 in his career's final shot. I wish we had that to remember him by rather than his losing his cool and attacking a fan in the racially-based tirade that ended his coaching career. But, playing-wise, it turned out OK.

Denver never made it back to the conference finals until this year...when we lost game 1 and won game 2 in L.A.

And it feels familiar to me. The nostalgia was enough to drive me to watch game 3.

Go Nuggets.

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