'Man, we champs!': Why Denver's NBA title means more for these four vets

Jeff Green on becoming a champion: All the sacrifice paid off (1:10)

Jeff Green joins Scott Van Pelt to talk about all the sacrifices made to become an NBA champion. (1:10)

DENVER -- Reggie Jackson could see the tears beginning to well up in Jeff Green's eyes. DeAndre Jordan and Ish Smith went over to hug Green and stand by him. Smith began choking back tears. A few steps away, Jackson stood toward the end of the Nuggets bench, where he was crying too.

With about a minute to go in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, as the Nuggets were nearing their first championship Monday night, the four veterans began to realize that the dream they had been chasing all their basketball lives would finally be realized.

It is no coincidence that the first three Nuggets whom Jackson hugged as the confetti began to fall at Ball Arena were Green, Jordan and Smith.

Jackson looked at Smith and said, "Man, we champs!"

As the Nuggets celebrate when they take over downtown Denver for their parade on Thursday, those four will savor every moment, every sip out of champagne, every puff out of the cigars and every wave to the appreciative fans on hand.

It doesn't matter that Green was the only one of the four who played meaningful postseason minutes off the bench. All of them played a role in the locker room and on the sideline to help Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the Nuggets vanquish the Miami Heat and become world champions.

"Ish, Jeff and [Jordan] are kind of all old hats," Jokic said prior to Game 2 of the Finals. "When they talk, I think everybody listens, because if you listen to them, you can hear some really smart things that can help you play the game. I really appreciate and am really thankful for them."

Green, Jordan, Jackson and Smith are the epitome of wise NBA journeymen. They spent years getting to this point, bouncing from franchise to franchise, playing with countless teammates and constantly wondering not only if it might be the stop where they can win a championship but, in some cases, if it might be their last shot.

Add into the equation Bruce Brown, who had to build himself into a valuable NBA championship contributor, and the Nuggets had a bench full of players who weren't sure if this moment would ever come.

"It starts getting harder," Jackson told ESPN. He said he thought about retiring due to injuries when he was with the Detroit Pistons from 2014 to 2020. "You start having more doubt that you'll ever get this moment."

Between Green, Jordan, Smith and Jackson, the four have played for 35 teams over a combined total of 55 seasons.

Green and Jordan are the first pair of teammates to each play 1,000-plus regular-season games and win their first titles together, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

"It's everything," Green said of what winning a title meant to him before the NBA Finals began. "This is what I play for. For me, I always play for team first, and the ultimate goal was to always win a championship.

"With everything I've been through in my career, to win a championship is everything."

Green, 36, knows how fortunate he is to have even been able to still play in the NBA, better yet return to the Finals. The forward started his career with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007, but did not play during the 2011-12 season due to major heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. Green came back and would reach the Finals in 2018 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, only to be swept by the Golden State Warriors.

He has played for the SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies, LA Clippers, Orlando Magic, Cavaliers, Washington Wizards, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets and Nuggets.

Green played the sixth-most regular-season games (1,107) before winning his first championship, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.

In his 10th postseason, he averaged 4.1 points and hit a big 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Finals to help the Nuggets win at Miami.

"I'm proud of myself, from all the obstacles that I've been through in my career," Green said. "The obstacle that I faced 10-plus years ago, not allowing those type of things to hold me back, breaking barriers down, multiple teams, adapting to every circumstance.

"With all I've been through, which everybody knows, to be at this point, being productive, giving something on a great team in the Finals, I think it's amazing."

Jordan, 34, played sparingly, only appearing in four postseason games. But Jokic and other Nuggets said Jordan contributed the most with his voice and experience. During Game 5 of the Finals, Jordan gave Murray a pep talk during a timeout, imploring the point guard to give everything he had in the final 12 minutes to make history and reach basketball immortality.

The veteran center wasn't going to let the chance to win a championship slip away, even if he wasn't playing. He had waited too long after playing for the Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Nuggets in his 15 seasons.

"DJ, coming in [from] 'Lob City,' everybody's excited about it, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, him," Smith recalled of Jordan's career high point with the Clippers. "Everybody just knows they're going to at least be to the Western Conference finals, and he doesn't get past the second round. And then from there, he goes to Brooklyn. And then from there, you kind of just move around. So it's truly gratifying."

Smith, 34, said that at one point he thought about quitting basketball while at Wake Forest after suffering a thumb injury during his freshman year in 2006-07.

"I was ready to wrap it up," Smith told ESPN. "Once I got to the league though, I just kept pushing. My mantra was the next move was the best move, and that's how I kind of hung my hat."

Smith now holds the record for most teams played for at the time of winning a first championship with 13 franchises.

"It hit me at the end of the game," Smith said of finally becoming a champion, in between spraying teammates with champagne in the Nuggets locker room. "I don't know why I just got emotional, but this is gratifying, man. This is great. I'm so happy for the city. Denver, our teammates, man, we all got a story. So it's been a blessing."

Smith, who appeared in four playoff games this postseason, could be seen wandering around the locker room and hallways of Ball Arena after the game was over, soaking in the moment.

For Jackson, he celebrated with a cigar and champagne but the idea that he is a champion still hasn't sunk in. Jackson said it likely would take a week before it really hits him.

After Jackson thought about retiring due to injuries during his time in Detroit, the 33-year-old point guard credited close friend Paul George and the Clippers with reviving his career in 2019-20. The former Clippers fan favorite, who was dealt to the Charlotte Hornets at the trade deadline before being bought out and signing with Denver, probably is still pinching himself.

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Jackson made the NBA Finals in his rookie season with Oklahoma City in 2011-12, before the Thunder lost to the Heat. Jackson thought he would return to the Finals several times with that talented Thunder team, before the core of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook split. Instead, he began to wonder if he would ever get back there again.

"I was just talking to Ish about it," Jackson, who played for the Thunder, Pistons, Clippers and Nuggets, told ESPN. "I thought [OKC would have] four titles in six years. We were stacked ... I never thought I'd only be in my second NBA Finals in 12 years."

Even though he didn't play much, this championship run seemed to be almost like a fairy tale for Jackson. He played high school basketball in Colorado Springs, helped the Nuggets win Denver's first-ever championship and won at the expense of the franchise that denied him and the Thunder over a decade ago.

Jackson only appeared in six playoff games for the Nuggets, but he enjoyed the ride -- and is glad he didn't retire when he was tempted to.

"I finally got something I've been chasing," Jackson said. "It took a while."

ESPN's Nick Friedell contributed to this story.