For Denver Nuggets’ Sparky Gonzales, the NBA Finals have been a long time coming
The equipment manager since 1987, Gonzales is an important part of the organization: ‘He’s just the ‘OG’ around here’
After the Denver Nuggets knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers to win the Western Conference finals, Nikola Jokic gave a shout out to his parents and equipment manager Sparky Gonzales before the team owners on national television. With the Nuggets players, coaches, front office members and fans celebrating loudly in Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, Gonzales at first didn’t hear the love given to him from the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.
Jokic isn’t alone in his admiration for Gonzales. The Nuggets’ longtime employee is beloved by generations of players past and present.
“I couldn’t hear anything out there, but I finally watched it the next day,” Gonzales told Andscape recently. “And then when I got back into my locker room, I probably had 192 text messages saying that he gave me the shout out. I read them when we were sitting on the plane going back to Denver. I went up to him and I said, ‘Man, you’re going to get me fired. You got to say the owner’s name first before you say the equipment guy.’ ”
A smiling Gonzales raised up from the baseline on his worn-down knees and lifted his equally weathered arms into the air in celebration when his beloved team officially became Western Conference champs on May 22. The Nuggets made the NBA Finals for the first time since joining the NBA in 1976. Gonzales has been around the Nuggets organization since 1977 and has been their primary equipment manager since the 1987-88 season.
The Nuggets are entering Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat (8:30 p.m. ET Thursday, ABC) loaded with talent and led by Jokic and hot-scoring shooting guard Jamal Murray. NBA fans were probably confused when they heard Gonzales’ name from Jokic in such a big moment for the franchise.
While Gonzales isn’t a household NBA name, those inside the Nuggets’ organization have viewed the longtime equipment manager as an important part of their family for decades due to his hard work — literally 24/7 — wry sense of humor, humility and friendship.
Gonzales was once a camera salesman in Denver before he first got on the sports scene by doing security for the Denver Broncos in the mid-1970s at old Mile High Stadium. He also received some security work at the old McNichols Arena when it opened in 1975 and became a home for the Nuggets when they joined the NBA. Through the late 1970s and 1980s while working security at the arena, Gonzales made a strong connection with the Nuggets organization, particularly late legendary athletic trainer Robert “Chopper” Travaglini. Gonzales said Travaglini hired him in 1987 to be the equipment manager for the Nuggets and he has held the position for all but two seasons since then.
There is a long list of duties as NBA equipment manager: taking care of the uniforms and shoes for the players and coaches, putting equipment on planes and buses on the road, going to a visiting arena in the wee hours of the morning to set up for shootaround, bringing luggage to hotel rooms and making sure players have everything they can possibly need.
With just a cry of “Yo, Sparky,” Gonzales is always around to help a Nuggets player in need.
“You just do all the dirty work and basically do everything that nobody else wants to do,” Gonzales said. “Say when we’re going on the road — we are getting everything loaded on the plane, getting everything off-loaded, onto the truck, then going from the airport to the hotel, off-loading all the personal bags. Then from there, we go to the arena and get everything set up for the next day. And you know what our times are, 2, 3, 4 in the morning. [I] get back with enough time to get about a two-hour cat nap and then pass out practice gear for the morning shootaround.
“[I] Always go to the arena at night upon arrival, just try to drop everything off, try to get everything set up for the next day, if possible. If it’s not a hockey game or a concert or something like that, we try to take everything over there and just put everything in the room and have it ready for us. And when we get there at 9 in the morning or 10 in the morning the next day for shootaround, everything’s ready to go.”
Nuggets players from Kiki Vandeweghe in the 1980s to Michael Porter Jr. today have a strong appreciation and love for Gonzales’ hard work, energy and attitude.
“He’s pretty much been here the longest. He’s just the ‘OG’ around here,” Porter Jr. said. “He’s just a goofy dude. He gives me encouragement before games, and we have our inside jokes. I’m pretty close with him out of all the staff and the whole organization. He’s definitely just a big part of our team culture, always bringing the upbeat attitude. Even though he’s an equipment manager, he doesn’t have to be that joyful every day. But he brings that good energy to the Ball Arena, and we just love that dude.”
Vandeweghe, a former Nuggets general manager, said: “Sparky is one of the unsung heroes of the Nuggets. He would do anything for the team … anything for you anytime. Didn’t matter what time of day or night. [He] Always deferred to everybody else, but he’s the type of person that makes an organization what it is. I was so lucky to be with Sparky, know him and know his family.
“He always had everything done that you needed done. And if you needed something extra, Sparky was always first to say, ‘Yes, I’m here.’ Players recognize somebody who gives [his] all to the team. And whatever he had to give every single day at practice, he was always there.”
Before Gonzales locked away the Oscar Robertson Trophy — awarded to the Western Conference champions — in a secured case after Game 4, he took pictures holding the heavy award while proudly wearing a 2023 Nuggets NBA Finals hat.
“I was really careful with the trophy,” Gonzales said. “The trophy wasn’t engraved yet; it was the first ever trophy of its kind. So, the NBA called me up and they go, ‘Oh, whenever you guys want to, we’re not in any hurry, but we would like you to send it back so we can get Denver Nuggets engraved and all the series with 4-0 against the Lakers, 4-2 against Phoenix. 4-1 against Minnesota.’ They were going to engrave all that on the trophy.
“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll send it back to you tonight. Do you guys want me to FedEx it to you?’ They go, ‘Oh no, we’ll have a Brinks truck come pick it up.’ And they actually had an armored car come down Friday morning, picked it up from me at Ball Arena.”
Through the hard work, Gonzales’ job does have some perks.
Until the franchise qualified for the NBA Finals this year, Gonzales’ favorite memory working with the Nuggets was upsetting the top-seed Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the 1994 NBA playoffs. The best swag Gonzales ever passed out to Nuggets players was the 2023 NBA Western Conference champion hats and T-shirts. He said the NBA brought a big suitcase of hats and T-shirts for him to pass out to the players that wasn’t opened until two seconds were left before the Nuggets’ Game 4 win over the Lakers.
“We had kids sizes, men’s sizes, women’s sizes. And we told the players, ‘Just let us know what you want.’ You and the main coaches, and of course the owners and the GMs, they all get first pick and whatever they get, they get. And then whatever’s left over, then we offer it to the staff. And then from the staff it goes down to the TV crew and doctors and stuff like that. But it went really quick,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales owns notable sports memorabilia — including countless pairs of autographed sneakers from players such as Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo — and NFL items from his time with the Broncos. His signed jersey collection includes an autographed Julius “Dr. J” Erving jersey. Another job perk has been building a friendship with country music star Brad Paisley.
“You meet a lot of people in this business,” Gonzales said. “Brad Paisley loves to work out. He loves to shoot baskets. I got to meet him probably five years ago. He was on a tour. His tour manager reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, Brad would like to come up and shoot baskets on your court and maybe use your weight room if it’s cool.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, bring him on up.’
“After that, he put me and my wife dead center, front-row seats. And he’s called me every time he’s been close to Denver, if it’s up in the mountains or if it’s in Wyoming. If he thinks of somewhere I want to go, he calls me and says, ‘Hey, I have tickets waiting for you.’ Or we were in Vegas for summer league, and he was out there doing some big high roller show. And he goes, ‘Hey, if you and your wife want to come out, I’m doing a high rollers only show. Why don’t you guys come on out and watch my show?’ ”
Gonzales says he still has strong friendships with several former players including Marcus Camby, Joe Wolf, Dan Issel, Michael Adams, David Thompson, Fat Lever, Alex English, Mike Evans, Mutombo and many others. Gonzales is also known to not only take a ribbing from the players but give it right back. Former Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin and Gonzales were known to go back and forth.
The Mexican-American acknowledged that being a person of color has helped him connect with the players in a predominately Black league. While Gonzales has love for all the Nuggets players past and present, he is most known for being close to Jokic. The star center has shown up to Gonzales’ house for a party for the Nuggets ball boys, and once jokingly said Gonzales gave him an aerosol deodorant that could also be used as a spider pesticide, according to Denver Stiffs.
“I’m real talkative, and I’m real. I joke around with them,” Gonzales said. “Joker always says I say the worst jokes in the world, and he says, ‘You’re not funny anymore.’ ”
Gonzales and Jokic’s friendship first became well-known when word got out that they would play ping pong before home games.
“Joker and I used to play ping pong back when he was a rookie,” Gonzales said. “His pregame ritual was we’d play ping pong every day before a game. And to this day, he always keeps telling me he beat me. I beat him maybe three or four times. I had to let him win because I beat him one time and he had a really bad game. (Then-Nuggets general manager) Arturas [Karnisovas] said, ‘Well, you got let him win on game days.’ Well, we only play on game days.”
The job has taken its toll on the 62-year-old Gonzales, who fights through physical issues during the season. Gonzales, who was named the 2017 David “DH” Nordstrom Equipment Manager of the Year by the National Basketball Athletic Equipment Managers Association, has been aided by Nuggets assistant manager Gene Marquez since 2020. Marquez has taken over much of the heavy lifting.
“If you’re a basketball junkie, which I am, I used to have the best seat in the house because I used to sit on the floor right next to the bench,” Gonzales said. “But in my older years, the last few years from COVID, I’ve let my assistant, Gene, sit down there and I just basically hang out in the tunnel. Getting up and down off the floor when you start getting up there in age is a little hard to do.
“I got neck problems, spine problems and I just had knee surgery this year for a torn meniscus. And I’ve had a couple injections in my neck because my right arm goes to sleep. That’s just over years of lifting all that stuff and humping all that stuff because, before, it used to just be me.”
It’s uncertain how much longer Gonzales’ body will allow him to be Nuggets equipment manager. But the good news is that he has been around long enough to see the Nuggets finally get to the NBA Finals and perhaps get sized for an elusive championship ring.
“I want to do it as long as I can,” Gonzales said. “I want to hopefully try to get up to 65, which is just in a couple years. I want to get up to there just so you can get that insurance, Medicare and stuff like that to help you out. But I don’t know if the old body will let me…
“Winning the NBA championship would mean everything. That is the ultimate prize. After all these years, ‘Why not us?’ ”