As we approach the top ten of my 20 greatest Nuggets and take a look at number 11, we come across one of the all time great scorers and fan favorites in the history of the Nuggets Franchise…….Kiki Vandewege. Although “Kiki” played only 4 seasons for the Nuggets he made an indelible mark on the franchise during his time here. He was a prolific scorer on a team that already had scoring machines in Alex English and Dan Issel.
Vandewege was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks with the 11th overall pick in the 1980 NBA Entry Draft but caused a huge ruckus when he refused to play for the Mavericks and demanded to be traded. After a protracted holdout that crossed into the beginning of the 1980-1981 season, Vandewege got his wish as he was traded to the Denver Nuggets on December 3, 1980 along with a 1986 first round pick for the Nuggets 1st round picks in 1981 and 1985. For most of Vandewege’s career he was booed whenever his team was playing against the Mavericks in Dallas due to his trade demand and holdout. He made a mark on the League right out of the box as he showed the shooting ability and skill around the basket that made him a college star during his career at UCLA. In only 51 games in his rookie season it was obvious to the Nuggets and their fans that they had something special in Vandewege. Although he averaged 11.5 points per game during that rookie season, he showed signs of being the player the Nuggets coveted in the draft that year. He then went on a run where he scored more than 20 points per game for the next 7 seasons (3 with Denver and 4 with Portland). As a Nugget Vandewege was 2nd in the League in scoring during the 1982-1983 season when he averaged 26.7 points per game and he was 3rd in League in scoring in 1983-1984 averaging a career high 29.4 points. Kiki made the NBA All Star team in both of these seasons as well and joined Alex English on the team in one of the few times in team history the Nuggets have had 2 All Stars in the same year.
For his Nuggets career Vandewege averaged 23.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and almost 3 assists per game. He was also a deadly free throw shooter as his career percentage from the charity stripe is a balky 87.2%. While with the Nuggets Vandewege shot 85.7% from the line. During Vandewege’s time in Denver playing in Doug Moe’s “Passing Game” system, the Nuggets led the league in scoring in all 4 of Vandewege’s seasons in Nuggets colors. In 3 of those 4 seasons the Nuggets had 3 of the top 10 scorers in the league with Kiki joining English and Issel in the top 10. Even though Kiki only played 4 seasons in Denver he still shows up on a number of all time lists.
9th in field goal attempts with 2,671
10th in free throw attempts with 1,460
10th in total points with 6,829
4th in field goal percentage at .541
6th in free throw percentage at .857
6th in points per game with 23.3
Another thing that put Kiki on my top 20 list is the infamous trade of 1984 that molded the Nuggets franchise for the next several years. The Nuggets used the Portland Trailblazers as a rebuilding team for their roster by trading Vandewege, and only Vandewege, to the Blazers for Wayne Cooper, Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, a 1984 2nd round pick and a 1985 1st round pick. The players the Nuggets picked up in the Vandewege trade were the core group that led the Nuggets to the 1986 Western Conference finals where they fell to the Lakers in 6 games. At the time of the trade I remember that Nuggets fans were none too happy about it as Kiki had taken on a role in Denver as one of the most popular athletes not on the Denver Broncos. But in retrospect, the Nuggets really took the Blazers to the cleaners with that trade as it rebuilt their roster when it looked like it could not be done. Don’t get me wrong, Kiki had 5 really productive years for the Blazers before he hurt his back in 1989 and was subsequently traded to the New York Knicks. He finished his career in relative obscurity with a really bad LA Clippers team and hung up the sneakers in 1993.
Kiki was also a very prominent Executive for the Nuggets as he was the General Manager and President of the Nuggets from 2001 through 2006 and had a hand in several moves that changed the face of the franchise. Some were for the good and some for the bad. On the good side, he drafted Carmelo Anthoney in 2003 traded for Marcus Camby in 2002, signed Kenyon Martin as a Free Agent in 2004 and signed George Karl to coach the Nuggets midway through the 2004-2005 season. On the bad side (and this is pretty bad…..) he drafted Nicolas Tskitihvilli in the first round in 2002 and strapped the franchise financially with the Kenyon Martin sign and trade deal in 2004. All in all I think Kiki did a pretty good job in rebuilding the Nuggets from where they were in the early 2000’s to the 10 year playoff run that followed.
My best memories of Vandewege are the shooting stroke that could not be blocked and the slashing style that he had in going to the basket in the passing game. He was an extremely fun player to watch and those Nuggets teams from 1980-1984 when Kiki was filling it up were exciting and enjoyable to watch (unless you like defense!).
My opinion of the 11th greatest Denver Nugget of all time……..Ernest Maurice “Kiki” Vandewege III. (Photo courtesy bballchannel.com)