DENVER — It was 1976, 39 years earlier than the arrival of Nikola Jokic, when the Denver Nuggets had their final finest likelihood to win a championship.

Hair was massive, shorts had been small. The ball was pink, white and blue. The Nuggets had the American Basketball Affiliation’s finest document, once more, and a roster with three future Corridor of Famers.

However the New York Nets had Julius Erving, who led them to an upset in the finals. As the followers at the Nassau Coliseum rushed the courtroom, the announcer shouted, “It’s pandemonium!” As a result of it was the Nineteen Seventies, and naturally he did.

To not fear, Nuggets followers. There could be extra probabilities. Oh, so many probabilities.

The Nuggets are as much as their thirty eighth postseason likelihood now. No present workforce in main American professional sports activities has been to the playoffs so many occasions with out successful a championship, in keeping with Elias Sports activities Bureau.

That may make the Nuggets the finest franchise to by no means win all of it.

There are sadder groups in American sports activities, some with longer championship droughts and in decaying cities that might use extra luck than Denver. For many of their titleless years, the Nuggets had been good, and so they had been enjoyable. They simply can’t get the ending proper.

The subsequent finest likelihood for the Nuggets comes now, eight years after the Denver arrival of Jokic, the two-time reigning most dear participant. Behind the 6-foot-11-inch human Swiss Military knife, the Nuggets earned the No. 1 seed in the N.B.A.’s Western Convention for the first time.

Perhaps that is the yr. A metropolis awaits.

For now, the ghosts of “almost” are all over the place.

They’re in Lot C subsequent to the soccer stadium. They’re at the downtown performing arts heart at thirteenth and Champa.

And they’re in the present enviornment, close to the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, the place Nineteenth-century miners set off the Colorado gold rush that will form a metropolis and a state and, in the future, give a basketball workforce its title: Nuggets.

Begin in 1974, or 41 B.J. (Earlier than Jokic). That’s when Carl Scheer arrived in Denver as normal supervisor, with a good friend and coach named Larry Brown. They got here to invigorate a seven-year-old A.B.A. franchise referred to as the Rockets.

“Larry and I both felt that Denver was like a sleeping giant,” Scheer informed a Denver journal in 1979. “It was just beginning to shed its Old West, cowtown image.”

The Rockets performed downtown, at Auditorium Area. It was a part of a large blond-brick advanced accomplished in 1908, in time for that year’s Democratic convention. (William Jennings Bryan, in the event you should know, was on his approach to dropping the presidential election a 3rd time.)

The enviornment could be most well-known as the web site of Led Zeppelin’s first American concert in 1968. (A newspaper reviewer was not impressed by Robert Plant’s singing or John Bonham’s drumming.) Much less famously, two nights later, the Rockets beat the Los Angeles Stars.

The Rockets had some good gamers, like Spencer Haywood his rookie yr, however went by means of 5 coaches in 5 seasons. By 1974, they wanted a reboot. And the title needed to go, if Denver hoped to ever play in the N.B.A. There already had been Rockets, in Houston.

The place to discover a title? In the Thirties, Denver had a high newbie workforce referred to as the Nuggets. That workforce finally grew to become a part of the Nationwide Basketball League, which mixed with the Basketball Affiliation of America in 1949 to kind the N.B.A. The Denver Nuggets were one of the 17 original N.B.A. teams — the worst one. They didn’t return for a second season.

However in August 1974, Scheer unveiled a brand new/outdated title and a brand: a bearded cartoon miner holding a pickax in one hand and a basketball in the different. He wore tube socks and a prospector’s hat with a flipped-up brim sporting a “D.”

The groovy new Nuggets struck gold. That first workforce went 65-19. It misplaced the division finals.

However issues moved quick, and the Nuggets moved up. In 1975 got here a brand new house, McNichols Area, named for a mayor. The first present was a Lawrence Welk live performance; the finest present was the Nuggets. They a-one and a-two’d their approach to a 28-game house successful streak on their approach to the league’s finest document.

They’d Dan Issel, a charging, gaptoothed ahead they referred to as the Horse. They’d the rookie David Thompson, a gravity-testing guard they quickly referred to as Skywalker, like the hero in “Star Wars.” They’d Bobby Jones, the slick defensive ahead with capturing contact. All three would go to basketball’s corridor of fame.

Denver hosted the 1976 A.B.A. All-Star Sport, and Scheer created a slam-dunk contest. (“To take the pressure off the backboards and rims, we’re going to alternate sides,” the public-address announcer mentioned, in excellent Barnum-ese.) Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, even Thompson couldn’t sustain with Dr. J.

That spring, Erving led the Nets to an upset of the Nuggets in the final A.B.A. ultimate.

It will be onerous to fathom that the Nuggets would by no means return to a league finals. That low season, the summer time of the nation’s bicentennial and Colorado’s centennial, the N.B.A. added 4 A.B.A. groups. Denver was the prize.

They had been 52-30 throughout their first N.B.A. season, together with 36-5 at house. They misplaced their first playoff collection. However they made the postseason 11 extra occasions in the subsequent 13 years.

Each time, they fell brief.

“There are 22 teams in this league,” Scheer mentioned in 1979, “and to be the champion you need good luck and good fortune. The most important thing is to stay competitive year after year, and then hope that you get luck and momentum going for you at the right time.”

The proper time by no means appeared to return.

Lot C is on the southwest nook of the second-generation soccer stadium that everybody nonetheless calls Mile Excessive.

There isn’t a signal that McNichols Area as soon as squatted right here. Huge Mac, individuals referred to as it, and it was form of formed like a burger.

There isn’t a foul line the place Dr. J took off for his most momentous dunk in 1976, no marker stating that this was the house of the unique Colorado Rockies (an N.H.L. franchise that left to turn out to be the New Jersey Devils), no trace of the sideline that Nuggets Coach Doug Moe patrolled for greater than a decade in his matted, profanity-laced glory.

There isn’t a plaque commemorating the 1990 Final Four (U.N.L.V.) or the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. Nothing to notice all the big-name rock live shows, the indoor-soccer franchise (the unique Avalanche), the arena-football workforce.

Simply pavement.

However there’s a view. Trying east from Lot C is the Denver skyline — the gold-domed state capitol, seventeenth Avenue’s “Wall Street of the Rockies” lined with towers constructed of oil cash, the skyscraper on Broadway meant to evoke a money register.

The skyline seems to be nothing like the Lego-like one on the Nuggets’ rainbow-colored uniforms from the Nineteen Eighties. Divisive at the time — The place is the miner?— they’re now the N.B.A.’s coolest throwbacks, evoking the go-go period of Moe’s high-scoring groups.

All 9 of Moe’s groups, by means of the Nineteen Eighties, made the playoffs. In 1982-83, they averaged 123.2 factors per sport regardless of making solely 24 3-pointers. The subsequent season, they performed the highest-scoring game in league history.

“No one believes that we had zero plays on offense, but Doug would just scream at you, ‘Don’t hold the ball!’” Invoice Hanzlik, who performed on these groups, mentioned. “It was pass, move, cut. That style of ball was fast, up and down, and we dominated at home. Fans really loved it.”

Nice gamers got here and went. Alex English arrived to turn out to be the workforce’s profession main scorer. Thompson was traded amid headlines of cocaine addiction. Kiki Vandeweghe was traded for Fats Lever, Calvin Natt and Wayne Cooper. By all of it was Issel, the Horse, the best-known Denver athlete earlier than Elway received rolling in the stadium subsequent door.

“The Nuggets were as popular as the Broncos,” mentioned Vic Lombardi, who grew up in Denver, was a Nuggets ball boy in the Nineteen Eighties and have become an area sportscaster and radio character. “They were just as successful, just as competitive and got just as much attention.”

The groups shared a behavior of being nice to look at however not adequate to win in the finish. The Broncos rattled the outdated stadium in the fall, aspirations crumbling in January. The Nuggets raced down the courtroom on chilly winter nights, their hopes melting in the spring.

In 1990, they completed 43-39. Issues appeared advantageous, in a Groundhog Day form of means.

However the Nuggets fired Moe — the begin of 12 teaching adjustments in 15 years. Should you imagine in sports activities jinxes, Moe’s firing could be one.

Or in the event you imagine in phantoms, think about the gutting of the outdated Auditorium Area about the identical time.

The inside was become the lavish Buell Theater. And on the identical snowy November Friday night time that the theater opened to rave evaluations with “The Phantom of the Opera,” the Nuggets had been at McNichols, opening the season with the first of 58 losses — 120 losses over a two-year stretch. They were more cursed than Carlotta.

The remainder of the Nineteen Nineties didn’t go nicely. The skyline jersey was ditched. There was an anthem flap, a quick Dikembe Mutombo-led resurrection, and eight teaching adjustments that started and ended with Issel.

However the Nineteen Nineties had been nice for different Denver sports activities. A high N.H.L. workforce got here gift-wrapped from Quebec, was christened the Avalanche and instantly received a Stanley Cup — the first main championship for the metropolis. The Broncos and Elway lastly received a Tremendous Bowl, then one other. The growth Rockies arrived and attracted massive crowds at a gem referred to as Coors Subject.

And in 2001, early in a seventh-straight dropping season for the Nuggets, Issel referred to as a postgame heckler a “Mexican piece of (expletive)” and shortly skulked away.

Denver was rolling, with out the unhappy little Nuggets.

Nikola Jokic was 4 when Pepsi Middle opened in 1999. (Named then for a canned beverage, it’s now Ball Area, named for a canning firm.) It went up on the west fringe of downtown, close to Speer Boulevard and Auraria Parkway, named for the unique mining-camp settlement alongside Cherry Creek.

Inside the enviornment, in the rafters, the Nuggets are represented on one finish, the Avalanche on the different.

The Avs, as they’re referred to as, have three Stanley Cup banners, together with one from their first season in Denver and one from final season. They hope to repeat this spring.

The Nuggets haven’t any championship banners, however 9 division championships and lots of retired numbers: Issel, Thompson, English, Lever and Mutombo amongst them. And there’s a banner for Moe, marking his 432 victories.

George Karl was employed as the coach in 2005. He led the Nuggets on a Moe-like run of 9 consecutive postseasons, the first six with Carmelo Anthony. They had been good, enjoyable to look at and nearly all the time misplaced in the first spherical.

Karl’s final workforce, 10 years in the past, had a mishmash of talent that somehow got to 57 wins, a franchise excessive in the N.B.A., and had been 38-3 at house. Solely in hindsight does a first-round upset by the Warriors, with youngsters named Curry, Thompson and Inexperienced making their first playoff appearances, make any sense. Karl was fired.

Karl fell in love with Denver as a visiting A.B.A. participant in the Nineteen Seventies — the oil-booming downtown, the vociferous followers, the fast-paced type of the early Nuggets, even their brand and colours. He nonetheless lives in Denver, and followers revere him, regardless of years of almosts and never quites.

“Fans do get anxious, they do get angry, they do get fanatical,” Karl mentioned. “But they have a lot of respect and love for the game of basketball here in Denver.”

A yr after Karl’s firing, in 2014, the Nuggets used a second-round draft alternative, the forty first total, on a 19-year-old from Serbia named Nikola Jokic. He was 6-foot-11 and performed in the Adriatic League.

Draft consultants shrugged. Nuggets followers barely observed. Jokic quietly joined Denver in 2015, the identical time as one other new coach, Michael Malone.

Jokic made the all-rookie workforce and eased into superstardom — his sport and humility draw comparisons to Tim Duncan — and by 2019, he had ARRIVED, in all caps. He was a do-everything All-Star main the Nuggets to the Western Convention’s No. 2 seed. (They misplaced in the second spherical.)

Momentum has been constructing since. In 2020 got here an surprising playoff run. (Denver misplaced to the Lakers, once more, in the convention finals.) In 2021, Jokic was named the league’s most dear participant, the first in Nuggets historical past. (The workforce misplaced in the convention semifinals.) In 2022, he was M.V.P. once more. (The Nuggets misplaced in the first spherical.)

This season, Jokic almost averaged a triple-double — double figures in factors (24.5), rebounds (11.8) and assists (9.8). The workforce that revolves round him has gelled, particularly guard Jamal Murray and forwards Michael Porter, Jr., and Aaron Gordon, all in their mid-20s.

And now, for the first time since becoming a member of the N.B.A. in 1976, the Nuggets may have the high seed in the Western Convention playoffs — home-court benefit for each spherical earlier than what could be their first-ever N.B.A. finals.

Not since that final yr in the A.B.A., that first yr in McNichols Area, proper after Lawrence Welk opened a squatty little paradise since paved right into a car parking zone, have they been so nicely positioned for a postseason.

Expectations are tempered. These are the Nuggets, in any case. No basketball workforce spoils the promise of spring fairly like them.

However Lombardi, the ball boy turned sportscaster, is adamant.

“If the Denver Nuggets win a championship,” Lombardi mentioned, “I contend it would produce the largest downtown parade this city has ever seen.”

May it’s in 2023? Jokic is 28. The Nuggets are the finest workforce by no means to win a title. There may be gold to be mined, if they will lastly uncover it.