The Denver Nuggets Champions in the Past and Present

Photos Brittany Winkfield

Colorado enjoys a reputation as a state populated with enthusiasts of all manners of sports and recreational activities. The state’s residents and visitors aren’t mere spectators. From skiing to biking, rafting to hiking, people actively participate. 

Even when sports fans aren’t on the slopes, courts and fields, they’re in the stands, bleachers and bars, actively cheering, prodding and pushing Colorado teams to score the winning touchdown, shot or goal. When a professional franchise wins a national championship, it’s a virtual state holiday. Past Super Bowl and Stanley Cup wins saw statewide celebrations, and when the Denver Nuggets won the 2023 NBA Championship in June, the Centennial State celebrated their hometown heroes in-kind.

According to CBS News, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock estimated 750,000 to one million people congregated in Downtown Denver for a celebratory rally and parade. While it was a joyful day of celebration for the Denver Nuggets’ triumph, it wasn’t without a few hiccups. 

Crowds watched the victorious basketball players ride through the streets in a fire truck, until the truck ran over a police sergeant’s leg leaving him with limb-threatening injuries. Later that evening, gunshots left two people in serious condition; though Denver Police Chief, Ron Thomas, later reported that the gunshots were “Completely unassociated with the parade.”

CBS News captured the prevailing sentiment among celebrants like Devash Khanal, who told the news network, “It’s just an amazing feeling. I can’t even describe it. I’m at a loss for words. All my life I’ve cheered for them so it’s just good to see them finally bring it home.”

Nuggets fans were in for a treat during the entire 2023 NBA Playoff season. After beating the Minnesota Timberwolves in game five and sending the Phoenix Suns packing after game six, the team advanced to the Western Conference championship. Spectators and sports commentators were shocked to see the Denver Nuggets shut out LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in a 4-0 sweep. For the first time in 47 years, the Nuggets were Western Conference champions and would be playing in the NBA Finals.

For starters Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr, Aaron Gordon and the rest of the Denver Nuggets team, the championship win was a lifelong dream come true.

Murray, the six-foot four-inch point guard from Kitchener, Ontario in Canada, was selected by the Denver Nuggets in the 2016 NBA draft after developing a love for the game as early as three years old. Murray returned to the court this season after suffering a devastating torn ACL and having to sit out the entire 2021-2022 season. He returned with a vengeance, and partnered with Serbian superstar and Finals MVP, Nikola “Joker” Jokic, to lead the team to a 4-1 victory over the Heat.

Denver Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone cultivated a winning team, but much of the success they experienced can be attributed to their cohesiveness on the court. With Murray and Jokic running back-to-back scoring plays, Gordon’s brute athleticism, Porter’s consistency and Caldwell-Pope’s clutch fast-action movements thrilled fans and showed the true definition of teamwork. Supported by the high-performing rookie Christian Braun, and reliable buckets made by Bruce Brown Jr. when it mattered most, the Denver Nuggets were unstoppable, unbeatable, and the worthy recipients of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.

Denver’s beloved basketball franchise has undergone a long journey to greatness from their modest beginnings in the now-defunct American Basketball Association. They started out being called the Denver Larks in 1967, then changed their name to the Denver Rockets before the first season. Ultimately, the team settled on the Denver Nuggets in 1974, and entered the National Basketball Association in 1976. The NBA website explains that the Denver Nuggets name reflects Colorado’s 19th century gold mining boom, “When people rushed to the area, hoping to make their fortunes by panning for gold and silver nuggets.”

Veteran Colorado-based journalist Allen Best, an avid decades-long Denver Nuggets fan, recalls the “humble” early days when aspiring players could simply show up at the team’s training camp for an impromptu tryout. One of Best’s basketball buddies attended one of the walk-on tryouts, recounting the day he met basketball great David Thompson, “at the rim.”

One of Best’s fondest memories isn’t at the high-profile, big-ticket Ball Arena events, or even in the years since the team has been called the Denver Nuggets. Instead, a standout for him was watching the team as the Denver Rockets at the old Auditorium Arena over 50 years ago, when future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Spencer Haywood awed fans with his dunk. Best still marvels at Haywood’s meteoric rise from Trinidad State Junior College student to Olympic gold medalist and basketball wunderkind within a blink of an eye.

Over the years, the Nuggets have been home to legendary players, whose contributions to the game created a legacy of hard-work and teamwork that fans will never forget. In addition to celebrated coaches Larry Brown and Dan Issel, formers players Haywood and Thompson are remembered with past Nuggets: Mike Green, Bobby Jones, Calvin Natt, Alex English, Kiki VanDeWeghe, Russell Cross, Dikembe Mutombo, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony and Denver’s own Chauncey Billups.

Despite not winning a championship until now, fans remained loyal to the Denver Nuggets, idolizing their favorite home team ballers. Best recalls the days of watching English on the court, his hopes for a title didn’t deter him from cheering on players exhibited true talent and love for the game. “Even though [English] never took us to the championships, there’s a love of the fluidity – his moves were so smooth,” Best explains. “You just loved to watch him play. He occupies a place in the minds of anybody who has followed this team through the years. Absolutely, he has to be in the top 10 Nuggets players of all time.”

From Auditorium Arena to McNichols Sports Arena to Ball Arena, Nuggets fans have packed the stands and donned the ever-changing team jerseys and sportswear in support.  Now, the Denver Nuggets have been hoisted to the basketball pantheon. Even though the team has always held champion-status in the hearts of its fans, the NBA championship has skyrocketed both the esteem and expectations of the team to a new level.

Coach Malone is basking in the glory of leadership, as he succeeded in transforming the underdog Denver Nuggets into a championship-winning team. He isn’t prepared to surrender that position any time soon and looks ahead to a succession of winning seasons.

While some are doubtful that the Nuggets will be able to repeat the feat next year, worrying that such a seismic win might be fluke, the coach sees it as both a portent and promise for the future. His plan is to make winning the new norm. The NBA website quotes Malone’s upbeat plan and prediction, “You go from an upstart to a winner, and a winner to a contender, and a contender to a champion; and the last step after a champion is to be a dynasty.”

If Malone’s optimism and the team’s performance this year extends into future seasons, the city may very well boast a dynasty recognized around the world. Nuggets fans will be ready.