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Timeline 25: Remembering the biggest Colorado sports stories of 2003

On March 6, 1995, The Fan was born. In the 25 years since, a lot has transpired on the fields, courts and ice in Colorado, giving the hosts and listeners who’ve been part of the station during that time plenty to talk about and debate.

During the course of the next few weeks, we’ll take a look back at that history, remembering the good times and the bad, the winners and the losers, the successes and the failures. It’s a series we’re calling “Timeline 25” and it continues today with a look back at a memorable year in Colorado sports history – 2003:

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Not Quite Winning the Lottery

The 2002-03 season was not a good one for the Nuggets. New head coach Jeff Bzdelik was trying to win with a roster comprised of a hodgepodge of castoffs (Junior Harrington and Vincent Yarborough), rookies (Nene and Nikoloz Tskitishvili) and one big name (Marcus Camby). It didn’t work, as Denver finished with a 17-65 mark.

That record was the second-worst in Nuggets history, but it put the franchise in position to strike gold. They tied with the Cavaliers for the worst record in the league that season, giving them an equal 22.5 percent chance of getting the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. That year, the prize was LeBron James, a high school phenom from Akron, Ohio.

As has become the norm, however, the ping-pong balls didn’t bounce the Nuggets way. Instead, Cleveland nabbed the top spot. In fact, Denver wasn’t even lucky enough to grab the No. 2 pick. That went to Detroit, a championship-caliber team that had acquired the selection from Memphis back in 1997.

This was bad news for the Nuggets. Not only would they miss out on James, a player who could change the fate of a franchise overnight, but they also wouldn’t be in a position to draft the consolation prize. Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to a national championship during his freshman year of college and most people expected him to be selected with the second pick.

Fortunately for Denver, the Pistons had other ideas. General manager Joe Dumars had become enamored with Darko Milicic, a seven-footer from Serbia, so he rolled the dice on the foreign-born player. That allowed Melo to fall to No. 3, where the Nuggets quickly made the All-American their pick.

While not as much of an instant impact player as James, Anthony did transform Denver’s fortunes. In his rookie season, he’d help the Nuggets back to the playoffs, something that he’d repeat in each of his eight full seasons in the Mile High City.

In the process, he’d make the Nuggets relevant again. They were suddenly a national story, one worthy of games on TNT and ESPN. And it was all because for the first time in a long time, Denver finally caught a break.

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Hanging Up His Skates

The season didn’t end the way he wanted it to (see below). But that didn’t mean that it wasn’t a good one for Patrick Roy.

The goaltender with the most wins in NHL history was his usual self during the 2002-03 season. During his 19th year in the league, Roy posted numbers that were on par with any of his previous campaigns.

The future Hall of Fame inductee went 35-15-13, his third-best winning percentage as a member of the Avalanche. He had a 2.18 goals against average, his second-best mark during his tenure in Colorado. And he boasted a .920 save percentage, his third-best season as an Av.

That’s why it came as a bit of a surprise on May 28, 2003, that he announced his retirement. He walked away as the greatest goaltender in NHL history.

Roy was a four-time Stanley Cup winner, hoisting the Conn Smythe Trophy during three of those title runs. He also was a three-time Vezina Trophy winner and 11-time All-Star, including an appearance during his final season.

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Running Wild

Heading into the game, all of the talk was about the Chiefs. They were 11-1, rolling to an AFC West title and the odds-on favorite to make a Super Bowl trip. Kansas City also boasted the league’s best running back, as Priest Holmes was wrapping up the third of three-consecutive first-team All-Pro seasons.

But on December 7, 2003, the Broncos had an answer for the Chiefs. They also offered had a star in their backfield, as well.

On that day, Denver steamrolled Kansas City, lighting up the Invesco Field scoreboard en route to a 45-27 victory. It was a win that came on the back of their second-year running back.

Clinton Portis got the Broncos on the scoreboard first, scampering in from 11 yards out to make it 7-0. It was the first of five times he’d reach the end zone that day.

The running back would also plunge in for a one-yard touchdown in the second quarter, as he and Holmes matched each other blow for blow in the first half. But after halftime, Portis exploded.

In the third quarter, he scored on a 59-yard touchdown run. And in the fourth, Portis ran to pay dirt from 28 and 53 yards out. Those final two scores broke the game wide open.

By day’s end, the Broncos running back had a stat line for the ages. He had 22 carries for 218 yards and five touchdowns, while also hauling in two passes for 36 yards. The 254 combined yards from scrimmage was the second-most in franchise history, just two yards short of Mike Anderson’s mark, while the five TDs and 30 total points are single-game records that still stand. Holmes, on the other hand, had just 44 yards on 12 carries, as well as 33 yards on seven receptions.

Portis was quick to let everyone know that he won the battle. On the Broncos sidelines, he was displaying a championship belt, signaling that he was the best running back in the NFL.

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The Snake Comes to Denver

Jake Plummer had become a star in the desert. First, he led Arizona State to an undefeated regular season in 1996, helping the Sun Devils reach the Rose Bowl. Then, he became the quarterback of the Cardinals, where he helped the oft-dormant franchise reach the playoffs in 1998, where they upset the Cowboys in Dallas.

By the end of the 2002 season, however, things weren’t trending in a good direction. Four-straight losing campaigns had soured Plummer’s standing in Arizona. So prior to the start of the 2003 season, the quarterback signed a free-agent contract with the Broncos.

In Denver, Plummer replaced Brian Griese, who had had mixed results during his four seasons as the team’s starter. The newcomer would find immediate success in the Mile High City.

While limited to just 11 games, Plummer threw for 2,182 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also posted a 9-2 record.

Denver struggled without their quarterback, going 1-4 in games that Plummer missed, but they were still able to reach the postseason. Their 10-6 record was good enough to secure a wild card berth.

The Broncos would lose that game, getting blown out by Peyton Manning and the Colts in Indianapolis. But it was the start of a good run in Denver.

Plummer would post a 39-15 record as the Broncos starter during his three-plus seasons at the helm. He’d also lead Denver to the playoffs three times, including a trip to the AFC title game after the 2005 campaign.

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A Shocking Loss

As had become the norm, the Avalanche got off to a slow start during the 2002-03 season. Things were so bad, in fact, that head coach Bob Hartley was replaced 31 games into the game, replaced by Tony Granato. The change made an immediate difference.

Under Granato, Colorado would post a 32-11-4-4 mark, rolling to a 105-point season and claiming their ninth-straight division title. They entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, where they’d face the upstart Minnesota Wild, a franchise that was playing just its third season.

After getting upset in Game 1 at home, the Avs seemed to right the ship. They won Game 2 on home ice and then took two straight games in Minnesota to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. All signs pointed to Colorado advancing in short order.

But then, a funny thing happened. Manny Fernandez transformed into the best goaltender of the series, as he outdueled Patrick Roy in the next three games.

Colorado lost Game 5 at Pepsi Center, falling 3-2. They’d lose by the same score in Game 6, although this time it went to overtime in Minnesota. That set up a decisive Game 7 in Denver.

Shockingly, the Avs would wind up on the wrong side of the scoreboard. For the third-consecutive game, Colorado would lose 3-2, once again falling in overtime.

The Avalanche had a 2-1 lead late in the third period, but Marian Gaborik slipped a shot past Roy with 4:28 to play. And then a little more than three minutes into the extra frame, Andrew Brunette beat Roy for the game winner.

It sent shockwaves through the Colorado sports scene. For only the second time since the franchise moved to the Centennial State in 1995, the Avalanche didn’t advance to at least the Western Conference Finals.