Sam Adams felt bigger than Damon Runyon when he landed his first Denver Post byline back on Dec. 21, 1986.
It was very nearly his last.
Adams remembers every detail from the glorious night before, when the Highland Huskies battled the Jefferson Tigers in a seriously low-stakes boys basketball game. Preps editor Taylor Scott had sent the more experienced Kim “Carter” Hartwig along, just in case his rookie scribe ran into any trouble. “I remember watching Carter kicking back and eating popcorn while I tried to document every single move that took place in that game,” Adams said.
Adams, one month shy of his 27th birthday at the time, was old for a novice high-school sports freelancer. His Tech Center day job with Great West Life wasn’t even selling insurance. ”I was just a customer-service rep,” he says with a laugh. But when The Denver Post hit porches the next morning, Adams felt it in his bones: “I was now a sports writer for a major metropolitan newspaper,” he said.
Thing is, that’s not quite how it works. Sure, the Post hired freelancers to cover high-school games. That didn’t make them employees of The Denver Post. If they were lucky, that made them $25.
Around that same time, one of Adams’ childhood heroes was about to make his final professional appearance in Denver. Basketball legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers would be facing the Denver Nuggets in his long sold-out farewell game on Dec. 30 at McNichols Sports Arena. Buoyed with fresh professional confidence, Adams did something that still boggles his many Denver Post colleagues. (I was one of them at the time.)
“The only way I could think of to get into that game was to call over to the Nuggets and tell them The Post was sending me to be part of the coverage,” Adams said. The team’s press office was confused but courteous. (“Who is this Sam Adams?” they naturally wondered. He of the one high-school byline.)
Fast forward to the call urgently inviting Adams’ presence in the office of none other than Denver Post Sports Editor Tom Patterson, a man with a legendary temper so fiery, the year-round, indoor color of his bald pate was a permanent sunburnt red. Still, the poor, unknowing Adams was thinking, “This is where I’m going to be anointed with my press pass.”
When he arrived, his first clue that this was not going to go the way that he assumed was the hole Patterson was looking through him like a laser.
“If you ever call the Nuggets or any other team and say that you are one of our reporters,” Patterson told his rebel cub, “you will never write again.”
Adams’ heart, he said, “was somewhere between the little toe and the toe next to it. If it could have escaped, it would have.”
As Adams started to gather his hangdog face to leave, Patterson told him to stop. “So, you must really like Dr. J,” he said. Adams said yes. Patterson opened his desk drawer and handed Adams a ticket for Section 60, Row I, Seat 10 of that Sixers 111-108 victory. Face value $18. Adams knows this because he still has the stub. It was the only time he ever got to see Dr. J play live.
Adams was promoted to full-time sports writer in 1992 by none other than Woody Paige, now the Denver Gazette’s esteemed sports columnist. Adams was covering the Broncos (no, really!) when he was hired away by the Charlotte Observer in 1995. Not even two years later, the Rocky Mountain News lured him back.
It was all touchdowns for Adams for the next 13 years, including being named the Colorado Association of Black Journalists‘ 2003 Print Journalist of the Year. But the wild ride from impersonator of a Nuggets beat reporter to, most recently, becoming the first Black sports writer inducted into the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame, came crashing down on Feb. 26, 2009, when employees were told the next morning’s edition of the Rocky Mountain News would be the last.
Thus began a most surprising and exciting mid-life career transition that leads us to this very night (June 18). Now 63 and in his 14th year as a professional, full-time stand-up comedian, Adams is headlining at the premiere comedy spot in all of Denver: Comedy Works Downtown.
Adams isn’t a punchline comic, but he’s been told that he tells funny stories his whole life, which began back in Cleveland. At the end of his 36 days in the Army (which sounds like a bit of a punchline itself), his squad gave him a signed group photo with the caption, “To Adams, the comedian.”
Feeling the call to “Go West,” Adams boarded a one-way bus to Denver in 1984. All he knew of the city were favorites from his trading-card collection: Ralph Simpson. Billy Thompson. Lyle Alzado. “I don’t know why, but I got Pete Duranko all the time,” he said. (Me, too.)
Whatever his plan was in coming here, says Adams, “it wasn’t to become a writer.” He lived at the Denver YMCA for a couple months, and he took that dead-end job with the insurance company. One day, he showed up unannounced at The Denver Post – and was allowed upstairs.
Adams’ comedy life officially began on May 15, 2001. He had recently reached the pinnacle of sports writing by rigorously covering the scandal-plagued track events at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, which was so stressful for him, he was looking for another creative outlet. The Colorado Avalanche were working toward their historic Stanley Cup hockey title, Comedy Works was hosting an all-comers open mic night – and Adams signed up. Everyone gets two minutes. Adams implored the emcee not to mention he was THAT Sam Adams, the sports writer for the Rocky Mountain News. He said it anyway.
“I am telling you, when I walked out and I heard applause, everything went blank from my head to my toe,” he said. “I grabbed the microphone and I said, ‘I forgot everything I was going to say.’ So I turned to the left and raised my eyebrows and made a funny face to the people sitting closest to me – and it got a laugh. The next thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘How about those Avalanche?’ and people went crazy. So then I said: ‘Leave it to the Black guy to bring up hockey.’”
Adams has been making people laugh, 100% profanity-free, ever since. But it was one thing to use comedy to bring some balance to his sports-writing life. The sudden closure of the Rocky Mountain News left the divorced father with little choice but to step up and give comedy a full-time go. He was 49 at the time.
“Let me be clear: I was never going to quit my day job to become a comedian,” he said. “The day job quit me. That’s how that door opened.”
That door opened a few months later at the 2009 Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb. Adams won the amateur competition, and that $500, he said, “comes in handy when you’ve just lost your job.” Adams was also invited to compete in the professionals’ division as a last-minute replacement – and he took second in a field of 24 national headlining comedians. “It was like being the lowest seed in the NCAA basketball tournament,” Adams said. “But when I took second place, I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to give comedy a try. The worst that can happen is I fall on my face. And if I do that, I’ll go live with my mother.’”
He didn’t go live with his mother.
Sunday isn’t Adams’ first time headlining at Comedy Works Downtown, but it’s his first time since before the pandemic. Headlining is a big deal because it is an hour-long set. It’s a big deal to Adams “because so many great comics have stood on that Comedy Works stage,” he said. I think it’s one of the top three clubs in the country. I get so jacked up when I’m on that stage.”
At 63, Adams is sharing more of his sports life in his comedy. And why not? It’s what people most want to hear. That is, unless you are Broncos great Terrell Davis’ mother. Adams once cracked wise about Davis’ propensity for injuries, only to later learn she was in the audience. Afterward, she confronted Adams and told him she was going to make sure T.D. heard about it – and she did. “We’ll see if you ever tell another joke!” she snapped. But, as she started to walk away, she turned back around and said, “But it was funny.”
That anecdote might well find its way into “Game, Set, Match,” Adams’ forthcoming one-man play that will recount his best sport stories – and he has plenty. Like caddying for Charles Barkley. Being yelled at by Tiger Woods’ caddie. Paul Newman calling his house.
Sunday’s Comedy Works crowd will get a full recap of the Nuggets’ historic run to the NBA championship, including a few good-natured barbs at national TV commentators Stephen A. Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and Barkley (who led the Sixers with 29 points in that 1986 Erving farewell game.) Impressions aren’t really Adams’ thing, but, come on, he says: “If you can do a baby, you can do Shaq. All you gotta do is lower your voice.”
He’s come a long way from that brash newcomer whose first impression was impersonating a professional sports writer.