Quick Bit: The four most iconic athletes in Denver’s pro sports landscape never suited up for another franchise

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The SN Rushmore project named four pro athletes from the 13 cities that have had at least four of the following five leagues represented for at least 20 years – NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA. While there were no hard-and-fast rules pertaining to the athletes selected, our panel of experts considered individual resumes, team success and legacy within the sports landscape of each city. Multiple players from the same franchise were allowed, and not every franchise needed to be represented. All sports fans have an opinion on this topic. This is ours.

Denver was a little late to the professional sports party. Its basketball team started in the ABA, not the NBA. Its football team started in the AFL, not the NFL. Major League Baseball didn’t arrive until 1993 and the NHL didn’t permanently call Colorado home until 1995.

But the four players on Denver’s professional sports Mount Rushmore, well, their legacies are etched in stone in one of the country’s most scenic and dynamic communities.

MORE: See The Sporting News Rushmore of all 13 cities

These four had — or in the case of Nikola Joki?, have — the type of staying power that’s earned with a career spent making a difference on and off the field.

John Elway was the first to arrive, the No. 1 pick of the 1983 NFL Draft who came to town when the Broncos pulled off the trade with the Baltimore Colts that pretty much every other NFL franchise had tried and failed to complete. His arrival signaled a new era in Denver.

“That was the first time I felt like I was around a rock star,” longtime Denver sportswriter Woody Paige said, “and that was really true throughout his career.”

Elway played 16 years for the Broncos. Todd Helton played 17 years in Denver, arriving a few years after the Rockies did and he spent his entire career with the club.

Joe Sakic came to town when his Quebec Nordiques relocated to Denver, and he’s basically never left. He played the final 13 seasons of his career with the Avalanche and his front-office career with the franchise started soon after and continues to this day.

Nikola Joki?, the two-time reigning NBA MVP, has played seven seasons with the Nuggets and signed a five-year, $270 million supermax extension this summer that locks him in Denver through 2027-28. “I really like the organization and really like the people who work here,” he said in April.

Loyalty. That’s something both Denver sports fans and its biggest stars value.

JOHN ELWAY (Broncos, 1983-98)

Broncos head coach Dan Reeves was sitting in his office, eating a sub sandwich. Back in the early 1980s, it was easy enough to saunter into an NFL head coach’s office with even the slightest bit of confidence and the right verifieds, and long-time Denver sportswriter Woody Paige lacked neither of those things. With the NFL players strike wiping out the first part of the 1982 season, Paige had spent time traveling the country to look at the top draft prospects, the players the Broncos might be considering with the No. 4 overall pick of the 1983 draft.

“I went into Reeves’ office and I told him. ‘I have seen the future of the NFL,’ ” Paige said. “He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘It’s John Elway.”

Paige watched Elway at Stanford, saw the golden-armed quarterback throw a pass straight at a defensive back, 15 yards away, and the ball went through the defensive back’s hands before he could close them around the football.

“I told him, ‘I’ve been around this game for a long time, and I’ve never seen that.'” Reeves looked at me and said, ‘We can’t get him.’ The Broncos had the fourth draft pick, and there was no way he was going to slide down to the fourth pick.”

You know how that story ended. Elway told the Baltimore Colts, who owned the No. 1 pick, he absolutely would not play for them, that he’d rather play baseball — he batted .318 with 4 homers and 13 stolen bases in 42 games for the Yankees’ Low-A club in the summer of 1982 — but the Colts took him anyway. Shortly after the draft, Elway was dealt to Denver. It was the most important trade in the history of Denver professional sports.

Elway played 16 seasons with the Broncos. He basically willed rag-tag Broncos teams to Super Bowl appearances in 1986, 1987 and 1989, then guided much better squads to Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998. At 37 years old, his helicopter run — sacrificing his body for a third-quarter first down — was the signature moment of the 1997 Super Bowl against Green Bay. At 38 years old, in the last game he’d ever play, he was named the Super Bowl MVP after throwing for 336 yards in the win against the Falcons.

He made nine Pro Bowls, quarterbacked 47 fourth-quarter comebacks. He engineered The Drive and The Drive 2, crushing the hopes of Cleveland fans two years in a row. Elway finished his career with 300 passing touchdowns and 51,475 yards. In his first year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Paige was selected to give the nominating speech to the voting committee. He prepared a four-page speech, running down Elway’s lengthy resume.

But when the time came?

“I get up, there’s a pause, and I said, “Gentlemen, John Elway.” And I sat back down,” Paige said. “It was the shortest speech in the history of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There was applause from all 40 people. It was the first time in history that nobody got up and spoke, because there was no reason to speak. He was the epitome of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

TSN ARCHIVES: John Elway, back-to-back Super Bowl winner, retires (May 3, 1999)

JOE SAKIC (Avalanche, 1995-2009)

How’s this for a good first impression? In his first season in the Mile High city, Joe Sakic helped give Denver sports fans something they’d never experienced: a championship.

Yeah, that’ll play.

The Quebec Nordiques relocated to Denver for the 1995-96 season, changed their name to the Avalanche and rolled through the playoffs, hoisting the Stanley Cup after a sweep of the Florida Panthers in the Finals. The Broncos had been title-deficient since starting as an AFL franchise in 1960, the Nuggets as an ABA franchise since 1967 and the Rockies as an MLB team since 1993. Sakic and his Avalanche ended Colorado’s drought at their first opportunity.

Sakic, the 26-year-old captain and eventual Hockey Hall of Famer, was incredible throughout the run, racking up 18 goals and 16 assists in the 22 games to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP. When the Avalanche traveled to Vancouver for the opening round of the 1996 playoffs, Paige, the long-time Denver columnist, asked Sakic if he could visit Sakic’s boyhood home just outside of Vancouver. Sakic agreed, and Paige spent the day with Sakic’s parents, who still lived in the house. Sakic’s mom, Marijan, told a story that sticks with Paige to this day.

“When he would come home from playing hockey as a kid, the first thing he would do is sit in his closet and shine his skates,” Paige said. “One day he was crying, and his mother said, ‘Why would you be crying while you’re shining your skates? How did the game go?’ And he said, ‘We lost, 9-7.’ So he was crying about losing. She said, ‘How did you do?’ And he said, ‘Well, I scored seven goals.’ “

Even then, it was all about winning over personal accomplishment for Sakic, and that never changed. The Avalanche won their division the first seven seasons they played in Denver, capturing a second Stanley Cup trophy in 2001, the same year Sakic won the Hart Trophy as the league MVP. He also won the Pearson Award, given to the Most Outstanding Player as selected by the NHLPA and the Lady Byng Trophy, given to the player who “exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

Basically, the Joe Sakic Award. Sakic played his entire career with the franchise, the last 13 seasons in Colorado. The Avalanche missed the playoffs in only two of those seasons, an unprecedented run of success in Denver. Sakic, a center, is ninth in NHL history with 1,641 points, 13th in assists (1,016) and 16th in goals scored (625). In 172 career playoff games, Sakic had 84 goals — 8 in overtime –and 104 assists for 188 points. He made the first team postseason All-Star squad three times and earned All-Star team nods 10 times total. He retired in 2009 and returned to the Avalanche front office two years later. In 2013, he was named Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, with final say on personnel decisions. Meaning, yeah, he was the architect of the 2021-22 team that won another Stanley Cup in June.

“When I think of Joe Sakic, he’s one of the greatest players in NHL history,” Paige said, “but also one of the greatest people that Colorado could possibly have in its midst because of what he’s done in his career, with the two championships, and what he’s done as an executive, and what he’s done as a person? Look up his association with the Food Bank of the Rockies.”

The first Google result is a blog post with this headline: Thanks a Million, Joe and Debbie! In the post is this sentence: “Over the years, Joe and Debbie have helped Food Bank of the Rockies provide more than 21 million meals, ensuring little ones have nourishment to grow and thrive.”

Rushmore worthy, indeed.

TSN ARCHIVES: Joe Sakic is sneaky good (Jan. 14, 2002)

NIKOLA JOKI? (Nuggets, 2015-)

Unlike the other players on Denver’s Rushmore, Nikola Joki? was far from a can’t miss star when he arrived in Colorado. Elway, as you know, was the No. 1 pick in the 1983 Draft, Todd Helton went No. 8 overall in 1995 MLB Draft and Sakic was already the team captain and an established star when the Nordiques moved from Quebec and became the Avalanche.

But Joki?? He was just a pudgy 7-foot second-round project from Eastern Europe who loved Coca-Cola — no lie, he had a three-liter-a-day habit. His arrival was so nondescript that, when he was selected with the 41st overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, ESPN was showing a Taco Bell commercial for its new quesarito.

It didn’t take long to see the Nuggets had found someone special.

“What shocked me about Nikola was that he could shoot a 3-pointer,” Paige said. “That’s not the body that fits a 3-point shooter. It fits a guy who slugs it out under the basket and gets rebounds and puts them back in.”

Joki? dropped the Coca-Cola habit, avoided the quesarito trappings and transformed his body. By his third season, he was averaging nearly a double-double (16.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game). By his fourth season he played in his first All-Star Game, just two days before his 24th birthday, and he was just getting warmed up.

Joki? won the MVP during his incredible 2020-21 season, scoring 26.4 points — making 56.6 percent of his shots from the field — with 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game. Then, he went out and was even better in the 2021-22 season, upping his scoring to 27.1 points — on 58.8 percent shooting — and his rebounds to 13.8, to go with 7.9 assists.

So, yeah, he won a second consecutive NBA MVP award, just the 13th player in NBA history to pull off that feat. Nobody’s ever won more than three in a row. He’s on the very short list of the best passing big men in NBA history, if he’s not already No. 1.

“He is a triple-double waiting to happen every night,” Paige said. “That was Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson. Joki? is in that category.”

Some might argue that he’s not yet earned a spot above Hall of Famers Adrian Dantley and Dan Issel, two Denver basketball legends. And, it’s true he hasn’t yet reached their marks in years or advanced statistics like Win Shares, but Joki? closer that you probably realize in both categories, and neither Dantley nor Issel ever won one MVP, much less two. Plus, he’s still just 27 and on an upward trajectory.

“I think we have not seen the peak of Nikola Joki?,” Paige said. “He’s got another 10 years if he wants to play that long.There’s nobody laughing at the Joker.”

TSN ARCHIVES: Nikola Joki?, Serbian at heart (Feb. 20, 2019)

TODD HELTON (Rockies, 1997-2013)

The argument can be made that Larry Walker is the best baseball player ever to wear the Rockies uniform, by a razor-thin margin over Todd Helton.

But Helton was the easy choice for a spot on Denver’s Rushmore. The Toddfather, without question, is Rockies baseball. “Todd was a lot more popular that Larry Walker,” Paige said.

Helton was the franchise’s first truly homegrown superstar. Walker, like the other Blake Street Bombers — Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla — came to Colorado after starting their MLB careers elsewhere. They all finished elsewhere, too.

But Helton? He was selected by the Rockies with the No. 8 overall pick in 1995 MLB Draft and never wore the uniform for any other franchise in his entire career. Damn right that means something.

In his first seven full seasons with the Rockies, Helton averaged 35 home runs, 118 RBIs, 47 doubles and 117 runs scored, to go with a .340 batting average, .434 on-base percentage and .620 slugging percentage, with a 149 OPS+ and 6.2 bWAR. Those are just staggering numbers, even for the thin air of Colorado. Oh, and the humidor that was implemented to try and tamp down offense at Coors Field? That went into use in 2002, and Helton posted a .342/.452/.609 slash lines in the first three years of that era.

Look at the career statistics in Rockies history, and Helton is No. 1 in just about every single counting category, often by a wide margin. He has almost 1,000 more hits than any other Rockies player, 295 more doubles, 111 more home runs, 509 more runs scored, 558 more RBIs and 751 more walks. That list goes on and on.

“Todd allowed the Rockies to have their own mega star,” Paige said. “The others left, and it was Todd. Toddy Ballgame. He could hit to all fields. He was a great defensive first baseman.”

And though he wasn’t quite the same player by the 2007 season — injuries, including chronic back issues, had zapped most of his power — he still helped lead the Rockies to their first World Series appearance. Younger players like Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki were the star attractions, but in his Age 33 season, Helton hit .320 with a 133 OPS+, 17 homers and 91 RBIs in 154 games. The Rockies closed the regular season with 14 wins in 15 games to earn the wild-card berth, and Helton hit .351 with three homers and 12 RBIs — including a two-run homer in the Game 163 tiebreaker — in that stretch.

“The most famous photo in Coors Field is with Todd Helton jumping in the air when the Rockies clinched going to the World Series,” Paige said.

As it should be.

TSN ARCHIVES: Todd Helton’s roadmap to .400 (Sept. 4, 2000)

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