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FANS AREN’T WATCHING NUGGETS WIN

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Denver keeps winning in McNichols Sports Arena, no thanks to crowd support. The Nuggets are playing to about 7,000 empty seats and giving new president Jon Spoelstra all the marketing work he can handle.

"First impressions? It's a challenge, but it's going to be fun," said Spoelstra, the former Portland executive who replaced ex-Jazz general manager David Checketts last month. Checketts pulled out when his group's purchase of the Nuggets stalled, but the new owners later completed the deal with major financial help.So Spoelstra is charged with filling the 17,000-seat arena, and unsold tickets are something new to him. In Portland, the Blazers have sold out Memorial Coliseum seemingly forever.

"What people didn't know was that we really had to work hard in Portland," Spoelstra noted. "We didn't let the fans know that."

As Jazz owner Larry Miller suggests of the marketing game, demand is a state of mind. When the Jazz move into their 20,400-seat building, they'll have to convince people that tickets are still hard to find.

The chore is more obvious in Denver, where the Nuggets drew less than 7,000 for one early-season game. "Short-term, you can't do anything," notes Spoelstra. "There's not any magic. You've got to take it in little bites."

Next door, the Broncos sell 75,000 tickets for every game. "I don't consider them competition," Spoelstra says. "They're an institution. You're not going to take any Bronco money - I don't mind that."

No doubt, this all sounds like a marketing project Checketts would have loved, but he worried about running an under-funded operation - before the Nuggets' new money arrived. Checketts, meanwhile, is considering several attractive business-related offers while doing consulting work and taking time off.

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CHANGING SPEEDS: Just your average two days of NBA-watching:

Monday, New Jersey scores 68 points against the Jazz. Tuesday, the halftime score is Golden State 75, Denver 72.

Nugget 7-footer Blair Rasmussen had six points in a 141-120 win, and he was the only player taller than 6-7 who scored. Once, 6-6 Walter Davis was the tallest player on the floor.

"I think there ought to be a rule that each team has to use at least one player taller than 6-7," Rasmussen said afterward.

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NICE PICK: No Jazz visit to Washington is complete without the reminder that the Bullets chose Kenny Green, long since out of the league, over Karl Malone in the 1985 draft. Delaney Rudd, another '85 Jazz choice who finally made the team, would have endorsed the Bullets' move - he was Green's teammate at Wake Forest.

"He had outstanding talent," Rudd said. "At the time, I thought the choice was good. It's a guessing thing, when it gets down to talent like that. There were 11 other teams that could have taken (Malone), too."

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MONEY MATTERS: Now that the cable deal is done, the Jazz know they'll make an extra $5 million a year from the NBA's new TV contracts. They'll also have to pay players almost $3 million, because the collective bargaining agreement guarantees that 53 percent of league revenues goes to salaries.

Bottom line: New contracts for at least Karl Malone and John Stockton, just for the Jazz to have a minimum payroll. As the salary cap goes up, so does the minimum that teams have to pay. "I used to believe (the cap) helped you with fiscal responsibility," Denver GM Pete Babcock told the Rocky Mountain News. "I still think it does to a degree, because it puts a control factor on basically going out and buying a championship. But on the survival side, it makes things more difficult."

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AT RANDOM: Lookalikes - no kidding: 7-6 Manute Bol and 5-10 Eddie Hughes, the ex-Jazzman . . . The last time Dallas' Richie Adubato was an interim head coach in the NBA, he replaced Dick Vitale in Detroit . . . Rudd is probably lucky Milwaukee cut him before the season. They kept veteran Gerald Henderson instead but waived him this week when Paul Pressey was activated.

The Jazz are at both ends of the common-injury scale this season. Bobby Hansen and John Stockton have had ankle injuries, which affected the most players (69) last year, according to the Philadelphia media guide's medical report. Illnesses that sidelined Jose Ortiz (mononocleosis) and Eric Leckner (food poisoning) were listed once each. Other rare problems included hives, tonsilitis and chicken pox . . . The Jazz have two days off in Cleveland because the NBA tries to avoid conflicts with Monday Night Football. But would Cavs' fans really have stayed home to watch Seattle vs. Buffalo? . . . Miami Coach Ron Rothstein, on Mel Turpin: "Turpin is the kind of guy who can really tease a coach. He can really play great in stretches, but when you really start believing he's the goods, he goes into a funk. Coaches get fired backing guys like Turpin."