“Man, we’re masters!” — Why Denver’s NBA title means more to these four vets

Oh YoungmisukESPN staff writerJune 15, 2023, 8:00 a.m. ET8 minutes of reading

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DENVER — Reggie Jackson could see tears beginning to well up in Jeff Green’s eyes. DeAndre Jordan and Ish Smith walked over to hug Green and stand next to him. Smith began to choke back tears. A few steps away, Jackson stood toward the end of the Nuggets bench, where he also cried.

With about a minute left in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, as the Nuggets closed in on their first championship Monday night, the four veterans began to realize that the dream they had been chasing their entire basketball lives would finally be realized.

It’s no coincidence that the first three Nuggets Jackson hugged as the confetti began to fall at the Ball Arena were Green, Jordan and Smith.

Jackson looked at Smith and said, “Man, we champions!”

As the Nuggets celebrate as they take downtown Denver for their parade on Thursday, the foursome will savor every moment, every sip of champagne, every puff of the cigars and every wave to the grateful fans on hand.

It doesn’t matter that Green was the only one of the four to play meaningful postseason minutes off the bench. They all played a role in the locker room and on the sidelines to help Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the Nuggets defeat the Miami Heat and become world champions.

“Ish, Jeff and [Jordan] is kind of all old hat,” Jokic said before Game 2 of the Finals. “When they talk, I think everybody listens because if you listen to them, you can hear some really smart things that can help you play the game. I really appreciate them and am truly grateful to them.”

Nuggets veterans Jeff Green, from left, DeAndre Jordan and Ish Smith won their first NBA title on Monday.Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Green, Jordan, Jackson and Smith are the epitome of smart NBA journeymen. They spent years getting to this point, bouncing from franchise to franchise, playing with countless teammates, and constantly wondering not only if this could be the stop where they can win a championship, but in some cases, if it could be their last shot.

Add to the equation Bruce Brown, who had to build himself into a valuable contributor to the NBA Championship, and the Nuggets had a bench full of players who weren’t sure if this moment would ever come.

“It’s starting to get harder,” Jackson told ESPN. He said he thought about retiring due to injuries when he was with the Detroit Pistons from 2014 to 2020. “You start to doubt more that you’ll ever get this moment.”

Between Green, Jordan, Smith and Jackson, the four have played for 35 teams over a total of 55 seasons.

Green and Jordan are the first teammates to each play more than 1,000 regular season games and win their first titles together, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“It’s everything,” Green said of what winning a title meant to him before the NBA Finals began. “That’s what I play for. For me, I always play for the team first and the ultimate goal was always to win a championship.

“With everything I’ve been through in my career, winning a championship means everything.”

Green, 36, knows how lucky he is to have been able to still play in the NBA himself, but even better to return to the Finals. The forward started his career with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007, but did not play in the 2011-12 season due to major heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. Green came back and would reach the 2018 Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers, only to be swept by the Golden State Warriors.

He has played for the SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies, LA Clippers, Orlando Magic, Cavaliers, Washington Wizards, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets and Nuggets.

Green played the sixth most regular season games (1,107) before winning his first championship, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information.

In his 10th postseason, he averaged 4.1 points and hit a big 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Finals to help the Nuggets win in Miami.

“I’m proud of myself, of all the obstacles I’ve been through in my career,” Green said. “The obstacle that I faced 10 years ago, not allowing that kind of thing to hold me back, breaking down barriers, multiple teams, adapting to any situation.

“With everything I’ve been through, as everyone knows, to be at this point, to be productive, to give something on a great team in the finals, I think it’s great.”

Guard Reggie Jackson signed with the Denver Nuggets at the trade deadline.Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Jordan, 34, played sparingly, appearing in just four postseason games. But Jokic and other Nuggets said Jordan contributed the most with his voice and experience. During Game 5 of the Finals, Jordan Murray gave a pep talk during a timeout, imploring the point guard to give everything he had in the final 12 minutes to make history and achieve basketball immortality.

The veteran center wasn’t going to let the chance to win a championship slip away, even if he didn’t play. He had waited too long after playing for the Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Nuggets in his 15 seasons.

“DJ, come in [from] ‘Lob City,’ everybody’s excited about it, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, him,” Smith recalled of Jordan’s career highlight with the Clippers. “Everybody just knows they’re at least going to the Western Conference Finals and he’s not going to pass Second round. And from there he goes to Brooklyn. And from there you just move around. So it’s really gratifying.”

Smith, 34, said he thought about quitting basketball at one point while at Wake Forest after suffering a thumb injury during his freshman year in 2006-07.

“I was ready to end it,” Smith told ESPN. “Once I got to the league, though, I just kept pushing. My mantra was the next move was the best move, and that’s how I hung my hat.”

Smith now holds the record for most teams played for at the time of winning a first championship with 13 franchises.

“It hit me at the end of the game,” Smith said of finally becoming a champion, between spraying teammates with champagne in the Nuggets locker room. “I don’t know why I just got emotional, but this is gratifying, man. It’s great. I’m so happy for the city. Denver, our teammates, man, we all have a story. So it’s been a blessing . “

Smith, who appeared in four playoff games this postseason, could be seen wandering the locker room and hallways of Ball Arena after the game ended, soaking in the moment.

For Jackson, he celebrated with a cigar and champagne, but the idea that he is a champion still hasn’t sunk in. Jackson said it would probably take a week for it to really hit him.

After Jackson contemplated retirement due to injuries during his time in Detroit, the 33-year-old point guard credited close friend Paul George and the Clippers for reviving his career in 2019-20. The former Clippers fan favorite, who was dealt to the Charlotte Hornets at the trade deadline before being bought out and signed with Denver, is likely still pinching himself.

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Jackson reached the NBA Finals in his rookie season with Oklahoma City in 2011-12 before the Thunder lost to the Heat. Jackson thought he would return to the Finals several times with the talented Thunder team, before the core of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook parted ways. Instead, he began to wonder if he would ever get back there again.

“I just talked to Ish about it,” Jackson, who played for the Thunder, Pistons, Clippers and Nuggets, told ESPN. “I thought [OKC would have] four titles in six years. We were stacked … I never thought I’d be in my second NBA Finals in 12 years.”

Although he didn’t play much, this championship run seemed almost like a fairy tale for Jackson. He played high school basketball in Colorado Springs, helped the Nuggets win Denver’s first ever championship, and won at the expense of the franchise that denied him and the Thunder over a decade ago.

Jackson appeared in just six playoff games for the Nuggets, but he enjoyed the ride — and is glad he didn’t retire when he was tempted to.

“I finally got something I’ve been chasing,” Jackson said. “It took a while.”

ESPN’s Nick Friedell contributed to this story.

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