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En-gel-stad: the Start of a Cult Hero

The chant has such humble beginnings. It starts with a handful of fans at Denver’s McNichols Arena and spreads quickly, like a small brush fire. Soon you can almost make out the words above the ordinary noise and applause of a Nuggets game.

" ... En-gel-stad ... En-gel-stad ... “

Then somehow it grows louder, loud enough to attract the attention of a Nugget player or two. Loud enough to make En-gel-stad self-conscious. He stares at his high tops, maybe, not knowing what to think of it all. He wants to play, but he’d like it to be Coach Doug Moe’s idea, not 5 guys who had one too many cups of brew. So he grins nervously, trying to pretend he’s studying the game.

But he hears them.

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" ... En-gel-stad ... En-gel-stad ... “

Now what? Everyone can hear them. But maybe Moe can’t. Maybe Moe is too busy yelling. Or cussing. Or all those things that En-gel-stad’s coach at UC Irvine, Bill Mulligan, did game after game.

Strange, isn’t it? Last season, an Anteater. This season, a forward in the National Basketball Assn. When Moe told him he had made the team as a free-agent rookie, En-gel-stad had this serious look on his face and said something like, “Thank you, sir, for the opportunity. I will not let you down.”

Actually, what he really wanted to say was, “AAAALLLLRRRIIIGGGHHHHTT!!!”

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He should have; Moe wouldn’t have minded. Knowing Moe, he probably would have yelled with him.

Moe had told En-gel-stad back in training camp that everyone--high draft picks and free agents--would be judged the same. Reputations wouldn’t matter. Signing bonuses wouldn’t matter. How hard and well you played, now that would matter.

En-gel-stad wanted to believe Moe, he really did. But there was something that told him it couldn’t possibly be true. En-gel-stad decided he would play hard every moment he was on the court. He would keep his mouth shut. He would do whatever they asked. Shoot? He could do that. Rebound? Of course. Play defense? He’d do what he could.

This was his dream. Ever since he was kid, En-gel-stad wanted to play in the NBA. Not in Europe. Not in the Continental Basketball Assn. But here, in the big time. So the least he could do was play hard. He owed his dream that much.

Then training camp swept past and before he knew it, he was standing in Moe’s office. There had been some luck involved. Injuries had thinned the competition. And the Nuggets weren’t convinced that all their big-name draft picks could stand being the 11th or 12th man on the bench.

En-gel-stad could. At least for now he could.

There it was again: the chant. As the game gets out of hand, more fans take up the task.

" ... En-gel-stad ... En-gel-stad ... “

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What do you know? It works. Moe motions to En-gel-stad--Wayne Engelstad--to get in the game. So what if it’s garbage time? Engelstad plays as if there are 32 seconds left in Game 7 of the NBA finals.

Rookies don’t get to play much at Denver. It’s Moe’s way. Jerome Lane, a rookie from Pitt, averages 8 or 9 minutes a game, which is almost unheard of for Moe. “If I get in 5 minutes that’s pretty good,” Engelstad said. “I don’t get a whole lot of playing time.”

But already he has memories, enough to fill a scrapbook. When you’re a rookie, you remember everything.

First shot he made? “It was against Houston,” he said. “I hit a jumper from the corner. It was pretty close to the 3-point line. Some of the guys said my feet were on the line.”

First foul? “Against Houston. Rookies get a lot of fouls. If you’re standing next to a veteran, you get the foul.”

First time in total awe? “It was with Magic and the Lakers. He hit the buzzer shot to beat us. During the time out, with 3 seconds left, I said to myself, ‘It’s probably going to Magic and he’s going to hit it.’ Well, as soon as he released it, I said, ‘It’s in.’ ”

Engelstad couldn’t be happier. Everything is so new, so wonderful. There’s first-class air travel. A good salary. A nice per diem. Engelstad probably stashes all those mints they leave on the hotel room pillows. He probably finds himself wanting to ask for autographs in the Nuggets’ locker room.

“We’ve got an older ballclub and I think they kind of laugh at me,” he said. “I’m kind of in awe of everything.”

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Center Danny Schayes has taken Engelstad under his wing. Guard Michael Adams lives in the same apartment complex. Forward Alex English, the Hall of Famer to be, calls Engelstad, “Ski” or “Engelski.”

“I don’t know why,” Engelstad said.

Nor does he care.

So excited is Engelstad, that on off days, he drives to a local health club and plays in pickup games. Afterward, he works on his dribbling and his shooting. As if the regular Nugget practices weren’t enough.

About once a week, Engelstad calls former Irvine teammate Scott Brooks, who earned a place on the Philadelphia 76ers’ roster as a backup point guard. They talk about their good fortune. And sometimes they laugh these giddy, innocent laughs. “We’re still kind of saying, ‘Are we really here?’ ” Engelstad said.

They’re here and loving every precious moment of it. Word is, that Brooks is already a darling of the tough Philadelphia crowd. And in his own small way, Engelstad has a similar rooting section.

“They see the back of my jersey,” he said. “I don’t even know if they know my first name yet.”

Who cares? Just as long as they never forget the chant.


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