DENVER — Some might say Stan Kroenke and his family would be pulling off the impossible by bringing a long-awaited NBA title to Denver.
Less discussed — at least these days — was their willingness, in 1999, to dive into a messy acquisition process for a largely irrelevant franchise that had been considered a relocation prospect as the 21st century approached.
All of the talk of them relocating no longer exists.
Now, the conversation is about how the Nuggets were able to reach their first NBA Finals thanks to the stubborn patience displayed by the Kroenkes, who have taken an unorthodox route toward assembling an unorthodox winner. Denver hosts the Miami Heat in Game 2 Sunday night after winning the Finals opener.
Kroenke’s deal to purchase the Nuggets, along with the Colorado Avalanche and their home arena for $450 million, included a clause that tethered the NBA franchise to Denver for the ensuing 25 years. These days, the Nuggets are estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.93 billion.
“One thing I know about Stan is that when he sets his mind to doing something, and when he thinks he’s right, he’s going to fight for that,” said Wellington Webb, who was Denver’s mayor in 1999 and helped broker the deal that closed a year later between Kroenke and the Nuggets.
Though Kroenke married into money — he wed Walmart heiress Ann Walton in 1974, a few years after meeting her during a ski trip to Aspen — he had already honed his business chops. His first deal: Taking a $1,500 loan at 6% interest from his dad so he could buy part of a clothing shop with his friend.
Not long after, he got into the real estate business, building shopping centers with a developer who was tight with Walmart founder Sam Walton.
Real estate and sports are, these days, almost intertwined — a reality Kroenke grasped quickly.
“I always thought I’d enjoy (owning a sports franchise) because the professional sports business is part business and part sports,” Kroenke told the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune in 2022, “and I love both of them.”
Kroenke’s representatives did not return messages left by The Associated Press seeking an interview.
His first major jump into sports was his partnership with Rams owner Georgia Frontiere. In the mid-1990s, Frontiere was chafing at the inability of Los Angeles to build a new stadium, She was looking for partners to bankroll a move to St. Louis. Kroenke bought in, and when Frontiere died in 2008, he exercised his right to purchase a majority stake in the team.
The sad irony is that it was Kroenke, the Missouri native, who moved the Rams out of St. Louis and back to LA where they are the main tenant in his $5.1 billion stadium. His connection with Denver — much different.
“One of my dreams was to be involved in a professional basketball team,” Kroenke told The Denver Post, shortly after closing the deal for the Nuggets. “This is a dream I’ve had for a long time.”
There is, in fact, a strong argument that the basketball trophy might be the most meaningful for a family that has amassed three Stanley Cup trophies with the Avalanche, a Super Bowl trophy with the Rams and is still looking for glory with Arsenal, the Premier League soccer team it has had a controlling interest in since 2011.
Kroeke’s son, Josh, was a standout basketball player in high school and played at University of Missouri. He now runs the Nuggets.
“I thought that you could bring a championship to Denver,” Josh said in a recent interview on team-owned Altitude Sports Radio. “Trying to do something that’s never been done before, it’s not always easy, and it’s usually met with a lot of resistance. ... We’re mostly excited for the city to get to experience this. But the job’s not done.”
The Nuggets were parked squarely in NBA purgatory when the team went on the block in 1999, having not sniffed relevancy since their mid-80s heydey, when the teams were highlighted by coach Doug Moe’s uptempo offense. Their situation off the court wasn’t much better. In the late ‘80s, then-owner Sidney Shlenker had toyed with the idea of moving the team to Memphis.
His sale to a media conglomerate that was never truly hot on owning sports teams did nothing to tamp the idea that the Nuggets were a team that might be available to move. And teams were moving; Between 2001-08, Memphis (from Vancouver), Oklahoma City (from Seattle) and New Orleans (from Charlotte) all adopted existing franchises in a flurry of NBA reshuffling.
When Denver went on the block, the highest bidder, billionaire businessman Donald Sturm, came in with a $460 million offer, but balked at the idea that he couldn’t move the team.
In stepped Kroenke, who had no problem with the arrangement. A side note: To close the sale, Kroenke had to outmaneuver another group fronted by none other than John Elway.
“It was clear Sturm wasn’t going to work out,” Webb said. “And my only question was, ‘Is the new guy going to be supportive of the team winning?’ Because if the arena is full, not only do the owners make money, but city makes money, as well.”
The Kroenkes have answered Webb’s question with their willingness — increasingly rare in pro sports — to play the long game, both on the roster and on the bench.
The roster was built in workmanlike, no-drama fashion, highlighted by Nikola Jokic, who entered the league as an unheralded second-round pick from Serbia. The coach, Michael Malone, was hired in 2015, and there was never much talk of making changes after disappointing finishes to their seasons in 2018, 2019 and even last year.
Today, Malone sits behind only Gregg Popovich (Spurs), Erik Spoelstra (Heat) and Steve Kerr (Warriors) — who have a combined 11 championships on their coaching resumes — in terms of longevity among the NBA’s 30 head coaches.
“That has a ton to do with where we are today,” Malone said. “I couldn’t be more thankful for working for an ownership group that is not impatient and is not trying to find the next great thing, but is saying ‘Hey, listen, let’s let this grow and marinate into something special.’”
Despite his family’s large role in the Denver sports scene — the Kroenke business also owns the MLS Colorado Rapids, and the National Lacrosse League’s Colorado Mammoth, who lost the deciding game in that league’s title series Saturday — Kroenke has still taken his fair share of criticism around town.
It’s a byproduct of his 2004 move to bundle his teams’ TV rights and air them on company’s new regional television network, Altitude.
In 2019, the region’s biggest cable operator, Comcast, stopped carrying Altitude due to a disagreement over fees the cable giant was charging to carry the network. The ensuing legal battle has kept the Nuggets off the local airwaves in millions of homes for the last four seasons. The battle between billion-dollar companies has left many average Nuggets fans feeling like the only real losers in the equation.
But whatever bitterness lingers from the cable dispute has mostly been set aside over the past few months. All the playoff games have been on national TV.
Meanwhile, Kroenke stays firmly in the background. He can make it from his apartment at the top of Ball Arena through some back passageways and into his luxury suite to watch games in less than two minutes. Sometimes he brings his German Shepherd along.
“I think that not only is he a good businessman,” Webb said, “but he also feels he has something special in Denver. And I think it’s always been his goal to do right by Denver.”
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