The Nuggets returned to the championship round for the first time in 47 years on Thursday, winning Game 1 of the NBA Finals, 104-93, over the Heat.
It was a big improvement over their last such appearance.
That one was contested on Long Island, where Denver lost to a Long Island-raised superstar and had to wait nearly a half-century for its next chance at the big prize.
The date was May 13, 1976, and everyone at Nassau Coliseum knew they might get a chance to witness more than one kind of history.
There was the fact it was Game 6 of the ABA Finals, and Roosevelt’s Julius Erving and the Nets needed one victory to secure their second title in three years.
There also was the likelihood it would be the last of the ABA’s nine seasons, with only seven teams remaining and financial turmoil looming.
The Nets had taken a 3-1 series lead and led by 16 points in Game 5 at McNichols Arena in Denver before losing, 118-110.
Come Game 6, things started to get seriously worrisome. Denver led by 22 points, 80-58, with 4:58 left in the third quarter before a nervous crowd of 15,434.
The Nuggets, with a dominant big man in Dan Issel and a dynamic rookie in David Thompson, finished first in the regular season with 60 victories to the Nets’ 55.
The Nets had no interest in a trip back to Denver for Game 7 – especially after a bruising seven-game semifinal series against the Spurs.
Nets coach Kevin Loughery called for full-court defensive pressure, and the Nuggets soon dissolved in a flurry of turnovers.
The Nets outscored Denver, 34-14, in the fourth quarter, led by 18 points from “Super John” Williamson, and won it, 112-106.
“Nobody wanted to go back to Denver, and now we don’t have to,” Erving said after averaging 37.7 points, 14.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists for the series.
Williamson averaged 22.5 points. In Game 6, he scored 24 of his 28 in the second half.
Thompson averaged 28.3 points and scored 42 in Game 6, but he went cold down the stretch of the finale. Issel had 30 points and 20 rebounds in Game 6.
Another Long Islander, Long Beach’s Larry Brown, was coaching the Nuggets and was devastated.
Afterward he lamented not only the loss, but also the impending loss of the ABA itself, saying of the big crowds in the Finals, “All of a sudden, everyone’s here. I just wish they were here earlier.”
The Nets, Nuggets, Pacers and Spurs were merged into the NBA before the 1976-77 season, but by then the Nets had sold Erving to the 76ers for $3 million.
The Spurs have gone on to win five NBA championships, but the other old ABA teams have won none. Only the Nuggets have not won it all in the ABA or NBA.
Jane Gross, who died in November and was a pioneer among women sportswriters, was the Nets beat writer for Newsday. Before Game 5, she spoke to Erving about his transcendent play that season.
“It comes down to one question: What are the determining factors for your ego?” he said. “For some guys, it’s the press. For some guys, it’s having their old lady say they’re cool.
“I’ve received the acceptance of my peers, and their acknowledgement. That’s the No. 1 thing for me.”
Erving was a very good player for the 76ers, but he was at his peak with those mid-1970s Nets, for those fortunate to see him play in person or on TV.
It was not always easy.
Game 5 of the 1976 ABA Finals were shown on tape delay on Ch. 9 in New York. Game 6 was on HBO, with Steve Albert and Bob Goldsholl on the call.
Fans at the Coliseum stormed the court after Rich Jones made the final basket in ABA history – off an assist from Malverne’s Al Skinner – even though there still were three seconds on the clock.
Commissioner Dave DeBusschere presented owner Roy Boe with the trophy – but it was the same one the Nets had been given in 1974.
The 1976 one, worth $800, was stolen out of DeBusschere’s car in Denver, where he had taken it in case the Nets won Game 5.
Said ABA publicist Jim Bukata, “The only thing that changes [on the trophy] is the name of the commissioner, and that changes every year.”
The ABA had five different commissioners in its final five seasons.
In the winning locker room, chaos and champagne reigned. Islanders captain Ed Westfall was among those toasting the Nets.
Many of the old Nuggets are following the current Finals closely. Their run to the ’76 Finals was memorable but disappointing. They are looking for more out of their 2022-23 descendants.
“This Nuggets team, we’re pulling for them,” Thompson told The Associated Press. “I want them to finish the job that we didn’t quite get done.”