Mont­bello teacher saw this star first

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MA RK KISZLA Den­ver Post Colum­nist

Oh, how Miss Kueter would have loved see­ing Paul Millsap walk through the doors at the Mont­bello Recre­ation Cen­ter, smil­ing as he fist-bumped young Den­ver fans gath­ered to greet the Nuggets’ new $90 mil­lion man.

Twenty-five years ago, a teacher named Nancy Kueter stood in this same north­east Den­ver neigh­bor­hood and had a vi­sion. Through the win­dows of John Amesse El­e­men­tary School, she saw this glo­ri­ous, sun-kissed sum­mer day com­ing for Millsap. Swear to good­ness.

“Miss Kueter, she was my teacher in the first, sec­ond, third and fourth grade at John Amesse,” Millsap told me Thurs­day, after be­ing in­tro­duced as the first A-list free agent signed in the fran­chise’s long NBA his­tory. “It’s funny, when I was young, Miss Kueter told my mother that one day soon I would make it so she would never have to work

again. That teacher must have seen some­thing in me.”

Yes, the $30 mil­lion an­nual salary the Nuggets will pay a 32-year-old for­ward to be their al­pha male on the court and in the locker room was an ob­vi­ous in­duce­ment to join a team that has not qual­i­fied for the play­offs since 2013. But there was some­thing more at work here. Millsap called it “un­fin­ished busi­ness.”

Three decades ago, Bet­tye Millsap fled an abu­sive mar­riage and moved to Colorado, where she raised her four young boys on love, far more plen­ti­ful than the money in her purse. “I went to the A&P one time with $12, and I got enough food for two meals for five peo­ple,” she re­called. “Four cans of corn, four cans of peaches …”

For the Millsap fam­ily, a bas­ket­ball court is much too small to de­fine the mean­ing of un­fin­ished busi­ness in Colorado.

“When I came to Den­ver in 1988, I cried all the way in shame, with my head down,” Bet­tye Millsap said. “When I came back to town this time, I cried tears of joy, and I could hold my head up.”

The Nuggets won 40 games last sea­son. Although it’s fair to ex­pect Millsap can lift Den­ver to the play­offs, no­body is count­ing on him to de­throne Golden State as NBA champ. For some guys, though, the ring isn’t the only thing. When Millsap made his first act as the high­est-paid ath­lete in town a sen­ti­men­tal jour­ney back to his old stomp­ing grounds, where awestruck kids shouted his name and a Mont­bello drum line pounded a wel­come-home beat, it re­vealed some­thing es­sen­tial about him.

Back when he was 10 years old, all Millsap ever wanted to be when he grew up was John El­way. Colorado is the place that taught him to dream big. He wants to pay it for­ward to Mont­bello, where Millsap put down deep roots be­fore mov­ing on to Louisiana as a teenager.

“Very few peo­ple come down to … I don’t want to say the ghetto, be­cause Mont­bello is not. But Paul Millsap com­ing here to an­nounce he’s join­ing the Nuggets means so much to my neigh­bor­hood,” said Ralph Simp­son, a five-time ABA all­star who scored more than 10,000 points for Den­ver in the disco ’70s, when the Rock­ets be­came the Nuggets and kept fir­ing away with that red, white and blue bas­ket­ball un­til the NBA was forced to sur­ren­der and let the Rocky Moun­tains join the Lak­ers and Celtics in the big time.

After Nuggets pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball op­er­a­tions Tim Con­nelly sang the praises of Millsap, tele­vi­sion cam­eras en­cir­cled the player’s mother, be­cause a good home­com­ing story is pure goose bumps. When the TV crews moved on, Bet­tye Millsap sat on a fold­ing chair, mak­ing cer­tain I knew her nine grand­kids mean way more to her than any gamewin­ning shot at the buzzer. I asked if the name Nancy Kueter rang a bell, and if that Mont­bello teacher re­ally told her that a lit­tle boy named Paul would grow up to be rich and fa­mous.

“Yes, she did tell me that. You just brought that mem­ory back to me. And it’s so true. So true,” said Bet­tye Millsap, her heart fill­ing with grat­i­tude for Nancy Kueter. “Where is she?”

A teacher so in­spi­ra­tional de­serves a hug. For sure. Through­out the news con­fer­ence, my eyes had scanned the rec cen­ter gym for Kueter. No luck.

When asked about her where­abouts, the eyes of the Nuggets’ new star dropped with an old piece of news that still gnaws at his gut.

“She passed on,” Millsap in­formed me. “It’s very sad.”

On April 13, 2013, Nancy Lil­lian Kueter died in Den­ver at age 66.

But here’s the beauty of teach­ing a kid to open his mind to any­thing and ev­ery­thing won­der­ful in the whole wide world. A dream can live for­ever. Thank you, Miss Kueter. The first de­posit on a three­year, $90 mil­lion con­tract earned with the Nuggets was a crazy dream in­stilled by a Mont­bello teacher dur­ing the 1990s.

Twenty-five years later, the dream was as real as the smile shared by Paul and Bet­tye Millsap, a proud son and his grate­ful mother, both so happy to be back in Mont­bello, they laughed and cried un­til it felt as if their hearts never left.

“When I came to Den­ver in 1988, I cried all the way in shame, with my head down. When I came back to town this time, I cried tears of joy, and I could hold my head up.”

Bet­tye Millsap, on re­turn­ing to Den­ver

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