Montbello teacher saw this star first
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