Suffering Sports Cities: Denver

Editor’s Note: Two weeks ago, Isaac Huss, a Twin Cities resident, lamented the sports suffering in his hometown. Denver might not have scaled the depths that Minneapolis has touched recently, but it’s been a while since the good people of the Rockies have had something to celebrate. Perhaps that will change with Peyton Manning in town…or maybe this will be another case of dashed hopes. Isaac continues TheSportsNotebook’s look at the landscape of suffering sports towns…

The Los Angeles Lakers eliminated the Denver Nuggets from NBA playoff tension  late Saturday night, ending a disappointing season for what many predicted at the beginning of the year to be a dark horse candidate in the Western Conference playoffs.

The upstart Nuggets gave the veteran Lakers all they could handle; yet it had to be a frustrating end to a season that began with so much promise.  They re-signed starters Nene and Aaron Afflalo from a playoff team last year, and with their considerable depth combined with developing young players, they seemed poised to make noise in this lockout-shortened season.

Instead, they were sidetracked by injuries to Nene, Danilo Galinari, and others, as well as overall inconsistency.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Nuggets traded Nene to Washington for JaVale McGee at the trade deadline.

Suddenly, a team that just three years ago reached the Western Conference Finals has now subtracted a superstar, Carmelo Anthony, and a top-5 center without much to show for it other than considerable depth… Which hasn’t proven much help, even in a lockout-shortened season.

Denver is perhaps slowly coming to grips with an NBA which is tipping ever more steeply towards the big-market teams.  They traded Carmelo when it became clear he didn’t want to stay and they probably overpaid Nene to keep him from jumping ship.

So the Nuggets brass is arguably doing the wise thing by stockpiling good-but-not-great players who are more likely to stay.  But is that a formula for winning?  Or for mediocrity?

Hopefully not the latter, because Nuggets fans deserve better.  Not only have the Nuggets never won a championship, they’ve never been to the NBA Finals in 35 years, a streak that only one other NBA franchise can top (hint: the other rhymes with zippers).

Then, after perhaps their best team since the NBA/ABA merger reaches the Western Conference finals, Anthony, their lone all-star, instead of promising a championship can’t even promise he wants to stick around.

What followed was one of the most awkward and agonizing soap operas in sports history last year, as the whole sports world was talking about a potential Carmelo trade, and fans were left to decide whether to root for their team, or the rest of the team.

It was bit like if your girlfriend told you that she’s looking for someone else to date, someone with more money and a higher profile, but she’s willing to keep dating you until she finds a suitable partner, and she’d actually like your help in her search.  No thank you.

Saturday’s loss to the Lakers was yet another sign that the Nuggets are still recovering from their ugly breakup with Melo, and a sign that Nuggets faithful will have to wait at least another year to taste championship glory, and likely many more.

But they’re not the only championship-less local sports team.  The Colorado Rockies, have yet to win a World Series since joining the National League as an expansion franchise in 2003.

They did reach the Series in 2007, thanks to an 11-game win streak in September, and a Game 163 win over the also World Series-less San Diego Padres in 13 innings.  But they, too, have been subject to smaller-market challenges, specifically by losing star players to trade in recent years, for fear they would be lured away to a larger market.

Matt Holiday, for instance, led the NL in batting average (.340) and RBI (137) in 2007 and the following year was named to his third consecutive all-star team.  But the Rockies traded him the next offseason to the Oakland A’s for three players, most notably Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street.

Street was a reliable closer for three years, and Gonzalez has put up Holliday-type numbers when healthy, but Street is gone, and they haven’t been to the playoffs since Holliday left.

Another young Rockies player, Ubaldo Jiminez, set the baseball world on fire by beginning the 2010 season 15-1 and starting in the All-Star game.  He routinely hit 100 on the radar gun and threw a no-hitter on April 17 of that year.  However, Jiminez was shipped to Cleveland last season, perhaps another instance of selling high knowing the team might not be able to retain him down the road.

The Rockies did sign Gonzalez and All-Star SS Troy Tulowitzki to long-term deals, but one has to wonder if that will handcuff them from being able to acquire established talent, or even retain their own, as in Jiminez’s case.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Avalanche don’t lack for championships, as they hoisted two Stanley Cups in their first three years after re-locating from Quebec to Denver in 1995.  But they’ve come upon a bit of a dry spell themselves, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year and fourth time in six seasons.  This after making the playoffs in their first ten seasons in Denver.

Finally, the Denver Broncos have been hogging most of the attention when it comes to Denver media coverage.  First, it was Tim Tebow’s descent from heaven last year to lead the team to miraculous fourth-quarter comeback after miraculous fourth-quarter comeback, all the way to a first-round playoff victory.

Then, John Elway wooed Peyton Manning to sign, and then promptly shipped Tebow off to New York (or should I say East Rutherford) to make room.  Whence came Elway’s sense of urgency?  Five consecutive seasons missing the playoffs prior to 2011, something that hadn’t happened for this storied franchise since the 1970’s.  And for all of Tebow’s heroics, Elway wasn’t convinced that Tim was the long-term answer at quarterback.

So no wonder Manning’s arrival came with such fanfare.  He represents hope for Denver sports fans that they won’t have to go another thirteen years without a championship from one of their favorite teams.

And while it was fun to see Manning take some hacks with old an old teammate from his college baseball days, the Rockies’ Todd Helton, Denver fans aren’t asking him to save all of their teams, just one of ‘em.