Tag Archives: Doug Moe

Carl Scheer, 1936-2019

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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.

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The man who saved pro basketball in Denver

The man who saved pro basketball in Denver

Quite a thrill to see my old friend Carl Scheer tonight at the Pepsi Center. This is the guy who saved pro basketball in Denver by putting together a syndicate to keep the team afloat in the 1970s.

“The price of a unit was $17,500, and you had to buy two units,” he told me in 2005, when the NBA All-Star Game came back to Denver. “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. The plan was they would buy season tickets and get their friends to, and for the most part that’s what happened.”

When they ran out of money in the early 1980s, Jane Moe, Doug’s wife, suggested Carl call Red McCombs, who had just sold his interest in the San Antonio Spurs. McCombs bought the Nuggets for about $4 million. Without Scheer, Denver would have lost its pro basketball franchise.


Doug Moe: Nuggets ‘could go right down the tubes’

Keep in mind Doug Moe has seen this before. He was the Denver Nuggets’ coach in 1990, coming off nine straight playoff appearances, when the organization decided to go in a different direction.

Here’s a list of the directions they chose:

Paul Westhead (44-120)

Dan Issel (96-102)

Gene Littles (3-13)

Bernie Bickerstaff (59-68)

Dick Motta (17-52)

Bill Hanzlik (11-71)

Mike D’Antoni (14-36)

Dan Issel (84-106)

Mike Evans (18-38)

Jeff Bzdelik (73-119)

Michael Cooper (4-10)

Fourteen and a half seasons later, they finally resorted to George Karl, who went 423-257. After missing the playoffs for 11 of the 13 seasons after Moe was fired, the Nuggets embarked on a streak of 10 straight postseason appearances, the last nine under Karl.

Considering the polarities of their personalities, Moe and Karl have a lot in common. They’re former players from back in a day when pro basketball was not yet a license to print money. They carry Carolina blue basketball blood. They came to Denver a generation apart and coached some of the fastest, highest-scoring basketball the National Basketball Association ever saw. Following Karl’s dismissal last week, they’re likely to share the franchise record for consecutive playoff appearances for quite some time.

Karl did better in the regular season (.622 to .548), coming within nine wins of Moe’s total in 109 fewer games. Moe did better in the postseason, getting out of the first round four times to Karl’s once.

Neither coached in a championship series while in Denver, and neither has anybody else. The Nuggets have never been there. These two are the royalty of Nuggets coaches through nearly a half-century of existence. Each made the conference finals once; each lost there. (Karl, of course, made it to the NBA Finals in 1996 with the Seattle Sonics and lost in six games to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.)

More than a decade after his last NBA gig, Moe agreed to serve as a bench assistant to Karl shortly after his arrival. He was like a tour guide on a new planet, explaining the elevation thing and how it made Hakeem Olajuwon suck oxygen out of a bottle on the bench. Moe left the travel grind behind — again — as soon as he could without hurting anybody’s feelings.

Karl leaves a young roster where Moe left an old one. The rebuild that was inevitable after Moe’s firing isn’t inevitable now, although it remains to be seen whether the current roster is a fit for the new coach.

So Moe is a Karl guy, and might be expected to defend him. But he’s also an irreverent Brooklynite, condemned to say what he really thinks because he can’t keep from laughing at the other choices.

On the Logan show Monday, for example, when Logan asked Moe, a resident of San Antonio these days, whether Spurs fans think their team can win three in a row over the Miami Heat and capture the Finals without going back to Florida:

“Are you serious?” asked Moe. “You’ve got to be kidding. I mean, it’s like a lock. Miami has no shot. This is San Antonio, this isn’t some other place in the world. That’s a comical question.”

But what does Moe think will happen?

“Oh, I think Miami will probably end up winning, mainly because normally I think the team that wins the third game wins, in a series where one team’s a little better than the other. But San Antonio, having three games at home is, you know, if they win two of them that’s great and then they’ve got to go back and a team as good as Miami, they should be able to hold their home court on two final games. So I think the 2-3-2 really helps out Miami and I think they probably end up winning it.”

Moe has systems, ideas that turn long division into shorthand and make it easy to know what you think. Whether it helps you find the right answer in any particular instance is a different question.

“I always go on the theory . . . like what happened in the previous series,” Moe said. “As soon as Miami beat Indiana in the third game, it was over. As soon as San Antonio, and they were awful in the first two games against Golden State and should have lost both of them, but as soon as they won the third game, it was over. So I go on the third-game winner is the team that will win the series.”

This is Moe’s explanation for what happened to the Nuggets in their first-round series against the Warriors, too. Before we got to that, I asked him what he thought of the decision to fire Karl.

“Well, George is terrific. George did a great job, and I think it was a bad move. I think it will turn out to be a bad move. But in this business you can’t get upset at anything that happens. They want to go in another direction and it’s kind of a whole new face on the organization and stuff, so, those things happen. I feel totally confident George will end up in a pretty good place.”

And the roster?

“The roster’s good. It’s a nice team, a good team. But I think one of the big question marks they’re going to have is who they get in, can he handle the job. They could go right down the tubes. I mean, that’s a possibility.

“It’s not a great team, it’s a good team. They have a lot of depth and that was the strength of their team last year . . . There’s enough good teams in the league, or teams with average talent, you know, you slip, you can drop out of the playoffs.”

Moe does not believe the Nuggets are suited only to the full-court cirque du soleil displays they’ve made famous in the last couple of seasons. But he does give Karl, the sixth-winningest head coach in NBA history, credit for what versatility they displayed.

“I happened to see the Memphis games,” Moe said. “And the Memphis games were all basically half-court games. (The Grizzlies) got ’em slowed down. (The Nuggets) won ’em all. They can play that style. At least, they could last year. George was a good enough coach, he could adapt to things, and I didn’t think they had any problem. In fact, I remember saying to myself when I saw them play there, if it came down to the playoffs, they had to play Memphis, they could beat ’em in any style. That was my thought.”

The Nuggets took three of four from the Grizzlies last season, sweeping the two in Denver and splitting the two in Memphis. Neither team scored 100 points in any of the four.

I asked Moe about the playoff series that seems to have cost Karl his job, the first-round loss to the Warriors.

“Again, I thought the Nuggets had to win the third game out there, and they didn’t. It turned out to be their downfall,” he said.

“To be perfectly honestly, they didn’t step it up enough defensively. They just didn’t make it tough enough on Golden State. Golden State was hot during that period. It was one of those things. They ran into a team that couldn’t miss and they weren’t able to take ’em out of it.

“I saw the same thing down here. I went to the San Antonio-Golden State games. San Antonio totally, 100 percent, lucked out in the first game, got killed in the second game, but they were able to step it up and actually shut down Golden State defensively and that was the difference in that series. And Golden State was the type of team you probably had to put a little more pressure on defensively than Denver did, looking in hindsight.”

As for Karl’s future?

“I think he’ll coach this year,” Moe said. “That’s my opinion, but then again, what do I know? I think he’ll end up with the Clippers, and that’s a totally wild guess. I mean, I haven’t talked to George. I’ve just seen a couple of things said. But that would be my guess, that he ends up with the Clippers.”

As for the playoff follies that got Karl fired — seven first-round eliminations in eight tries (not counting the year he underwent treatment for neck and throat cancer and Adrian Dantley coached them in the playoffs) — Moe offered the calm reason of a 75-year-old retiree:

“You’ve got to remember, Denver was playing against L.A. and San Antonio most of the time in the playoffs, which makes it a little bit more difficult to get out.”