- Tom Friend, ESPN.com Senior writer
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DENVER -- At halftime, the home team trailed by 23, and by the fourth quarter, they were down a dirty 30. The fans were booing and catcalling, and when this February game mercifully ended -- Boston 114, Denver 76 -- the Nuggets players wanted to run inside and hide.
But on the way to the locker room, there he was -- a young man offering every one of them a high-five. Chauncey Billups was 1-for-8 that night, but the young man told him, "Go get 'em next game." J.R. Smith clanked seven 3-point attempts, but the young man told him, "It's OK, keep shooting." They shook his hand, then shook their heads. Why is he always here? Why is he on our side, win or lose? How does he stay upbeat? None of them had an answer.
Because none of them has lived in Nicholas Owens' wheelchair.
If the Denver Nuggets reach the NBA Finals, they will be bringing 42 years of cargo with them. They will bring along an cantankerous old coaching consultant named Doug Moe, a hoot of an equipment man named Sparky, a reliable old trainer named Jim Gillen and a 23-year-old kid who's spent 18 years warming all of their hearts.
"He's the face of their franchise," says Dikembe Mutombo, an old Nuggets center, near tears.
Ever since he was born, in August 1985, people have been falling all over Nick Owens. Maybe it's been his sharp outfits or his circular glasses or his corny jokes or his whopper smile. Or maybe it's because they've never seen a 4-foot-8 man become larger than life.
When Nick was only a minute old, his doctor took one look and made a horrible face. The baby had a walnut-sized opening at the base of his spine, a crippling birth defect called spina bifida, and, a few hours later, tiny Nick was in complicated surgery. The prognosis was that maybe he'd walk or maybe not, and his family braced for a long stint of physical therapy.
It was a mind-numbing time for them, and they paid little attention to the hot sports phenomenon in town: the Nuggets. The team had just reached the Western Conference Finals, losing to Magic Johnson's Showtime Lakers, and there was still a buzz about what the future might hold. But none of that registered with the Owens family. They had a baby, headed for crutches.
From the start, the boy was bold. Nick would say anything to anyone, no matter how old they were -- or how tall.
He was so charming -- dressed in his bowties and argyle sweaters -- that he was named an ambassador for the Children's Hospital in Denver. He began to represent them at fundraising events, and in 1991, when he was 6, he got to meet his first Denver Nugget.
Nick was hardly a fan of the team, but he couldn't take his eyes off the 7-foot-2 rookie Mutombo that day. All of 3-foot-8, Nick hobbled over on his crutches to Mutombo and said, "Can I walk under your legs?" Mutombo laughed, and nodded. A friendship began.
"Nick was somebody who got attached to my heart from Day 1," Mutombo says. "With his personality, it was hard to say no. With his beautiful smile and his little circle glasses that he always wears you want to hug him, lift him. But it was hard for me, too. I think, 'Why is he like that? Why not me? Why was I lucky, he was not lucky?'"
Nuggets officials noticed their bond and began to pair them up at charity events. "They'd tell me I put Dikembe in a good mood," Nick says. The team wanted to raise $1 million in three years for the hospital, and they began scheduling high-profile preseason games -- with Michael Jordan and the Bulls, for instance -- and donating the proceeds to Children's. Of course, that meant inviting Nick out to old McNichols Sports Arena. The kid ate it up.
Mutombo would introduce him to all of his teammates, and Nick grew close to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, among others. Nuggets executive Shawn Hunter, now president of Chivas USA, was enraptured by the boy and asked him whether he'd like to take a road trip with the team to the Pacific Northwest. So Nick got to ride on the players' bus and the team plane and became part of their posse. On the flight, he presented forward Tommy Hammonds with a surprise birthday cake, eliciting cheers. The guys all felt like big brothers.
Before long, he told his father, Sherwood, and his mother, Marianne, that Nuggets games were must-see TV. And, in 1994, when the eighth-seeded Nuggets were playing the top-seeded Sonics in the playoffs, the team hooked him for good. The best-of-5 series was riveting, and, when his pal Mutombo smothered the game-clinching rebound in the finale -- and fell to the floor in love with the ball -- Nick was in tears of joy.
From that moment on, 8-year-old Nick wanted to be a Nugget himself. Somehow, some way, he had to be a Nugget.
But spina bifida is cruel that way. The older and heavier you get, the more pressure there is on your spine, on your back, on your bones. Nick had severe scoliosis to begin with and a body structure that made it painful and problematic to move. His hips began to fail -- one came out of its socket, leaving him in a body cast -- and by the time he was 9, he moved into a wheelchair full time.
His dream was still to work for the team in some capacity, but Mutombo was more worried about the here and now. He would ask, "How you doing, Little Man?" and Nick would always play down his condition. He'd tell Mutombo, "I'm great," and Mutombo would ask, "Are you sure, Little Man?" But that was the wonder of Nick. No one was allowed to see him wince.
The truth was, the Nuggets were keeping him upbeat. He had the team's logo painted onto his body cast and refused to miss the televised games. There were speed bumps along the way, particularly when Mutombo left as a free agent after the 1995-96 season. But the other players were also on a first-name basis with him. Sherwood had already purchased season tickets by then, and, thanks to Hunter and PR director Tommy Sheppard, now a top executive with the Wizards, Nick began to have his run of the place. He would high-five players as they entered the court before games, and the Nuggets assured Sherwood that when Nick was 13, he'd be able to work for the team.
But that seemed a million years away, and his body wasn't cooperating. In June 1998, three months before his 13th birthday, he underwent an anterior/posterior spine fusion, the 23rd operation of his young life. He'd had everything from a shunt operation to a cranial decompression -- because spina bifida constantly jeopardizes the central nervous system -- and the team honestly wasn't sure he'd be fit to work for them.
So they decided to bring the team to him. On draft day in 1998, they brought their first-round pick, Raef LaFrentz, to visit, and Nick told Hunter and Sheppard and everyone else that he was going to get better.
He rehabbed as best he could, and by the fall of 1998, he felt ready for employment. He could deftly maneuver his wheelchair and was virtually a speed freak moving straight ahead. Sherwood says his arms were "buff" from riding all day long, and the Nuggets had no qualms now about handing him his new official title: ball boy.
On the way to his first game, Nick couldn't stop grinning. But when he and Sherwood pulled up to McNichols Arena, the boy suddenly turned serious.
"Dad, there's a problem," he said.
"What?" Sherwood asked.
"They spelled my name wrong."
"What do you mean, son?"
"It's supposed to be called McNicholas Arena."
"You mean McNichols?"
"No, I mean McNicholas."
These were the days. First of all, Nick's health had stabilized, and second of all, he got to be a fly on the wall. The Nuggets stationed him right behind their bench, where he was responsible for taking stat sheets to the courtside fans and suite holders. But the best perk was being inches away from the greatest athletes on earth and being able to drink in the NBA ambience. He'd listen to coach Mike D'Antoni's game plans and treat them like sacred scroll. He'd heard the coach say, "What's said in the locker room stays in the locker room," and he took it as gospel. After particularly tough losses, Sherwood would ask him, "What did Coach say?" And Nick would say, "Can't talk about it." Sherwood got a chuckle out of that. "My son's very confidential," he says.
The kid was blossoming before their very eyes, and, when the franchise moved into the Pepsi Center for the 1999-2000 season, they found him an even more tantalizing job: locker-room attendant. And he wasn't going to be folding towels, either. Instead, he was going to be in charge of delivering player tickets to the will-call window. It was a job of great importance -- try facing a player when the girl he invites to the game doesn't get her courtside seat -- and no one was more perfectly suited than Nick. He was meticulous about retrieving every envelope and every name, and the players noticed it. Even a young second-year guard named Chauncey Billups.
The coaches trusted him, too. Dan Issel, who had taken over for D'Antoni, doted on Nick, and so did one of Issel's successors, Jeff Bzdelik. Nick often talked about becoming a sportscaster some day, and, with school video cameras, he filmed a show called, "Rolling with Nick." He'd interview teachers and students and edit them into a program. He'd ask to participate in P.E. class, and at home, he'd ride a hand-cranked bicycle. He could swim, and he could ski. Because of his profile with the team and Children's Hospital, he was asked to carry the 2002 Olympic torch through town. He was inspiring, and all the Nuggets personnel could see it.
By the end of the 2003 season, he was five years in between surgeries, the longest stretch of his life. Whenever Mutombo came back with the Hawks or the Sixers or the Nets, the first person he'd want to greet at the arena was Nick, and he was thrilled to see him thriving.
"Hey, Little Man," Mutombo would say.
"Hey, Big Man," Nick would say.
In late June 2003, the inevitable happened: more surgery. Nick needed a urological procedure because of complications from spina bifida, and when he developed pressure sores from lying on his backside, his hospital stay was extended. Nuggets officials were preparing for the NBA draft, but they took time to call him, to see how he was, to see what he thought of their chances of nabbing Carmelo Anthony with the third overall pick. It all felt like inside scoop, and on draft day, Nick tuned in from his hospital room. He watched Cleveland take LeBron James first and Detroit take Darko Milicic. Nick whooped and hollered; the high-scoring Anthony had somehow been available at 3.
The ensuing day, Anthony flew to Denver for a news conference, and afterward, Tommy Sheppard told Carmelo he needed to take him somewhere: to see a special employee.
Nick was waiting. Issel had already called the hospital on draft day to say, "I just want to make sure you're OK with our draft pick" and then had talked about Carmelo possibly swinging by. So Nick, the next day, made sure to clean up, get out of bed and slide into a chair.
When Anthony arrived, Nick shook his hand and said, "Carmelo, welcome to Denver." The two of them -- Melo and Nick -- were virtually the same age, and Marianne noticed an instant bond. "You knew they were going to be friends," she says. "You could just feel it."
They spoke for a while, with Nick telling him he'd be handling his tickets next season. And it was clear right then, with the local minicams rolling, how much this wheelchair-bound kid meant to the franchise.
Here was arguably the greatest, most influential draft pick in team history, and yet, Carmelo wasn't officially a Nugget -- until he'd met the locker-room attendant.
But Carmelo hadn't made it all better. Nobody could. Nick began having trouble swallowing and speaking. His fingers quivered, and his handwriting was compromised. By the start of the 2003-04 season, Nick's doctors discovered that the nerves in his spine were compressed, and they put him in halo traction because his backbone was bending forward. It was a horrible contraption to wear. He was being held up straight by hooks. Thankfully, Nick and his family were able to laugh about it, saying they planned to hang Christmas ornaments from his halo. "Well, if you don't have humor, you're crying," Sherwood says.
The Nuggets didn't handle it as well, and they desperately wanted to cheer Nick -- and themselves -- up. Right before Thanksgiving, they invited him to be part of a pregame ceremony at center court. Nick and his family accepted, and the evening began in the Nuggets' locker room with Bzdelik near tears. He called the team together and told them that if they didn't win this game for Nick, they had no soul. He told them they had nothing to be sad about, that they had their health, that all they needed to do was look at Nick and see how hard he was clawing. He told them, "If you don't win tonight, you'll never win." Then the team went out and pasted the Phoenix Suns by 30 points.
Not only that, they went on a six-game winning streak. Nick was moved by this, and wanted to keep showing up for them. Problem was, he was rapidly losing strength.
On Dec. 19, 2003, he went in for major surgery -- his 26th overall operation -- to fuse the bone that was bending forward (a cervical fusion) and to relieve pressure on the nerves within the spinal column (a Chiari Decompression). But as a result of surgery, Nick's spinal cord went into shock, and he was classified as a quadriplegic. He had suffered paralysis in his left arm and left vocal cord, and his breathing was compromised. "We weren't sure he was going to make it," Sherwood says.
The kid who wanted to be a broadcaster couldn't broadcast. The kid who wanted to be a Nugget couldn't be a Nugget. He felt guilty for missing games, for letting the guys down, and it became the worst Christmas of the Owens' lives, the absolute low point. Sherwood and Marianne tried cheering him up by giving him the present he'd asked for -- a Carmelo jersey -- but he couldn't open the package himself. "Us having to help him open his gifts, that's not the Nicholas we knew," Sherwood says.
He didn't want anyone to see him like this -- with a tracheotomy tube -- but that wasn't going to deter the Nuggets. He wasn't allowed to have more than two visitors at a time in intensive care, but one day, four Nuggets snuck in a back door to see him anyway: Mark Pope, Ryan Bowen, Michael Doleac and assistant trainer Erik Phillips. Bzdelik began to come, too, carrying game tapes. Nick wasn't able to watch the games live in ICU, so Bzdelik decided to bring the games to him. Nick's only rule was that no one could tell him the scores. He wanted to watch the games as if they were live.
"Well," says Nick, "I've grown up with this franchise. The Nuggets are my lifeline."
He spent 53 days in the hospital this way, determined to make it back for his senior year of high school and the Nuggets' playoff push. But it clearly wasn't going to be the same mobile Nick. Although his right arm would regain much of its motion, he now needed a power wheelchair for the first time. "It was like we were giving up," Marianne says.
The Nuggets got word of this, and they wanted to pitch in. His new power wheelchair would weigh 300 pounds, and the family was going to need a specially equipped van with a chair lift. Friends of the Nuggets organization arranged a fundraiser, but one of their players was already ready to write a $30,000 check.
Nick knew nothing about this, of course. In late February, his doctors told him he could finally leave the hospital and go to the mall or a movie, to get acclimated to the outside world again, but Nick asked to go to a Nuggets game instead. When he showed up, a reporter asked Marianne what she thought about the $30,000 donation.
"From who?" she asked.
"Carmelo," the reporter said.
Nick had tears of joy, but it was only the beginning. Carmelo had not only helped change Nick's life, he also altered the course of the Nuggets franchise. They were about to become a perennial playoff team, and this was just the sort of inspiration Nick needed.
Early in his tenure as locker-room attendant, Nick had begun waiting in the tunnel after every game to give the players high-fives. But now that he was partially paralyzed, these postgame encounters became more meaningful for everyone. For the players, the sight of Nick, his hand reaching out, reminded them it was only a game. And for Nick, the sight of the drained, exhausted players reminded him to keep plugging.
By 2005, he was back in the locker room, too -- still transporting player tickets to will call. He'd arrive two and a half hours before game time in his new light-blue van (Nuggets colors) and park in a reserved handicapped space. He'd then set up shop in the locker room, wearing a Nuggets T-shirt and Nuggets-issued sneakers, with a pouch around his neck. The players would then, one by one, bring their tickets and place them in his pouch. And off he would scoot to the box office.
"I put my chair in fourth gear and I get out of the locker room," Nick says. "And I am so fast, and people are just looking at me like, 'Watch out, here he comes!'"
From 2005 to 2008, he had no major health complications. Mutombo sat with him during the 2005 All-Star Game in Denver and said, "You look great, Little Man." And the new Nuggets coach, George Karl, decided that Nick's positive energy was mandatory in the locker room.
"All I know is if he wasn't here, there'd be a lot of people saying, 'What's going on?' Why isn't he here?'" Karl says. "He's kind of a foundation, a rock. We want him there, we love him, and if he wasn't there, we'd definitely have a rebellion."
But Nick and his parents knew the inherent risks. They knew that if Nick caught a serious cold, it could drift into his weakened lungs, turn into pneumonia and jeopardize his life. They knew the pressure on his spine could worsen and affect his central nervous system. They knew they had to watch him eat -- or feed him themselves -- because he could easily choke and not have the voice to shout for help. They knew there was no guarantee he'd live to see the Nuggets reach the NBA Finals or win a championship.
Which has made the 2009 playoffs magical.
It's funny how it comes full circle. The year Nick was born was the last time the Nuggets reached the conference finals, and now here they are again. Mutombo's the reason Nick's a Nuggets fan -- and now Mutombo has recently retired.
"I cried when I heard the news," Nick says of Mutombo. "Because I know he loves the game so much."
There's something about this season, something poignant, something palpable. Maybe it's Chauncey Billups coming back to town, the same Billups he knew from 1999 and 2000. Maybe it's Carmelo Anthony growing up before his eyes. Maybe it's the rejuvenated Birdman, Chris Andersen. Or maybe it's just his time, the Nuggets' time.
Nick has never been as joyful as this spring, whether it's the 54 regular-season wins or getting out of the first round for the first time in 15 years or shutting up Mark Cuban in Round 2. He has suffered through 11-win seasons and 14-win seasons, seasons in which they've fired his good friends Issel and Bzdelik -- and never said a discouraging word. He has had Carmelo not high-five him after losses, and he understands it's not personal, understands it's Carmelo feeling ashamed for letting the team down.
In car rides home, particularly after losses, no one in Nick's family is allowed to say disparaging words about the team. Nick won't allow it. He quotes Billups instead, and says, "Forget this loss; tomorrow's a new day." If they're home watching a game on TV and Marianne growls at the team or the refs, he'll say "Go'' -- and boot her out of the room. He wants no negativity, and he's superstitious, as well. He'll wear lucky boxer shorts, until the team loses, at which time he won't wear them again. Right now, since they're playing the Lakers, he won't talk to Kobe Bryant in the Pepsi Center hallway -- even though Kobe knows him and likes him.
"He's a Nugget!" Mutombo says of Nick. "I think he was drafted, too. Maybe he didn't get a chance to shake the commissioner's hand or get a hat put on his head, but I think he's a true Nugget. He's in their locker room; he just doesn't have a number. That's what I think about Nick. I play only five years for the Nuggets, but Nick play 18. Maybe he might play next year for 19 years."
These last few playoff games with the Lakers have kept Nick up at night -- the games have, not his sore joints. All he thinks about is a championship. He's already told his parents, "Do you want my ring size?" And they know he's serious. He told Marianne he's thinking about getting on his knees to pray for a victory, and she joked, "Don't. You'll break your legs."
The Nuggets are always on the tip of his tongue. It's an obsession. It's his world. And so that's the answer. That's the reason he waits for them after 38-point losses to Boston in February, and that's why he'll wait for them even if they go down in flames to the Lakers.
It's the journey. It makes him feel like one of them. It makes him feel like he's walking.
Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
If the Denver Nuggets reach the NBA Finals, one of their devoted followers will be Nicholas Owens -- who has struggled for years with spina bifida but has been an inspiration to the entire team.