UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – ’76: The Horse and David ’23: The Joker and Jamal

Forty-seven years ago. 1976.

It was the Bicentennial Year. America’s 200th birthday.

The Winter Olympics had been held that February in Innsbruck, Austria—instead of Denver, which had been chosen to host those Games but gave them back four years earlier in response to local resistance led by the late Dick Lamm and environmental groups.

Jimmy Carter was elected President.

That’s a glimpse of the last time the Denver Nuggets played for a league championship in pro basketball, as they soon will do in 2023.

As May closes in on June and as The Joker (Nikola Jokic), Jamal Murray & Company are closing in on what would be Denver’s first pro basketball title, a look back seems appropriate.

The Nuggets, first of all, weren’t always the Nuggets. Before that, they were the Rockets, and before that, they were the . . . Larks! Yes, the Kansas City Larks.

That franchise, a charter member of the American Basketball Association when it was formed on February 2, 1967, could not line up an arena for its home games and thus moved to Denver on April 1. Financially strapped owner James B. Trindle sold the club to J. William Ringsby, who renamed it after his business, Rocket Truck Lines.

They were the Denver Rockets for seven years. Then, anticipating a move to the National Basketball Association, which already had a team in Houston named the Rockets, a contest was held to rename the team.

In their first season as the Nuggets in 1974-75 (under new coach Larry Brown), they won 65 and lost 19 and finished first in the ABA Western Division. Yet, after beating the Utah Stars, four games to two, they lost in the next round to the Indiana Pacers, 4-3.

Their record wasn’t quite as good the next season (60-24), but Brown’s Nuggets—fortified by trading for Dan “The Horse” Issel and drafting David Thompson—reached the ABA Finals. 

Issel had led the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA title (over Indiana) the previous season. And Thompson had starred as North Carolina State won its first college basketball national championship, He would be ABA Rookie of the Year in ’75-76.  

Those Nuggets beat the defending ABA champion Colonels in seven games but lost the championship round in six to Julius Erving and the New York Nets.

As a result of the game on May 13, 1976, it can be said that the Denver Nuggets played (and lost) the last game in the history of the ABA. The merger with the National Basketball Association was approved at the NBA Owners Meeting 35 days later, June 17, 1976.

The score of that final ABA game was New York 112, Denver 106—despite Thompson’s 42 points and Issel’s 20 rebounds. 

Issel became the Nuggets’ second all-time leading scorer, behind former teammate Alex English, and Thompson is one of eight players in NBA history to score 70 or more points in a single game, (All three are members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.)

Complementing the Horse-David equivalent of today’s Joker-Jamal duo were, among others:

Bobby Jones, who would be part of the Philadelphia 76ers’ NBA champions in 1983; 

Ralph Simpson, Denver’s all-time leading scorer in the ABA; and

Seven-foot-one rookie Marvin Webster, known as “The Human Eraser.” 

That team also included Byron Beck, the former University of Denver star who is one of six players to participate in all nine ABA seasons. 

On December 16, 1977 Beck became the first player in the history of the Rockets/Nuggets franchise to have his uniform number (40) retired. It hangs in the Ball Arena rafters with Issel’s 44 , Thompson’s 33, English’s 2 and others.)

*  *  *

Back to today. 

The Joker has demonstrated in these NBA Playoffs that he is one of the most complete players in history. He’s a two-time MVP who should have won it again this season.

When the Nuggets need him to score, he scores.  When they need him to rebound, he rebounds. 

He can bring the ball up the court and frequently does. He has an outside shot. 

His passing is phenomenal—for a player of any size, but especially for a big man. 

And he’s low-key, understated. 

I think that’s his greatest value.  The Nuggets reflect his self-control.

We’ll know soon enough if The Joker, Murray, and their supporting cast can achieve what The Horse, Thompson et al did not 47 years ago.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.