The Denver Nuggets’ 1993-94 season is defined by the iconic image of Dikembe Mutumbo on his back, clutching the ball and beaming after the team became the first 8-seed in NBA playoff history to upset a 1-seed, in this case the George Karl-coached Seattle SuperSonics. And while that moment deserves to live on forever so that, generations from now, Nuggets fans can experience the absolute joy that accompanied that amazing feat, it wasn’t the only unforgettable sequence produced by that year’s Nuggets squad.
On February 8, 1994, the 31-17 Utah Jazz, led by the all-star tandem of John Stockton and Karl Malone, came into McNichols Arena to face the Nuggets who sat two games below .500 at 22-24. With just over 30 seconds remaining in the game, the Nuggets trailed by 8 points. By all accounts, the game should have been over. But that year’s team was defined by their scrappiness and refusal to quit, and for nine ticks of the game clock, no one embodied those qualities better than Rodney Rogers and Robert Pack.
Rogers was a rookie out of Wake Forest University who averaged about 17 minutes per game that season. As the sequence begins, Pack, a third-year backup point guard, is smothered in the lane by Stockton and Tom Chambers before kicking it out to Rogers, who is left unguarded at the 3-point line. Stockton does a nice job of running at the shooter to get a hand in his face, but by the time he arrives Rogers’ shots is away and rips the net for the first 3 points.
On the ensuing inbound pass, Malone throws the ball over Stockton’s head and Pack is there to snag it. He immediately kicks the ball over to Rogers who once again is wide open from beyond the arc, and the 6′ 7″ lefty strokes another beautiful jumper from nearly the same spot, cutting the lead to 2 points.
Again, Malone tries to force the inbound pass to Stockton, and again the diminutive Pack is there to crash their party. He pokes the ball towards the baseline, and as it sails out of bounds, Pack leaps into the air, grabs the ball, and flings it into Rogers’ eager paws. Rogers takes a big dribble step towards the corner, turns, and fires up a desperation 3 as he falls out of bounds. A shell-shocked Stockton can do nothing but look on in disbelief. The ball hangs in the air for what seems like an eternity before finding the bottom of the net, putting the Nuggets up by a point.
It’s hard to tell who’s more excited at this point, the Nuggets’ bench or the faithful crowd who stuck around to witness this historic comeback. Rogers is mobbed by his teammates on the bench as he takes a second too long to celebrate this extraordinary accomplish, and if the game ended there, it would probably give the Mutumbo floor-scream a run for its money in terms of the greatest visual in Nuggets history.
Sadly, there were still 20 seconds left on the clock.
While some of his teammates take their eyes off the ball for a moment to pump their fists in elation, Pack keeps his head in the game and nearly steals a third inbound pass from Malone to Stockton. But he comes up just short, and the game would end when Jazz Guard Jeff Malone buried a jumper with only a few ticks left on the clock, giving the Jazz the 96-95 victory.
Regardless of the outcome, the sequence remains one of my favorite Nuggets memories of all time. For nine seconds, Rogers was unconscious and completely fearless, pulling the trigger on three deep shots without hesitation — something that would be commendable if performed by a 10-year veteran, much less a kid playing in his first year in the league. For nine seconds, Pack played some of the most ferocious defense Nuggets fans have ever seen; without his effort, Rogers may not have touched the ball after he drilled his first shot. And for nine seconds, the storied McNichols Arena was at its rowdiest.
Rogers only spent two seasons with the Nuggets before being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the deal that would eventually bring Antonio McDyess to Denver. He would go on to have a decent career spanning 12 seasons with 8 different teams, even earning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award as a member of the Phoenix Suns during the 1999-2000 season. Robert Pack spent three seasons with the Nuggets before being traded to the Washington Bullets as part of a deal that included Don MacLean and Doug Overton. He would later return to Denver during the 2000 – 01 season as part of the Calbert Cheaney trade with the Boston Celtics. Despite their relatively brief stints with the team, I still count both players as among some of my favorite Nuggets of all-time, due in no small part to the roles they played during those nine glorious seconds.
To this day, whenever I see a team trailing by 9 points or less in the waning seconds of a game, I think about Rodney Rogers and Robert Pack, and remember that there is always hope.