Denver Rockets in memory lane

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Denver Rockets in memory lane

Postby rlee » Wed Jan 26, 2011 2:52 pm

40 years later, Denver Rockets in memory lane

by Chris Tomasson, Rocky Mountain News

Published December 1, 2006

Time for the first game in Denver Rockets history.






Uh, it's the wrong color.

The Rockets were ready to face the Oakland Oaks in a preseason game at a Phoenix high school. It would be the first time both teams took the court in the new American Basketball Association.

But there was a problem that Sept. 27, 1967, night. The ABA was to play with a red, white and blue ball to distinguish it from the rival NBA, but the new balls had yet to arrive.

"The commissioner, George Mikan, told us to just get a brown ball and paint it," recalls Bob Bass, the first coach of the Rockets. "So the PR guys painted it, and it was terrible. The ball was so slick there were like 45 turnovers in the first half."

The Rockets got through that game, a 131-106 win before 1,006 curiosity seekers. And by the time they played their first regular-season game Oct. 15, 1967, the proper balls had arrived.

Time to remember

Four decades later, the red, white and blue balls are long gone. The Rockets were renamed Nuggets in 1974 and have been members of the NBA since 1976.

But the first team is not forgotten. The Nuggets, celebrating the 40th season of the franchise, will wear retro white-orange-and- black 1967-68 Rockets uniforms Saturday at the Pepsi Center against Indiana.

It's an appropriate opponent. The Nuggets and the Pacers are the only teams remaining in the same city from the ABA's inaugural season. Of the 30 NBA teams, the Nuggets are one of nine to have played in the same city for 40 straight years.

"It's a real honor to be part of that first team," said Grant Simmons, a guard from 1967-68 who owns a Denver asphalt company. "And to be a member of the first starting five, I'm an answer to a trivia question."

To complete the answer, the other four to start the first regular-season game were guard Willis "Lefty" Thomas, forwards Willie Murrell and Wayne Hightower and center Byron Beck.

But it took plenty of effort for the Rockets just to make it to the opener. In fact, it appeared the team would start in Kansas City, Mo., but initial owner James Trindle, who paid $25,000 for the franchise rights, was unable to secure enough arena dates.

So Trindle looked to Denver. But before the team got off the ground, he sold the franchise rights to Bill Ringsby, who owned a trucking company.

Dennis Murphy, one of the founders of the ABA who did public relations for the team, wanted to name it the Colorado Lark Buntings, after the state bird. But that didn't go over too well.

Ringsby named it after his Rocket Truck Lines. The logo had on it "Ringsby System," which Don Ringsby, the owner's son who served briefly as general manager early in team history, called good advertising.

"My dad didn't have a basketball background," Don Ringsby, CEO of Ringsby Terminals Inc., said of his father, who died of a heart attack in 1981, nine years after selling the team for $1 million. "But he thought it would be a great thing for the city."

One of the first orders of business was to hire a coach. Murphy dialed up Bass, who had coached 15 years at Oklahoma Baptist, winning the NAIA title in 1966.

Bass was offered $20,000. But it wasn't as if he got much job security.

"I didn't know how long the league would last," said Bass, now retired in San Antonio after winning NBA Executive of the Year awards as a general manager for the Spurs and Charlotte Hornets. "I didn't know if it would last until January."

Bass had to find players. So he held a summer open tryout camp at a Los Angeles college. More than 100 dreamers showed up.

"One day, we opened up these big double doors and so much smog came in we had to cancel practice," Bass said. "(The camp) was so bad you could have cut players in the layup drill. We didn't get one player out of that camp."

Team comes together

Nevertheless, the Rockets persevered. They picked up several NBA castoffs, the best being guard Larry Jones, who led the team in scoring with a 22.9 average, and Hightower, who averaged 17.3. They got Murrell out of the Eastern League.

The Rockets were able to sign Beck, a University of Denver player, for $20,000. With several top players from Denver's first draft going to the NBA, Beck, taken in the fifth round, was the only one of the 12 picks to play more than 10 games for the team.

"It was a real break to stay in Denver," said Beck, who works in security at Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington state. "But you bled a lot in training camp. Guys would do anything to make the team. Guys were dishing out elbows and punches."

Bass also talked Simmons and forward Julian Hammond, who both had gotten out of college in 1966, into coming to Denver. Simmons was teaching 12th grade in his home state of Nebraska and Hammond was doing odd jobs in his native Chicago.

This unsung bunch was molded together in training camp at Regis University and went on an exhibition barnstorming tour that included stops in outposts such as Napa, Calif., Modesto, Calif., and Hutchinson, Kan. Eventually, it was time for the opener at Denver's old Auditorium Arena.

Providing pregame and halftime entertainment was Peanuts Hucko's Jazz Group, which the Rocky Mountain News reported "had the crowd toe-tapping." Local celebrities were on hand.

While it was Denver's first game, the Anaheim Amigos had opened two days earlier. It was apparent.

"In those days, players had to wash their own uniforms," Bass recalls. "I remember Wayne Hightower come over that night and said, 'Those guys really smell.' "

Nevertheless, the Rockets were able to win 110-105 before 2,748 fans. The star was Thomas, who, fresh from playing for the barnstorming Harlem Clowns, rolled up 39 points.

But it was all downhill after that for Thomas, traded two months later to the Amigos. After that season, his pro career was over.

"He could only go to his left," Simmons said. "He had one good game. He shot from one spot. Then they put a defender on that spot and that was it."

Jones eventually became the team's first big star. He was a late bloomer who almost was cut during training camp and didn't even score in the opener.

Murrell averaged 16.4 points and nine rebounds as the Rockets finished 45-33. Beck developed quickly as a rookie, averaging 9.4 points and 7.9 rebounds while throwing around his body.

"The fine for a technical was only $25," said Beck, who became the only Denver player to last all nine ABA seasons and remained for the first NBA season. "You could do things back then you'd get suspended for now."

Denver's top enforcer was 6-foot-10, 240-pound Tom Hoover. He spent his summers in New York, going door to door politely recommending to longshoremen they join the union.

Once, Jones and a Houston Mavericks player squared off in front of the bench. Hoover jumped off the bench and fractured the Houston player's cheekbone with one punch and got nothing more than a technical.

Players had plenty of fight

Sometimes, though, one had to be careful with whom he fought. During the first season, Simmons tangled with Levern Tart of Oakland. Tart was traded the next year to Denver and was assigned to room on the road with Simmons.

"He was nuts," Simmons said. "He told me to turn off the radio, and I said, 'I'm not turning off the radio.' Then he said, 'Turn the radio off now.' He pulled out a gun that must have been 19 inches long. I said, 'Yes, sir.' I pulled the cord out and threw the radio."

Tart lasted 20 games with Denver, but that was a lot longer than Ron Horn's one-game stint in 1967-68. Horn had spent two seasons in the NBA and believed he should be playing more.

He wasn't subtle about it.

"I didn't put him in a game," said Bass, who would leave for Texas Tech after the Rockets went 44-34 in their second season. "About

3 o'clock in the morning back at the hotel, somebody's banging on the door. It's Ron Horn. He'd been drinking.

"I shared a room with our trainer, Lloyd Williams. He said, 'Don't open that door. He'll whip your (butt).' I didn't. Then I told (Williams) in the morning to get (Horn) a ticket and we waived him right away."

Early jam sessions

The ABA was known for its share of characters and also for its athletes. Denver's best in the first season was 6-8 forward Tommie "Whammy" Bowens.

Eight years before Julius Erving gained fame during an ABA contest by dunking from beyond the free-throw line, Bowens was doing it on a regular basis. Bowens had a 42-inch vertical leap, although he couldn't do much else.

"When I played at Grambling (a predominately black school in Louisiana), white people used to come just to watch the warm-ups," said Bowens, now an elected law official in his hometown of Okolona, Miss., population 7,000. "One of my greatest dunks ever I jumped over this Anaheim guard. I jumped right over his head."

The Rockets did plenty of running and gunning, averaging 105.7 points. However, they didn't take advantage of the ABA's new three-point shot, making a league- low 25.

The Rockets' third-place finish in the Western Division earned them a playoff date with New Orleans, led by future Denver coaches Doug Moe and Larry Brown. The Rockets lost Jones in the series because of a broken arm, but they still hung tough before the Buccaneers prevailed 3-2.

Overall, the first season was a success. While some players around the league weren't getting paid, that problem never surfaced on the Rockets.

Still, Williams remembered the team staying in $15-a-night hotels that sometimes were in scary parts of town. With the Rockets regularly playing three games in three nights and once playing on four straight nights, sometimes they barely slept.

At home, the Rockets averaged 4,128 fans. That was pretty good for the fan-starved ABA, which had six of 11 teams move before the third season.

"Some places were totally empty, but it was a good atmosphere and the fans would really get on you," Moe said of Denver. "My two favorite places to play in the ABA were Denver and Indiana."

Moe, now a Nuggets assistant, will be on hand Saturday night at the Pepsi Center. The jerseys will look familiar, but nobody will be needed to round up a red, white and blue ball.

Rockets take off

The first season of the ABA's Denver Rockets, who later became the Nuggets.

• Season: 1967-68.

• Record: 45-33, third in the Western Conference.

• Playoffs: Lost 3-2 in first round against the New Orleans Buccaneers.

• Coach: Bob Bass.

• Leading scorer: Guard Larry Jones, 22.9.

• Leading rebounder: Forward Willie Murrell, 9.0

• Arena: Auditorium Arena (6,841).

• Average attendance: 4,128.

• First game: Beat the Anaheim Amigos 110-105 on Oct. 15, 1967.

What might have been

While in New York, Walt Frazier drove a Rolls-Royce, wore a mink coat and got the nickname "Clyde."

Had he instead signed with Denver, one wonders if Frazier would have driven a Bronco, worn a downcoat and been nicknamed "Mountain Walt."

"I often think of how my life would have been different," Frazier said of what might have happened had he signed with the Denver Rockets after they made him their first pick in the 1967 ABA draft.

Frazier that year also was a first-round pick of the NBA's Knicks. He said he never came close to signing with Denver.

"I remember I was in college and it was in the paper that I was drafted by Denver," said Frazier, a guard who helped Southern Illinois to the 1967 National Invitation Tournament title. "I was like, 'Where's Denver?' I was like, 'You wouldn't equate basketball with Denver, that's for sure.' I don't think I ever talked to (the Rockets). Once the Knicks drafted me, I wanted to be with the Knicks and all that came with being in New York."

It's hard to argue with the decision. Frazier, who initially signed a three-year, $100,000 contract, went on to help the Knicks to two titles and earn a spot in the Hall of Fame.
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