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Timeline 25: Remembering the biggest Colorado sports stories of 2004

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 tumultuous year in Colorado sports history – 2004:

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New Look, New Era

Heading into the 2003-04 season, there was optimism surrounding the Nuggets. That alone was a pretty amazing development.

Denver had missed the playoffs in each of the previous eight seasons, posting a 200-424 record during that time. En route to an abysmal .321 winning percentage, the Nuggets had posted four seasons in which they won less than 30 percentage of their games, including a dreadful 17-65 mark the year before.

In the 2003 NBA Draft, however, hope arrived. Carmelo Anthony had just led Syracuse to the national title, so there was a lot of excitement in the Mile High City when the Nuggets selected the college standout with the No. 3 overall pick. His arrival made an immediate impact.

Donning new powder blue uniforms, a nod to general manager Kiki Vandeweghe’s UCLA roots, the Nuggets were a different team in 2003-04. They got out of the gates hot, starting the season 13-6. That helped carry them to a winning record despite being sub-.500 in February and March.

With a 43-39 record, Denver earned the eighth seed in the Western Conference. That meant a match-up with Kevin Garnett and the top-seeded Timberwolves, which the Nuggets would lose in five games.

But it wasn’t about advancing in the postseason. Rather, it was about bringing excitement back to Pepsi Center. And anyone who was in the building during Melo’s rookie season, especially for a Game 3 win over Minnesota in the playoffs, knew that something special was brewing.

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The Snake’s Big Day

All in all, the Broncos 2004 campaign was a slightly above average. They finished 10-6, earning a wild card berth for the second-straight season. But they were bounced in that game, losing once again to Peyton Manning and the Colts.

That said, Denver did have some standout performers during the year. Reuben Droughns made the transition from fullback to tailback and rushed for 1,240 yards. Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie both cracked the 1,000-yard mark in receiving. And two newcomers on defense – John Lynch and Champ Bailey – earned Pro Bowl invites.

But the best individual performance came in Week 8, when the Broncos hosted the Falcons in a battle between two 5-2 teams. In that game, Jake Plummer established a new standard.

For 20 combined seasons, Denver had John Elway and Peyton Manning at quarterback. But neither of those current and future Hall of Fame inductees hold the franchise’s record for the most passing yards in a game. Instead, that honor falls to Plummer.

In the Halloween showdown with Atlanta, the Broncos quarterback completed 31 of 55 passes for 499 yards and four touchdowns. Nearly hitting the 500-yard mark is a record that still stands to this day.

Unfortunately, Plummer wasn’t the best quarterback on the field that day. In a performance that defied logic, Michael Vick carved up the Broncos defense en route to a 41-28 victory. The dual-threat signal caller threw for 252 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for 115 yards on 12 carries.

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Todd and the Toddlers

Most observers at the time saw it as the franchise waving the white flag. The Rockies were on their way to the second-worst season in team history, behind only their inaugural season in 1993, so surrendering wasn’t a shock.

On August 6, 2004, Colorado traded one of the best players in franchise history. Larry Walker was sent to St. Louis in exchange for players to be named later, who turned out to be Luis Martinez and Chris Narveson, an Jason Burch. In other words, he was allowed to go to a contender, while the team received virtually nothing in return.

That being the case, it would seem as though 2004 was a total loss for the Rockies. After all, it was the beginning of the “Todd and the Toddlers” era, where Todd Helton was surrounded by a bunch of no-names on the diamond.

But in reality, the foundation was being built for Rocktober in 2007 and the franchise’s best-ever record in 2009. The ’04 campaign saw the debuts of players who would prove to be critical in those memorable campaigns.

Jeff Francis, Brad Hawpe and Matt Holliday made their major-league debuts in 2004. In addition, the Rockies signed Jhoulys Chacin. All four would go on to become key contributors for the Rockies.

While 2004 was a dismal season in Colorado, it signaled the turning of the page. The old-school, Blake Street Bombers days were done. Instead, a crop of young, homegrown talent was ready to take over.

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Attention K-Mart Shoppers

After reaching the playoffs in Carmelo Anthony’s rookie season, the Nuggets went all in on trying to build around their young star. In the summer of 2004, that meant making a monster trade.

On July 15, Denver traded three first-round picks to the Nets for former No. 1 overall pick Kenyon Martin. It was a move that the franchise believed would be a key piece to their future success.

“Anytime you have a chance to add a player of the stature of Kenyon Martin, somebody who has been to the (NBA) Finals, who has been an All-Star, who plays with the ferocity that he plays with, that is an opportunity you really can’t pass up,” Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe told The Associated Press at the time. “We are very, very lucky to have been in a position to take advantage of his being available. We view Kenyon as a difference maker. We wanted to add to this and not have to move anybody. We were lucky
to be able to add to it and only trade future draft picks.”

Denver showed their commitment to their new star by inking him to a seven-year, $91 million contract. While K-Mart never played at an All-Star level in Denver, he was a critical member of some great teams.

During his time with the Nuggets, Martin averaged 12.3 points and 7.0 rebounds. But it was the intangibles he brought to the court that were more important.

The ferocity that Vandeweghe mentioned was always on display, never more than in a 2009 playoff match-up with the Mavericks. K-Mart shoving Dirk Nowitzki in Game 1 set the tone for the second-round series. Denver wasn’t going to be pushed around, even by a former champion. The Nuggets wound up advancing in five games.

Were the K-Mart years perfect? Of course not. But by and large, the power forward was a valuable member of some extremely entertaining and memorable teams.

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The End of the Blank-Check Era

During their first nine seasons in Colorado, the Avalanche were willing to do whatever it took to be a contender. That included big-time trades, which brought the likes of Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque and Rob Blake to town. In addition, the franchise was always willing to write hefty checks in free agency, which landed them stars such as Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne.

Not surprisingly, the team was always competitive on the ice. During that nine-year run, the won two Stanley Cups, eight division titles and played in the Western Conference Finals six times.

In 2003-04, the success continued, even with the retirement of Roy. Behind David Aebischer, who stepped in and posted a 32-19-9 record between the pipes, Colorado once again made the playoffs. The missed out on a ninth-consecutive division title by one point.

The postseason saw the Avalanche cruise past the Stars in five, but then fall to the Sharks in six games. Nonetheless, it was a promising start to the post-Roy era.

Unfortunately, the NHL landscape changed before Colorado could build upon the success. On September 16, 2004, the league locked out the players when a new collective bargaining agreement couldn’t be reached. Ultimately, that led to the cancelation of the entire season.

When the league finally returned for the 2005-06 season, things were different. For the first time, the NHL had a salary cap and revenue sharing, putting teams on a more even footing.

While that might’ve been good for a lot of franchises, it wasn’t a positive for the Avalanche. Suddenly, the free-spending days were over. In the season before the lockout, Colorado’s payroll was $63.4 million. The first year back, it plummeted to $41.0 million, a decrease of 35.24 percent.

Ever since, the Avs have been one of the most-fiscally conservative teams in the league. Not coincidentally, the missed the postseason in eight of the 15 post-lockout seasons.

It’s hard not to long for the days when Pierre Lacroix had an open checkbook. Those were the good old days for the Avalanche.