The early 1980s were a period of uncertainty for Denver Nuggets owner, president and general manager Carl Scheer and his team.
The Nuggets transitioned from the ABA to the NBA in 1976. They enjoyed some winning seasons at first — making three straight playoff appearances from 1977-79 — but by the beginning of the 1981-82 season, they’d missed out on the postseason twice in a row.
Scheer knew he wanted to try something fresh ahead of the 1981-82 season. Something to create some excitement among the fan base. So he hatched an idea: A contest to see which fan could design the best logo the Nuggets would use in a redesign. The rules were simple. Anyone could enter, and Denver’s staff chose what they felt was the best one.
Picking the winning logo was easy. The design featured Denver’s skyline reimagined in Tetris-like shapes, which were set against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. Behind the Rockies was a rainbow-colored streak. The Nuggets adopted the design, which became known as the “rainbow skyline,” and would use it as the team logo from 1981 until 1993, a period which overlapped with some of the best moments in Nuggets history.
On Saturday, the Nuggets will once again wear the rainbow skyline jerseys in their home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers, when they will also retire former center Dikembe Mutombo’s jersey at halftime. He will become the fifth Nuggets player to see his jersey hang in the rafters.
Ahead of the game, Denverite caught up with Scheer, whose knack for promotion helped bring about the rainbow skylines that you still see Denver residents rocking to this day.
“We had been quite frankly floundering as a franchise,” Scheer remembered, thinking back to the early ‘80s. “We weren’t certain where we were going. We had some good years, but we had some off seasons as well. It was my feeling that we needed to think a little more out of the box than we had to achieve the kind of support we needed in Denver.”
Those who knew Scheer well were familiar with his outside-the-box tendencies. It was Scheer, after all, who put on the first-ever Slam Dunk Contest at the ABA All-Star Game in 1976 — the same one Julius Erving famously dunked from the free-throw line — which the NBA would later adopt in 1984.
“Carl was definitely one who liked to try different things,” said Lisa Johnson, who’s now in her 36th season with the organization. “He was always coming up with new ideas and doing different things. Now we do that all the time. People are always coming up with different marketing ideas. That’s the way business is now. Back then things were different. People were more straightforward. He always had ideas to make it more entertaining. He viewed the sport and the package as entertainment.”
Scheer had a tendency to come up with ideas and want them executed quickly. Johnson remembers sitting in a meeting with Scheer once in preparation for the Nuggets’ Fan Appreciation Day. Scheer told Johnson he wanted the event to be a “carnival atmosphere.” Clowns, bands, color, music. He wanted all of it on the main concourse. Johnson can’t remember exactly how much time she had to put it all together, but it wasn’t a lot. She pulled it off.
“His ideas were always off the cuff,” Johnson said. “It was just like a big carnival. There were games and colors and excitement. It was great.”
Johnson was among a small group of Nuggets employees who helped choose the rainbow skyline logo. So was Scheer’s wife, Marsha. When interviewed for this story, they couldn’t produce the winning fan designer’s name, and a trip to the Denver Public Library didn’t turn anything up. But Marsha recalls choosing the rainbow skyline as the winner because she believed it embodied what Denver was like at the time: young, vibrant and fun.
“It was the most exciting period,” Marsha said. “You just felt the excitement in the air. We were young. Listen, we’re 80 years old now. When we moved to Denver, I think over half the population was under 30. And it felt that way. You couldn’t go out to dinner on a Tuesday without making a reservation. That’s how busy things were.”
Life is slower now for the Scheers, who call Charlotte, North Carolina home. Carl turns 80 next month. He officially retired from pro basketball in June 2015. His fingerprints are still everywhere on the game; just watch the Slam Dunk Contest in February. In Denver, his influence lives on in the rainbow skyline shirts, hats and sweatshirts you see residents wearing around town.
The logo is long since retired, but it’s had staying power. Marsha, who was never one to wear a lot of sports merchandise, still wears a white T-shirt with the rainbow skyline printed across the front to this day.
“It was colorful. It depicted the mountains,” Marsha said. “I thought there was certain sophistication to the shirt, to the logo. I wear it with pride. I’m not a name wearer on my clothes at all. But I do wear this one, and I’m proud of it.”