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But hardly a soul knows that David Thompson and his gaudy Denver teammates are leading the ABA

Step right up, folks. See David, the Flying Boy. See him roar and soar, slam and jam. You'll sigh and die as you watch him sky. Step on up. Thrill to the eerie silence of White Bobby No-Noise. Bobby does the impossible and then says nothing. He goes up where no Caucasian has ever trod before. Watch him get really quiet.

Here's Danny the Gap. The Man with the Missing Teeth. Don't get close, folks. If Danny spots a chance for two, he'll eat the rim with his gums alone.

And over here we got Monte, the Magic Dwarf. He throws the alley-oop and makes himself tiny. And Kind Ralphie, the nicest person in captivity. He kills whole cities with kindness. Here is Ancient Byron, one of the World's Oldest Living Forwards. How old is he? Maybe 200. Nobody knows where Ancient Byron came from or when he's going back.

But now, for you ladies, our feature attraction. Let's hear it for the coach's blow-dry curls and his Long Island-Dixie accent. It's Ragman Larry, the human clotheshorse. Thrill to his velvets. Gasp at his leathers. Touch his suedes. Don't be fooled by those deep circles under the eyes, girls. He's just a tad. Around the tent we call him Kid Cardin. Heh heh. Watch him scream. Hear his strategy: "No puka-shell necklaces in February, boys; no turtlenecks in April."

The Denver Nuggets are not unlike some traveling side show of freakish wonders who never play the big time. David Thompson jumps and Bobby Jones defends and Dan Issel shoots and Monte Towe cheers and Ralph Simpson passes and Byron Beck hooks and Coach Larry Brown flashes his elegant wardrobe and the Nuggets keep winning while pro basketball's most rabid fans wonder where it all leads.

As the American Basketball Association writhes on, preparing to meet its fate (to fold? to merge?), the league's most conspicuous success story has been lost in the shuffle. It is hardly necessary to go into the legal tangles and boring mumbo jumbo of the NBA-ABA situation in order to realize the true irony of the Denver franchise. In a league which has been "consolidated" from 10 teams to seven—theoretically making it deeper, stronger and more balanced—here are the Nuggets absolutely running away and hiding from the competition. Following last week's victories over St. Louis, Indiana and Virginia, Denver was 6½ games ahead of its closest challenger, the New York Doctors.

The Nuggets have five of the top nine percentage shooters in the league and are averaging six points a game better than anybody else. They beat the All-Star crew from the rest of the ABA in front of one of the five 17,000-plus sellout crowds they have had so far this season in McNichols Arena. They are drawing an average of nearly 13,000 at home and are taking in more money than all but two pro franchises, Los Angeles and New York of the NBA.

But who knows of this phenomenon? Denver games are not on national television. Denver box scores do not appear on most sports pages. In certain large media outlets one still encounters references to the "Denver Rockets," a moniker two years dead.

The prospect of wallowing in national obscurity while forging a 54-20 record with four of the best players in the game would be enough to shatter most pro teams. Yet the Nugget players show no signs of resentment toward the NBA; nor do they despair over the future of their own ragamuffin league. Veterans such as Simpson and Issel have become resigned to an Avisian posture and inured to rumors of an ABA collapse. As for Jones and Thompson and the other youngsters, they are having too much fun to care.

Denver President and General Manager Carl Scheer, who is an anomaly in the ABA—being both intelligent and shrewd—is leading the charge for a "super series" between the ABA and NBA champions this spring. Though Dick Vertlieb of Golden State and Red Auerbach of Boston, the teams most likely to be the NBA representative, are his personal friends and would probably go for it, Scheer knows it is folly to think they could get sanction from the NBA unless the series were tied up with the NBA's renegotiated TV package.

Meanwhile Denver presses on toward its own playoffs. Brown and his assistant, Doug Moe, both out of New York and the University of North Carolina, are ABA originals. Likewise, men experienced in the delicate art of surviving mercy killings.

While not wishing to seem preoccupied with the NBA-ABA "thing," Brown finds little else to occupy his fertile mind as his team goes around blowing everybody off the court. With all due respect to the beatification accorded Golden State after that team won the NBA title employing free substitution and a togetherness motif, it has been forgotten that Brown used this very style three years ago with the old Carolina Cougars and has embellished it at Denver.

In unguarded moments the coach will vent his frustration, voicing an old ABA lament. "TV," Brown says caustically. "That's all we've ever needed. They talk about bad ABA defense. On Auerbach's halftime TV clinics he should show the standard NBA defense: one guy holding another guy's shirt. Why, we play the Nets some games so amazing not even Mendy and Sonny could describe them."

Julius Erving of the New York team holds similar feelings about the Nuggets. "Early on, I thought they weren't deep and Thompson would have stamina problems, and we would take them," says the Doctor. "But no. David came in here like a young gunslinger after me. At 26 I feel like an elder statesman. I don't go screaming in the night over this, but he does get me more involved, more up. He's helped make Denver the best."

It is quite a team Erving speaks of. In addition to the rookie, Thompson, the Nuggets are, in capsule:

Bobby Jones, 6'9" second-year man out of North Carolina. Best defensive forward in basketball. Shot 60.5% last year (only man other than Wilt Chamberlain ever over 60). Leading league again this season at 59% despite worst form and shortest range in history of mankind. Just never takes bad shot. Great leaper. Denver MVP, easy. Thrifty, devoted, straight arrow. Brown says that during pregame talks, while other players scratch, read, go to bathroom, Jones "stares at me and actually listens. He's scary." Bob Goldsholl, Nets TV announcer, says Jones is so clean that when he went to the movie Story of O, he walked out when he discovered it was not the life of Oscar Robertson.

Dan Issel, 6'9" center from Kentucky. Can shoot from anywhere and usually does. Deceptively unquick, except when catching own poodle, which sometimes wears red nail polish. Obtained from late, great Baltimore Claws. "Like reprieve from electric chair," said Issel. Had trouble adjusting to Nugget running game and free-lance offense after years of walking ball up at Kentucky. Then got in shape. Says game "fun again." Misses beloved quarter horses back home so frequents dog track with Coach Moe. Only place he's ever been a loser.

Ralph Simpson, 6'5" guard. Hardship out of Michigan State when about five years old. Long considered just a shooter, but now second in the league in assists, reaching perfection as complete player. Used to throw chicken bones from Colonel Sanders on motel room carpet. Says was "regressing as player before Larry came here to coach. He's such a great teacher, I seem to improve every game. It's like he's out there on court with me." Also changed eating habits. Now calls himself "fruititarian."

Chuck Williams, 6'3" guard. Local boy—Colorado U.—made good. Does dirty work. Sets team up, passes, guards toughest backcourt men. Says Nuggets' intense, 48-minute effort every night is result of "family atmosphere. They work hearts out for Larry and each other because of the kind of people they are." Exactly what others say of him.

The Bench. Byron Beck, 6'9" wizened cornerman, 31. Looks 51. Feels 71. First player signed by Nuggets, then called Rockets. Alltime stationary marksman, fourth-best field-goal percentage in league. Breaks fingers a lot.

Claude Terry, 6'5" third guard. Brains and guile. Out of Stanford, so figures. Another terrific shooter. Made 50 straight free throws recently. Looks like blond Sonny Bono.

Gus Gerard, 6'8" forward. Twin of Jones in face and leap. Not far behind him as player. Just beginning to lose bad habits from St. Louis, where Spirits gave up on him at 22. Brown says he told him to be patient. "On this team Gus doesn't have to fight guys to get the ball." When Jones was injured, Gerard stepped into lineup with 16 points, 21 rebounds. Believed to have a few good years left. Same can't be said for St. Louis.

Marvin Webster and Monte Towe: Frankenstein's monster and Little Beaver. After hepatitis, rookie 7-footer Webster coming back strong as shot rejecter. Cocky enough on defense to call out to St. Louis' Marvin Barnes, "Bring it on in here, Marvin," then stuff him. Known as the Human Eraser. Brown sends him into games, saying, "Go get me some chalk." Towe, 5'5", is former Munchkin joke. Smart, witty, keeps everyone loose. Brown says has paid back salary "tenfold" with attitude and spirit. Spectacular girl friend named Kervin. Towe can beat Little Miss Muffet one-on-one but few others. Doesn't matter. Wears red bandanna as a headband, resembling comic-strip Indian boy. Is he really, truly a pro? You betchum, Red Ryder.

What the Nuggets are doing is simply dominating the ABA by swift ball movement on offense, by switching, pressing change-ups on defense and by wearing the other people out with liberal use of the bench. Issel says he can't believe how many layups and open 10-footers Denver gets every game. "All we want to do is come down, change sides with the ball to get the defense to commit, then let ourselves loose," says Brown. And it works.

In truth the method is the same one that worked last season when Denver won 65 regular-season games. Only the Nuggets lacked real speed then, and the forwards couldn't shoot. Denver was upset in the western playoffs by a one-man gang from Indiana named McGinnis.

Since that was the second time in three years Brown's teams ran roughshod during the regular season only to fail to make the final playoff round, carping was prevalent concerning the coach's tendency to peak his club too soon; he has, in fact, given his men more rest days this time around. "I don't think we were too tired," he says of last year. "I think we were too conscientious. All year we preached that we're sacrificing, we've got the character, we're doing it right. Then we get tight. That's my fault."

It didn't help much that when the Nuggets needed a basket last season, they had to get it outside. Now Issel gives them punch down low. So does Gerard. And, of course, there is Thompson.

Though it is a well-kept secret, David the Flying Boy is experiencing one of the best freshman seasons in history. Artis Gilmore, Spencer Haywood, Chamberlain and Wes Unseld had MVP-Rookie of the Year campaigns in their respective leagues, and the debuts of Abdul-Jabbar and Cowens were monumental pieces of work. But David Thompson is 6'3½" tall. No man near that size ever had a first year quite like his.

It is not only Thompson's 26 points and 6.4 rebounds a game, his steals, blocked shots and 52% shooting average that are so impressive. Rather, just as in college, Thompson's very presence on the floor tends to lift his more seasoned mates at crucial points. "I'm starting to feel the way I did at N.C. State," Thompson says. "Like I can do it whenever I want to."

Although most of the Denver players have recovered from their initial surprise at Thompson's height (he was listed at nearly 6'5" as an undergraduate), they remain intrigued with his jumping ability and outside shotmaking.

"The biggest kick I get out of David," says Jones, "is watching opposing player reactions. There's so much pride in this game. When DT makes an embarrassing dunk over a man, the man will act like nothing happened. But I watch him run upcourt. The man's eyes bug out. Sometimes he looks in shock."

One night last month the Nuggets were in the midst of rallying to an overtime homecourt victory over New York when Simpson overthrew a sky pass to Thompson and the ball seemed headed for the nearest Rocky. Having faked Erving up and dashed down along the baseline, Thompson started his climb anyway. When he got up there beyond the gravitational field, he somehow reached back, cradled the ball with one hand and jammed it through the basket. For just a moment the crowd was stunned, then it erupted in full cry.

"I thought I had it over the backboard," said Simpson.

"He did," said Thompson.

Much has been made of the Carolina Connection Scheer and Brown have established at Denver. At different times the team has had no fewer than six Atlantic Coast Conference players on the roster. Gerard, the Virginian, says when the Denver crowd starts up, "It sounds just like the ACC tournament."

The coach has become a crowd puller in his own right. At 35 Brown looks younger than many of his players; in addition to possessing one of the more creative minds in the game, his rapport with "our kids," as he calls the Nuggets, is something to behold.

Brown laughingly mocks himself when he says of Denver, "I own this town." But he does. Lock, stock and barrels of Coors. His life-style revolves around a split-level town house, a silver Mercedes with an I'D RATHER BE IN CHAPEL HILL sticker on the back and closetsful of haberdashery. He squires beautiful princesses about town and takes his steaks at the Colorado Mine Company.

"When I first met Brownie, the only thing he said was, 'That's a great jacket, where can I get one?' " remembers Larry Rubin, a clothing salesman. "Now he'll call me up and say he needs more French jeans. He's only got about 25 pair."

"More than that," says Brown.

The coach is known to spend as much time exchanging goods and poring over wardrobe ideas with Rubin as he does moving a malcontent through waivers with Scheer. Says Nancy Sigelman, one of the exquisite women with whom Brown and Rubin are seen, "Larry and Larry are really Lucy and Ethel."

Be that as it may, Brown would dearly love to have as long a running show in Denver as the Mss. Ricardo and Mertz. Upon accepting the Nugget job two years ago, Brown's first move was to get rid of a center named Julius Keye. At a luncheon the first question put to him was, "Will you miss Julius Keye?" Brown answered, "Will you?"

If and when the Ragman and his wondrous sideshow ever take leave of the Mile-High City, nobody will have to ask if Denver will miss Larry Brown.


David leaves his personal launch pad, Bobby aims a soft, sure shot and all's right with Larry, who coaches in casual chromatic splendor.