Rob Schuessler was curiously checking out the jerseys for sale outside the Denver Ball. This 47-year-old engineer, an employee of a startup of health, attended an NBA final for the first time on Thursday, that of the Nuggets against the Miami Heat. He was wearing one of the most original garments as he perused the merchandise in the stall. Purchased online, her shirt featured a picture of a slightly overweight, topless teenager looking directly into the camera. About the image it says Denver Nuggets, two-time most valuable player. Colorado has entrusted itself to that young man with the taciturn look, named Nikola Jokic, to conquer its first title in almost half a century.
The image that Schuessler proudly carries on his chest resurfaces from time to time on social networks. It usually becomes an argument that anything is possible, one of the most liked stories in sports in the United States. That teenager from Sombor, Serbia, became the second player, after Jason Kidd, to debut in a final with a triple double. Jokic, who added 27 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists, has shown his dominance in his eight years in the League. NBA analysts compare him to Tim Duncan, the historic power forward for the San Antonio Spurs who entered the Hall of Fame in 2009.
Jokic, the first major international sensation in the city since the days of Dikembe Mutombo, began his NBA history in the midst of a deep sleep. In 2014, the sports network ESPN announced that he had been chosen by the Nuggets in the 41st place of the draft as a footnote on the screen, while a Taco Bell commercial was airing. His older brother, Nemanja, who was in New York, called to congratulate him. Nikola was asleep at his parents’ house, in Serbia. “How is it possible that you are asleep? You just got drafted into the NBA!” Nemanja told him.
Today Jokic’s number 15 is ubiquitous in the vicinity of the Ball Stadium in Denver. The surname accompanies the shirts of most fans. Also present is the 27 of Canadian Jamal Murray, another key piece of the team owned by real estate magnate Stan Kroenke (also owner of the Los Angeles Rams, the Colorado Avalanche of hockey, the Colorado Rapids of the MLS and the Arsenal of the Premier). .
The number 15 also feeds a controversy. It was the number used by Carmelo Anthony, the third pick of the draft of 2003. Anthony, who a few days ago announced his retirement from professional basketball, came to a team that had had a disastrous mark of 17 games won and 65 lost. Melo was essential to turn the team around. The following season they achieved 43 wins and 39 losses and entered the playoffsalthough they were knocked out in the first round.
Some fans don’t have such fond memories of Anthony, who spent eight years with Denver and led the team to the Western finals against the Lakers in 2009 (they lost 4-2). “Why should the Nuggets be the ones to retire Carmelo’s number 15? He left because he desperately wanted to play for the Knicks. I don’t see anyone asking New York to remove the number from him, ”says Ed, a supporter of the team. Many like him believe the number should be retired after Jokic leaves the court.
The Nuggets’ story doesn’t start with the Serbian superstar. Although it is one of eleven teams that have never won an NBA title, the group traces its origins to the American Basketball Association (ABA). This is considered the rebellious sister of the current Professional Basketball League. It emerged in 1967 as an NBA rival with 11 teams, including the Denver Rockets (Nuggets since 1974), a blue, white and red tricolor ball, a frenetic pace and rules that were very attractive to fans, such as triples. In Denver, the slam dunk contest at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game was born.
That year the last ABA final was played. The Nuggets played it against the New York Nets of Julius Erving, known as Dr. J. The Easterners won the series 4-2. The NBA absorbed four teams from the rival League. Along with Denver came Dr. J’s Nets, the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers. Those from Colorado were, until now, the only ones who had not played a final.
Some of that ancient history is present in the NBA finals. Dan Issel, a former player from the ABA days, was in charge of launching an honorary free throw in the first game at home against the Miami Heat. With 16,589 points, Issel is Denver’s second leading scorer. He is second only to Alex English (21,645). The third is Anthony and the fourth is Nikola Jokic.
David Thompson, another of the survivors of the 1975 Nuggets final, assures that the Serbian center will settle a debt that comes from years. “He can finally finish the job that we couldn’t,” he told The Associated Press this week. This would be the arrival of the first Larry O’Brien Trophy in Denver.