For nearly 20 years, the Denver Nuggets have been owned by one of the wealthiest families on the planet.
E. Stanley Kroenke, better known for owning Arsenal of the English Premier League and the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, ranks No. 167 in the world with a net worth of $8.7 billion, according to Forbes. His wife, Ann Walton Kroenke, is No. 224, at $6.5 billion. Combined, they would rank No. 75, in a tie with Lukas Walton, who, like Ann Walton Kroenke, is an heir to the vast fortune of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
So it’s understandable if 21st-century Nuggets fans have little or no idea what it’s like to root for a pro basketball franchise hanging by a financial thread, owned collectively by a long list of moderately prosperous basketball fans organized by one of the great promoters of the sport’s early days as national entertainment.
Carl Scheer died Friday in Charlotte, N.C., one day short of his 83rd birthday. He had been battling dementia for several years.
I knew Scheer from my days covering the Nuggets and NBA for the Rocky Mountain News. We would jog together occasionally on the Cherry Creek Bike Path during his second, abbreviated stint as Nuggets general manager. He was the first person I knew to get an artificial hip. He was jogging again soon afterward.
His memory then was encyclopedic. We would debate endlessly the merits of various players. He would recount the circumstances around his many transactions as Nuggets GM in the 1970s, first in the old American Basketball Association, then in the NBA. Among them:
- Outbidding the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks for David Thompson, the top pick in both drafts in 1975.
- Later that same year, taking advantage of the Baltimore Claws’ inability to pay the Kentucky Colonels the $500,000 they owed in a deal for Dan Issel by trading Dave Robisch and $500,000 to the Claws to bring Issel to Denver.
- Trading Bobby Jones for George McGinnis in August 1978.
- Trading McGinnis for Alex English 18 months later. Mercurial head coach Larry Brown, Scheer explained, had demanded he trade McGinnis within days of his arrival.
By the time I got to know him, Scheer had been relegated to the business side, dubbed a marketing genius for his invention of the slam-dunk contest, unveiled at halftime of the final ABA All-Star Game, in Denver, in 1976. Thompson and Julius Erving put on a show that became legendary. The staid NBA would finally adopt the slam-dunk contest eight years later. Scheer and then-NBA commissioner David Stern were by then fast friends.
Scheer was a brilliant promoter, but it rankled him that nobody wanted to hear his player evaluations anymore, especially as the Nuggets devolved following the firing of his old friend Doug Moe as head coach. So he shared them with me and a few of the other media types who knew his back story. Soon after, he left Denver for the second time to return to Charlotte, where he had helped launch the expansion Hornets in 1988.
In 2005, Scheer returned to Denver for the NBA’s All Star Weekend, hosted by the newly prosperous Nuggets at their sparkling, five-year-old arena, the Pepsi Center. Carl’s old friend David Savitz, a longtime Denver attorney, invited me to lunch with the two of them. I was writing columns for the Rocky by then and I wrote one based on that lunch conversation that was published in the Rocky the Friday before the 2005 NBA All-Star Game:
Scheer persistence saved the Nuggets
Rocky Mountain News, Feb. 18, 2005
Maybe the last straw was Dean Smith calling him “the Bill Veeck of basketball.”
Obviously, the courtly Smith meant it kindly, based on the marketing genius of the slam-dunk contest.
But that single marketing invention, inspired though it might have been, is not really what Carl Scheer and his career have been all about.
“I think it was a compliment in many ways because Veeck did a lot of great things,” Scheer said over lunch Thursday. “I don’t know if I want to be remembered that way, but I took it in a positive way.”
It is somehow fitting that All-Star Weekend, which is all gimmickry and show, should overshadow the substance of Scheer’s career. But it’s not a bad idea, every now and then, to notice the substance, if only to remind us there still is such a thing.
There would be no All-Star Weekend in Denver if not for Carl Scheer. He saved pro basketball here. It’s that simple.
In the 1970s, this required duct tape and string. There was no billionaire owner, no Pepsi Center, no scouting staff, no money.
Look up the list of Nuggets owners. Between all the individual names, you’ll find something called “Nuggets Management, Inc.” This was Scheer’s most remarkable invention.
“When I came to Denver in 1974, the plan was to try to sell the team to local people,” he said. “After the first year, we were able to do that. The price of a unit was $17,500, and you had to buy two units. So 35 guys put in $35,000 apiece to buy in. That’s how we bought the team. We had a little operating capital, but not much.”
So little they couldn’t afford scouts. Fortunately, coach Larry Brown and his assistant, Doug Moe, were used to that. They honed their approach with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars.
“When Larry took over coaching in Carolina, he appointed Doug as assistant coach/head scout,” Scheer recalled. “This was 1970. I call it B.C. — before computers. I remember this so vividly. Larry said to Doug, ‘We’re starting the season. I want you to go scout Virginia.’ The Squires, they had Julius Erving. He said, ‘I want you to come back with a scouting report.’ Doug said OK.
“He goes to Virginia, he comes back, and he gives Larry this little yellow piece of paper. It wasn’t more than 2 inches long. Larry opens it up and it says, ‘Larry, if we can’t beat these guys, you stink. Doug.’ That was our scouting report.”
There were various times during Nuggets Management, Inc.’s seven-year run when it looked as if the franchise would not survive — first as the ABA tumbled toward extinction in 1976 and again in the early ’80s when two struggling franchises, Denver and Utah, considered merging.
In fact, Scheer believes the important thing about the 1976 ABA All-Star Game was not the first slam-dunk contest but the boost it gave Denver and the ABA in merger talks with the NBA.
“You know, in life you make plans and sometimes they go awry and sometimes they work,” Scheer said. “This was the one time in my life that everything just fit. It was a perfect night.
“It allowed us to flex our muscles and I think it had a great deal to do with the NBA deciding ultimately to take four teams in, one of which was Denver. I don’t think they would have thought of Denver as a major-league city for basketball without that.”
With the franchise again struggling to make payroll in the early ’80s and Nuggets Management, Inc. finally tapped out, Scheer went to the old Stapleton International Airport to meet Red McCombs, knowing that saving the franchise would probably cost him the job he loved, running an NBA franchise.
McCombs, Scheer knew, would ultimately want his own management team. In an act that seems stunning in its selflessness by today’s standards, Scheer stabilized the franchise by putting it in strong hands — and wrote his own pink slip in the process.
There is a special joy for Scheer now, coming back at 68, to see basketball so strong in the place where he kept it alive for so long.
“Playing a part in the changing complexion of sports in Denver was really important to me,” he said. “I’m not putting myself up as any big deal, but we were there when the face of Denver changed from a cowtown that believed in football and only football to a town that became cosmopolitan and ultimately became major league.
“I’ll tell you this: If the Nuggets win a championship someday, try keeping me out of that Pepsi Center. I’ll be there.”
The dunk contest was a fun idea, but it was only one part of a much larger, longer campaign to ensure pro basketball’s survival in Denver. That is Scheer’s legacy, and few people in Denver sports history can match it.
Scheer did not live long enough to see the Nuggets win a championship. With any luck, they’ll remember him when they do.
A memorial service is scheduled for Wednesday in Charlotte.