April 25, 2023




Forty years ago, the Nuggets were involved in another playoff series. And one of the most notable events in Denver sports history shoved it into the background.


On May 2, 1983, I was finishing up my first season as the beat writer assigned to full-time coverage of the Nuggets. I had covered the NHL Colorado Rockies for five seasons before they were sold and moved to New Jersey, and I was switched to the Nuggets.


After beating Phoenix in the first round, Denver had lost the first three games of the Western Conference semifinals to the San Antonio Spurs, and that night they faced elimination in Game 4 at McNichols Sports Arena.


The morning of the game, there was a major football story in the Denver papers, but it had nothing to do with the Broncos.


On Sunday, May 1, at Mile High Stadium, the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals got a late 80-yard touchdown run from Herschel Walker and came back to beat the Red Miller–coached Denver Gold 34–29. 


I enjoyed the USFL. I felt as if I had been in on it from the start -- because I had. I was in the New York area for the Stanley Cup Finals and I covered the May 11, 1982, news conference at Club 21 in Manhattan, at which plans for the USFL were unveiled. With former Broncos coach John Ralston doing much of the planning, the USFL was a sound idea that would have worked—if only the league had stuck to its original cost-controlled, spring season model. Thanks, Donald Trump. 


There was nothing in print or on the airwaves about the Broncos being on the verge of making the blockbuster trade that would so affect the franchise’s future. By that night, though, the big story was making the rounds, and amazingly it broke because a Houston radio announcer phoned a Denver sports talk show and said the Broncos were about to acquire the rights to Stanford quarterback John Elway, the first overall pick in the NFL draft on the previous Tuesday, from the Baltimore Colts.


It’s surprising that the lid stayed on that long. (There's no way it could happen in 2023. Also in 1983, my father worked for the Broncos, but he didn't let anything slip to the reporter in the family.) The talks actually began informally before the draft and then more seriously the day of the draft. Still, Broncos coach Dan Reeves showed up at the Nuggets’ game and sat across from the benches and press row. He left the building during the game. Believe me, we noticed.  


The Nuggets got 37 points from Kiki Vandeweghe and stayed alive in the series, winning 124–114. But my story ended up jammed into the bottom right-hand corner of page 1 of the sports section.


The Broncos held a 10:30 p.m. news conference at the team’s Adams County headquarters to announce the trade and Elway’s signing to a series of five one-year contracts. I was one of the few Denver reporters attending the Nuggets game who stayed behind at McNichols, only a few miles away from the Broncos’ offices at the time. The game ended a few minutes before the news conference began.


Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser, who lived in Vancouver, opened with these remarks: “What I’m not going to say is that we have a deal in the works. We have made a deal with Baltimore and we have signed John Elway.” With the deal closed that afternoon, Elway took a flight from San Jose to Seattle, where he boarded Kaiser’s private plane and came to Denver, and he signed the contracts shortly before the news conference. “I’m definitely thrilled to be here,” Elway told all those other reporters. “It was something I wasn’t expecting to happen. I’m just glad to be playing in the NFL and glad to be playing for the Broncos."


The Nuggets lost the series in five games.


John Elway had a pretty good career.


(Adapted from Playing Piano in a Brothel.) 


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