by Russ Bengtson

This is where I get to tell you about the cover and the cover story. If you’re not interested in that, go read something else.

As you can see (and as you’ve been able to see on New York area newsstands for a while now), it’s Carmelo and AI on 115. And they look…happy. Not the usual SLAM scowls. This was by design, of course, but in this case it didn’t take much prompting. These guys are happy to play together, happy to share the spotlight, as long as they get where they want to go: the NBA Finals. This will not be easy, but at the moment the Nuggets lead the Northwest Division with an 18-11 record, and the two superstars have done a great deal to get them there.

The reason I got to do the story was simple: serendipity. The shoot was scheduled to take place in Denver over the Thanksgiving break, and I was already going to be in Colorado, visiting my sister in (somewhat) nearby Greeley. I’d written about Iverson—most notably the “Soul On Ice” issue 32 cover story—and Melo before, but never together. And somehow I’d never even been to an NBA game in Denver, either.

Now, seeing that this was an Iverson cover, there was no way it would get shot on the first day. And it didn’t. As Atiba Jefferson and crew set up and I arrived to catch the team post-practice, word got out that Iverson was off getting an MRI (for what, I’m still not sure—elbow, I believe). Which meant he wasn’t at practice. Which meant the shoot wasn’t happening. No problem—Atiba and I had both been through this before. The shoot was re-scheduled for post-shootaround the following day.

Iverson wasn’t the only Nugget who missed practice—only eight guys dressed, and they had to fill out the roster with assistant coaches and D-League types. As we waited to go out on the court, another tall figure stepped off the elevator—veteran Stacey Augmon, who had just been re-signed (and would be active for the next night’s game). Without Iverson to draw away the media, one would think that Melo and Marcus Camby would be surrounded.

And one would be wrong. Unlike New York (and Philadelphia, for that matter), Denver is light on the sports media. Which meant I was able to catch “exclusives” with both Camby and Melo, and get five minutes with George Karl (who, as I noted in the story, is more willing and eager to talk basketball than anyone I’ve ever met—he even speaks frankly and profanely off the record, which would give the Knicks snitches public relations personnel heart attacks). Safe to say that Karl will never coach a Dolan-owned team.

Camby is also an excellent interview. A fellow member of Iverson’s class of ’96, he’s known AI since the days of UMass vs. Georgetown (as he gleefully points out, Camby’s Minutemen handed Iverson his last college loss in the ’96 Elite Eight). And he’s been Melo’s teammate since he entered the League. A tri-captain (along with Melo and AI), Camby is a dirty work star, scoring off putbacks and tirelessly anchoring the Nuggets alleged defense. Help is what he’s all about. And he has nothing but good words for his higher-profile teammates. I pretty much used all of his quotes in the story, so I’ll let you find them there.

It’s funny, usually I get into trouble because I have too many quotes—I’ll transcribe a full 5,000 word interview to write an 850-word profile—but in this case it was the opposite. I got Melo for five minutes after practice, and Iverson for maybe two minutes after the one game I got to see—a loss to the Pacers. Not much meat. In fact, I pretty much used every quote I got in the story. The only quotes that got left out came from teammates—Anthony Carter and Eduardo Najera, both who provided decent if unspectacular answers. Kind of like their respective games.

I had the same problem with AI as I’ve had with other star players in the past: You have one time to talk to them—postgame—and they have a sub-par game that results in a loss. After a game like that (Iverson had decent numbers but shot something like six of 21), guys don’t want to talk. They just want to go home. Can you blame them? This time, before Iverson even turned to face the media, he put on his coat. Bad sign. Still, he at least answered a few of my questions after the mass session. Better than Gary Payton a few years back when I flew out to Seattle to do a feature and he left me entirely in the lurch (thank God for then-teammate Nate McMillan, who was excellent).

Honestly, the shoot was probably the best part of the whole experience. Iverson and Melo arrived at the same time—easy enough, since we a used the studio inside the Pepsi Center, right down a hallway from the practice facility. A silent TV was tuned to ESPN (reaction to Sean Taylor’s death), Atiba’s iPod provided the tunes. They came in with their shorts sagging low, slides on their feet. AI is an old pro at this sort of thing, having appeared on double-digit SLAM covers. I’ve told people before that even if we only got 10 frames of AI, all 10 would be cover-worthy. Melo isn’t quite AI—he has a tendency to crack up when he’s trying to look mean—but given that we were looking for smiles this time, it worked out for the best.

And again, those smiles were for real. The biggest thing that came out of this trip, for me, is that these guys get along great. As Camby said, there are no egos involved. It’s Carmelo’s team, and everyone accepts that (not that AI hasn’t led the team in scoring a couple of times). Chemistry between the two superstars will not be the issue if the Nuggets come up short in the end. If anything, the problem is more likely to be injuries (power forwards Kenyon Martin and Nene seem to take turns on the injured list every year), the lack of a premier point guard, and the fact that the Nuggets (Camby excepted) don’t seem particularly interested in playing defense.

How far can the Nuggets go? They have to at least make it out of the first round for this season to be viewed as anything resembling a success. And a lot of things will have to go right in order for them to go further—like not facing either San Antonio or Phoenix right away. Home court advantage would also be nice. And they’re headed in the right direction. At 18-11, winners of seven of their last 10, they’re trailed in the Northwest by the upstart Trailblazers (12 straight wins, who knew) and the faltering Jazz (apparently after reaching the Western Conference Finals last season, they’re a marked team), and have to be favorites to win the division. As Najera said back in November, “I’m sure by the second half of the season we’re gonna be playing even better basketball.” You can count on Iverson and Melo leading the way.