1975-76 Denver Nuggets almost beat Dr. J to win a championship

Eight-year-old LJ Jones thought his grandfather Ralph Simpson had been keeping a secret from him. So he demanded answers.

“Grandpa, can I ask you something?” Simpson, 73, recalled his grandson saying, mimicking the young boy’s serious tone.

“Grandfather,” said the boy. “Someone told me you were famous.”

Simpson had to laugh. After all, he is not the most famous Ralph; it could be Ralph Lauren or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nor is he the most famous member of his family; that would be his daughter, Grammy Award-winning soul singer India.Arie.

“Grandpa’s not famous,” Simpson told his grandson. “I played for the Nuggets and played professional basketball.”

Still, LJ wanted to know, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Simpson started on the 1975-76 Denver Nuggets of the American Basketball Association. They were the only Nuggets group to reach a championship round until this year’s team reached the NBA Finals. The 1975-76 squad lost the ABA Championship in six games to Julius Erving’s New York Nets. The ABA and NBA merged before the 1976-77 season, and the Nuggets spent the next 47 years in basketball purgatory, with a few teams that inspired confidence but none that reached the Finals.

Now, the Nuggets are one win away from the first championship in franchise history. As they try to close out the series at home Monday in Game 5 against the Miami Heat, they’ll be cheered on by some of the men who played for that ABA title.

“It’s been so cool because the Nuggets now getting to the Finals has brought back a lot of memories for people who didn’t realize Denver had an ABA team that went to the Finals,” said Gus Gerard, 69 , a backup. player on the 1976 finals team. He added, laughing: “The only frustrating thing for me is that they show all these highlights and it’s always the same ones of Julius Erving, the great Dr. J, pounding on us left and right.”

Like today’s Nuggets, the 1976 team routinely demoralized opponents with its nearly unstoppable offense, but often felt like the underdog. The older Denver team also labored in obscurity for most of the season.

ONE May 29, 1976 Sports Illustrated article, lamented that “Denver games aren’t on national TV” and that “Denver box scores don’t appear on most sports sites.” The article noted that some “major media outlets” still referred to the Nuggets as the “Denver Rockets”, which had been their name until 1974. The franchise changed its name because it planned to move to the NBA, where the name Rockets had already been taken by Houston.

The 1975-76 Nuggets had the best record in the ABA. They were led by three future Hall of Famers: Bobby Jones, Dan Issel and David Thompson. Nicknamed Skywalker, Thompson had been the top draft pick in 1975 in both the ABA, by the Virginia Squires, and the NBA, by the Atlanta Hawks. But he chose to sign with the Nuggets instead.

“David Thompson, man, I used to make myself stand and look at him when I’m in the game,” said Byron Beck, 78, who played for Denver in all nine ABA seasons and its first in the NBA. , you catch yourself, ‘Oh!’ and he’s already gone and done something spectacular.”

They were coached by Larry Brown, who won an ABA championship as a player in 1969 with the Oakland Oaks, a men’s NCAA Division I basketball championship as coach at Kansas in 1988, and an NBA championship as coach in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons.

In 1975–76, the ABA was contracting, having gone to seven teams from 10, and had only one division. The All-Star Game pitted the Nuggets against All-Stars from other teams.

Claude Terry, then a Nuggets backup guard, said he remembered going to the All-Star Game with his wife and their two children in a station wagon. He said he was “probably wearing old Levi’s and shoes that didn’t get messed up in the snow.”

He added: “I don’t even remember being interviewed during the match.”

That season, the Nuggets packed their new McNichols Arena, which opened in 1975, with the pending NBA merger in mind, and was torn down in 2000. Gerard recalled being swarmed for autographs and invited to free meals at restaurants such as the Colorado Mine Company.

“They had like the best prime rib you’ve ever tasted in your life,” Gerard said.

Amidst the excitement there was also uncertainty. Preparations for the merger with the NBA weighed on the players, who knew that only four of the seven ABA teams would survive it. The Nuggets, Nets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs continued in the NBA

“Most of us didn’t have continuous contracts,” Terry said, adding that the players “were not nervous, just trying to figure out what was next.”

Terry said upcoming changes kept players from understanding what it meant to play in the last ABA season. Had there been social media at the time, Terry said, they might have been more aware of the significance.

The Nuggets played the Kentucky Colonels in the first round of the playoffs and won in seven games. Then they faced the New York Nets, who had the best player in the series in Erving. Denver lost Game 1 at home. Faced with elimination at home in Game 5, they won despite 37 points from Erving. Simpson and Issel led the team with 21 points each, and Gerard had 12 off the bench.

If they could force a Game 7 in Denver, they were confident they could win it. But Erving led a furious fourth-quarter comeback in Game 6 to win the game and the championship.

“We should have beaten them,” Simpson said. “We had a better team. Even Julius Erving thought we did. But they got the better of us.

As the years went by, although they remained in contact with each other, some members of the Nuggets team became increasingly disconnected from the franchise. Most of them moved out of Denver and went on to have careers outside of basketball.

Thompson and Gerard went through well-publicized struggles with substance abuse. Gerard later became a substance abuse counselor. He now works for the Fayette County government in Pennsylvania and still helps people recovering from addiction. Thompson attends Nuggets fan events and attended Game 2 of the Finals in Denver. He and Jones, who played for the Nuggets until 1978, started a religious nonprofit in North Carolina.

Issel remained the most attached to the franchise. He played for the Nuggets until 1985, then returned as a broadcaster a few years later. Issel coached the Nuggets twice, the second time also serving as the team’s president. He apologized in 2001 after using a racial slur towards Mexican people in response to a fan’s taunt, then resigned shortly after.

This year, Issel took his five grandchildren in tow to Game 1 of the finals, which Denver won at home 104-93.

Simpson has been watching the games at home and invites his grandchildren to a pizza party to watch with him. He did not get to play for Denver in its debut NBA season because he was traded to Detroit, but the Pistons traded him back the next season. He stays in touch with ABA and NBA alumni by being active in the National Basketball Retired Players Association.

Denver’s 47-year drought before returning to the Finals is puzzling to him.

“We’ve had some really good players,” said Simpson, who briefly coached at a small school and used to be a pastor in Denver. “I’m really surprised we haven’t won a title yet.”

To win the franchise’s first, this year’s Nuggets have tried to narrowly focus on the task at hand. Just like how the ABA Nuggets didn’t think about history, these Nuggets aren’t using the franchise’s long drought as inspiration.

“I don’t know much about it,” Denver’s Bruce Brown said. “Who was on that team?”

He said he tries not to think about what a championship would mean to the franchise and to the city of Denver.

“Then I get too happy, too anxious,” Brown said. “I just try to stay in the moment.”

The 1975-76 team’s attempt to make history has been clouded by the years, but Brown and his teammates are on the verge of completing the journey they began.

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