Rob Schuessler curiously reviewed the jerseys that were on sale outside Denver's Ball Stadium. The 47-year-old engineer, an employee of a health startup, attended an NBA finals for the first time on Thursday, that of the Nuggets against the Miami Heat. He wore one of the most original garments while browsing the merchandise of the stall. Purchased online, his T-shirt had a photograph of a somewhat overweight teenager with a naked torso looking directly into the camera. On the image says Denver Nuggets, two-time most valuable player. Colorado has entrusted itself to that taciturn-looking young man, named Nikola Jokic, to win its first title in almost half a century.
The image that Schuessler proudly wears on his chest resurfaces from time to time on social networks. It usually becomes an argument that everything is possible, one of the stories that most like in sports in the United States. The teenager from Sombor, Serbia, became the second player, after Jason Kidd, to debut in a final with a triple double. Jokic, who had 27 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists, has demonstrated his dominance in his eight years in the league. NBA analysts compare him to Tim Duncan, the historic San Antonio Spurs power forward who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
Jokic, the first major international sensation in the city since the time of Dikembe Mutombo, began his NBA story in the middle of a deep sleep. In 2014, ESPN announced that he had been selected by the Nuggets with the 41st pick in the draft as a footnote to the screen, while a Taco Bell ad 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 elected to the NBA!" said Nemanja.
Today Jokic's No. 15 is ubiquitous in the vicinity of Denver's Ball Stadium. The surname accompanies the shirts of most fans. Also present on the 27th is Canadian Jamal Murray, another key piece of the team owned by real estate tycoon Stan Kroenke (who also owns the Los Angeles Rams, the Colorado Avalanche of hockey, the Colorado Rapids of the MLS and the Arsenal of the Premier League).
The number 15 also fuels a controversy. It was the number used by Carmelo Anthony, the third pick in the 2003 draft. Anthony, who a few days ago announced his retirement from professional basketball, came to a team that had had a disastrous record of 17 games won and 65 lost. Melo was instrumental in turning the team around. The following season they managed 43 wins and 39 losses and got into the playoffs, although they were eliminated in the first round.
View of the Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. JAMIE SCHWABEROW (Getty Images via AFP)
Some fans don't have fond memories of Anthony, who spent eight years with Denver and led the team to the West final against the Lakers in 2009 (they lost 4-2). "Why should the Nuggets retire Carmelo's No. 15? He left because he desperately wanted to play for the Knicks. I don't see anyone asking New York to retire their number," said Ed, a fan of the team. Many like him believe the number should be retired after Jokic leaves the courts.
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 has its origins in 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, a frenetic pace and rules that were very attractive to fans, such as triples. Denver saw the birth of the 1976 ABA All-Star Contest.
In 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 East won the series 4-2. The NBA absorbed four teams from the rival league. Along with Denver came Dr. J's Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers. The 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 ABA player, was in charge of taking an honorary free throw in the first home game against the Miami Heat. With 16,589 points, Issel is Denver's second-leading scorer. He is only surpassed by Alex English (21,645). The third is Anthony and the fourth is Nikola Jokic.
David Thompson, another of the survivors of the final of the Nuggets of 75, 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.
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