Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, coach Mike Malone, assistant Wes Unseld Jr., guard Will Barton and swingman PJ Dozier have something in common, and it’s not just being part of one of the most surprising postseason runs in NBA history.
It’s their deep connection to Baltimore.
The Nuggets have made it to the Western Conference finals after becoming the first team ever to overcome a 3-1 deficit twice in the same playoffs, knocking out the Utah Jazz in the first round and 2019 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers in the semifinals during the league’s restart at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. And while Denver is celebrating its first trip to the conference finals since 2009, the Baltimore area is well-represented by the five aforementioned team members.
There is a sense of pride for the city that has stretched deep with the team ever since former Towson Catholic standout Carmelo Anthony was drafted No. 3 overall by the organization in 2003.
“It’s really neat and I’m lucky enough to have a job that I really enjoy,” said Connelly, a Towson Catholic graduate himself whose team trails LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. “Certainly, I wouldn’t have this job without the roots that were established in Baltimore — from family, to friends, to schools — it’s shaped who I am and I’m always proud to wave the Baltimore flag and represent for the home city.”
Connelly grew up in North Baltimore around Northern Parkway with four brothers — Joe, Pat, Dan and Kevin — and two sisters — Kelly and Meggie — and attended now-defunct Towson Catholic. The Roland Park native went to local events such as the Craig Cromwell Summer League and Baltimore Basketball Classic throughout his childhood, along with Bullets games at the former Baltimore Arena (now Royal Farms Arena) and Loyola Maryland, Coppin State and Maryland basketball games.
Some of his fondest memories were of watching Dunbar’s nationally ranked teams and other high-level Baltimore-area programs, featuring some of the most talented high school basketball players in the country. At Towson Catholic, Connelly played against Calvert Hall’s Juan Dixon, Mount Saint Joseph’s Torrey Butler and St. Frances' Mark Karcher.
Connelly and Unseld have known each other since they were 15 or 16 years old, when Unseld played at Loyola Blakefield, a former Baltimore Catholic League rival of Towson Catholic. They played against each other while their older sisters were classmates at Maryvale Prep.
The two went on to work together from 1997 to 2010 with the Wizards until Connelly left to become assistant general manager with the then-New Orleans Hornets. After Connelly became the Nuggets' executive vice president of basketball operations and general manager in 2013, he reunited with Unseld in 2015 when Malone brought the young coach to Denver as an assistant.
How deep is their friendship? Connelly and Unseld were each other’s best man in their weddings.
Unseld grew up with a different perspective of the game. As the son of Basketball Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, who died in June, he grew up around the game, following his dad in the locker room throughout his career with the Baltimore, Capital and Washington Bullets from the age of 5.
To the younger Unseld, it was “never all-consuming” that his father held such a storied legacy with the franchise. After taking a step back as an adult, he realized that his father’s standing in NBA history was “pretty special."
“That relationship gave me access to things that most people don’t get the opportunity to be around,” Unseld said. “The difference for me at a young age was that I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal. I know it sounds crazy, but it was just dad. That was our life. He worked there, this was his routine — you don’t really comprehend the depth of that until you get a little older and you realize that this is really cool and that this is really neat.”
Unseld Jr. played center at Loyola Blakefield and competed for Johns Hopkins from 1994 to 1997 before starting his scouting career with the Washington Wizards. He spent nine years climbing the ranks as a personnel and advanced scout before becoming an assistant coach with the Wizards and serving as a scout and coach for the Washington Mystics.
Malone may have grown up in Astoria, Queens, but his Baltimore roots run deep.
He played point guard for Loyola Maryland from 1989 to 1993, recording 383 points, 282 assists, 176 rebounds and 79 steals. Malone began his coaching career at Friends School as an assistant during the 1993-94 season.
He and Unseld’s discussions of Baltimore’s restaurants and places to visit in the city stretch back for years. They even share a deeper connection from their time at another local school.
“He’s a few years ahead of me, but [we talk about] going down to Little Italy, certain seafood restaurants around the city — he’s still in tune with what’s going on there,” Unseld said of Malone. “Obviously, he spent his early days coaching at Friends. I was a student at Friends roughly at the same time or a little later. That connection is more than six degrees.
"Tim Connelly used to live right up the street from Hopkins and Loyola. So, it’s kind of funny how all of these different dynamics have pulled us back together years later through different avenues, but it’s kind of a unique story.”
Barton, who has missed the entire postseason with a knee injury, began his high school career at City before transferring to National Christian Academy for his sophomore year, enrolling in Lake Clifton in his junior year and then attending Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. As a five-star recruit, he joined the Memphis Tigers in 2010 and was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 40th overall selection in the 2012 NBA draft. He, along with Malone and Unseld, joined the Nuggets in 2015.
While Dozier isn’t from Baltimore himself, his father, Perry, and uncle, Terry, were standouts on the Hammond and Dunbar basketball teams between 1981 and 1985. The Dozier twins led Hammond to a state championship in 1983 before transferring and helping the top-ranked Dunbar Poets to their second of three national championships. Terry Dozier went on to play in one NBA season for the Charlotte Hornets in 1989. A knee injury derailed Perry Dozier’s basketball career in college.
The 23-year-old PJ Dozier, playing for his third NBA team in three seasons after going undrafted out of South Carolina, has averaged 3.3 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 11.8 minutes per game during these playoffs.
With all of their talents combined, from the front office to the court, Connelly, Malone, Unseld, Barton and Dozier want to make sure that players and other coaches from Baltimore have the chance to make it to the next level.
“It’s all of our responsibilities for guys that the game has done so much for to ensure that we’re doing a lot for the game and the city,” Connelly said. “There are so many fantastic coaches throughout the area. There will never be a shortage of talent. I think it’s on all of us to make sure that we do everything possible to ensure that talent reaches their potential.”
Unseld took that same thought to the next level to be a great example to the youth of Baltimore.
“Whether it’s playing or coaching, it’s so many different avenues to it — sports marketing, sales, the front office roles,” Unseld Jr. said. “There’s so many ways to have that competitive outlet to also be involved in the sports. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in between the lines. Just thinking outside of the box and being creative overall — all of us as kids think that we want to be the guy that takes the shot, but there are so many different things that go into just running a team, the operations.
"Whether that’s coaching, medical staff, to broaden the spectrum so that these kids understand that there are other avenues to get involved and those things available to them.”