Dan Issel initially didn't seem to have the physical abilities required for stardom in the NBA. He wasn't particularly quick on his feet, he wasn't that strong, and he didn't have a great vertical leap.
Because he wasn't big enough or strong enough to go toe-to-toe with most of the league's centers, he did his damage with a smooth, accurate outside shot and by outrunning his counterparts on the floor. He had an awkward but effective head fake, a clumsy but capable drive to the hoop, and an incredible work ethic.
He was one of the most durable players in basketball history, missing only 24 games in 15 professional seasons, a feat that earned him his nickname, "the Horse." His hardworking style of play was legendary in the state of Kentucky.
After a standout career at the University of Kentucky he moved on to the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association. In six ABA seasons, Issel led the league in total points three times (including a record 2,538 in 1971-72), was an All-Star each year and won an ABA Championship with the Colonels in 1975.
Issel then moved on to the Denver Nuggets, who entered the NBA one season later, in 1976. In nine NBA seasons with the Nuggets, Issel averaged better than 20 points six times and made one trip to the NBA All-Star Game.
He retired in 1985 as one of the greatest scorers in basketball history. His 27,482 total points placed him fifth on the all-time combined ABA/NBA scoring list, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Moses Malone. In the early 1990s Issel returned to the Nuggets as their head coach, and in 1993-94 he engineered one of the biggest upsets in NBA Playoff history.
Issel was born and raised in Batavia, Illinois, on the same block as Ken Anderson, who later quarterbacked the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals. After high school Issel established himself in basketball circles at the University of Kentucky, where he set 23 school records and led the club to three Southeastern Conference titles while playing for legendary coach Adolph Rupp.
In one game early in Issel's career, his teammates were neglecting to give him the ball, so Rupp called a timeout. According to Sports Illustrated, the coach bellowed, "This guy is going to be Kentucky's all-time leading scorer by the time he's through here. I thought you might like to meet him."
A three-year starter for the Wildcats, Issel gained All-America honors as a senior after averaging 33.9 points. In three varsity seasons (before freshmen were eligible and before the advent of the three-point shot) Issel scored 2,138 points, an average of 25.8 per game. As Rupp predicted, Issel still ranks first on the school's all-time scoring list.
His workmanlike style had already begun to attract good-natured jibes. Years later, when asked to recall Issel's college playing style, Joe B. Hall, who had been an assistant coach during that era, told Sports Illustrated: "The thing I remember about Dan is that he fell down all the time."
After his stellar senior season Issel chose to stay close to home and play for the ABA's Kentucky Colonels, who had selected him in the first round of the 1970 ABA Draft. With Spencer Haywood having departed to the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics, the door was left open for a new ABA scoring leader, and Issel stepped right in. He averaged 29.9 ppg as a rookie in 1970-71, narrowly edging the New York Nets' Rick Barry (29.4 ppg) for the league scoring title.
Issel played in the 1971 ABA All-Star Game and shared ABA Rookie of the Year honors with Charlie Scott of the Virginia Squires. The Colonels finished the regular season at 44-40, a distant second to Virginia (55-29) in the Eastern Division. But in the playoffs the Colonels dumped the Squires, then pushed the Utah Stars to the limit in the ABA Finals before losing in Game 7.
Issel was even more prolific in 1971-72. Playing in 83 of 84 games, he set an ABA single-season record for total points with 2,538. Still, his average of 30.6 ppg ranked third in the league behind Scott (34.6 ppg) and Barry (31.5), both of whom played fewer games. In the second of his six ABA All-Star Games, Issel scored 21 points, collected 9 rebounds, and was named Most Valuable Player.
With rookie Artis Gilmore at center and Issel at forward, the Colonels posted the best regular-season record in ABA history at 68-16. But Kentucky was stunned in the playoffs, losing to the New York Nets in seven games in the Eastern Division Semifinals.
The ABA had a major infusion of talent that season, including Erving, George McGinnis and Gilmore -- Issel's 7-2 Kentucky teammate who led the league in rebounding and won the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards. Issel was selected to the All-ABA First Team along with Gilmore, the Dallas Chaparrals' Don Freeman, New York's Barry and Bill Melchionni.
Issel's scoring average dropped slightly over the next few years, but the Colonels as a team maintained their superior performance. They boasted a powerful lineup that included Gilmore, who led the league in rebounding for three consecutive seasons, and long-distance scoring threat Louie Dampier, who finished as the ABA's all-time career leader in points, field goals, three-point field goals, and assists.
In 1972-73 Kentucky went 56-28 and lost a seven-game ABA Finals battle with the Indiana Pacers. Issel scored 27.3 points per game on the season, third in the league behind Erving and McGinnis. In 1973-74 the team dropped to 53-31 while Issel averaged 25.5 ppg to again place third in the league.
The Colonels put it all together in 1974-75. Issel scored 17.7 ppg, the lowest average of his ABA career, sacrificing his individual numbers for team goals. And Kentucky responded, posting a 58-26 regular-season record to tie Erving's New York Nets for the Eastern Division title. The Colonels then lost only 3 of 15 postseason games, completing their championship run by trouncing Indiana, four games to one, in the ABA Finals.
Prior to the 1975-76 season, the Colonels traded Issel to the Baltimore Claws (formerly the Memphis Hustlers) for Tom Owens and cash. But the Claws folded before the season began, and Issel was subsequently traded to the Denver Nuggets for Dave Robisch and cash. He spent the rest of his career with the Nuggets and became one of the most popular sports figures in Denver history.
Issel joined a powerful Nuggets team that also included high-flying David Thompson, who ranked third in the league in scoring with 26.0 ppg in 1975-76. Issel placed seventh with 22.9 ppg and helped the Nuggets to an ABA-best 60-24 record. Denver had championship hopes entering the postseason, but the Nuggets fell to the New York Nets in the ABA Finals -- the last one ever.
The Nuggets franchise became part of the NBA for the 1976-77 season with the ABA-NBA merger. In his six ABA campaigns Issel had scored 12,823 points (25.6 ppg) and grabbed 5,426 rebounds (10.9 rpg). He had appeared in six consecutive ABA All-Star Games and had earned selection to either the All-ABA First or Second Team five times.
Three other ABA clubs -- the Indiana Pacers, the New York Nets and the San Antonio Spurs also joined the NBA at the time of the merger, but only the Nuggets enjoyed immediate success. Denver reached the playoffs in each of its first three NBA seasons.
In 1976-77, the Nuggets went 50-32 and won the Midwest Division. Thompson led the team and placed fourth in the league in scoring with 25.9 ppg; Issel was close behind at 22.3, and he made his only NBA All-Star appearance that season. Denver scored 112.6 points per game, second in the league to San Antonio. The Nuggets advanced to the postseason but lost to the championship-bound Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Semifinals.
That season the NBA was introduced to Issel's unconventional center play. Rather than muscle for position near the basket, he fired from the perimeter, launching long-range salvos with pinpoint accuracy. Issel succeeded on more than 50 percent of his attempts for seven straight seasons. His accuracy at 15 to 20 feet from the basket made his patented head fake and drive especially effective. Issel gave Sports Illustrated his own evaluation of the move: "It's the worst fake in the history of basketball and it works every time," he said. "I can't believe anyone goes for it."
His colleagues agreed. When Issel was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993, one-time Nuggets' teammate Alex English recalled for the Denver Post that "during the time I played with him, he was one of the toughest centers playing the game and one of the better centers, as well as being one of the funniest . He had this one fake, a head fake, they would always go for it. The fake and the jumper, those were his trademarks." And Doug Moe, who coached Issel for five years at Denver, added that "it worked because he looked so dumb. That look in his face just freezes you."
The Nuggets acquired George McGinnis in 1978-79. With Thompson and McGinnis doing most of the scoring, Issel's average dipped to 17.0 points per game. The team fell to 47-35 and finished a game behind the Kansas City Kings in the Midwest Division. In the playoffs Issel pushed his scoring to 24.3 points per game, but the Nuggets took an early exit, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in a best-of-three first-round series.
In 1979-80 Issel was a bright spot on an otherwise lackluster team. The Nuggets finished 30-52 and out of the playoffs, but Issel ranked seventh in the league in scoring with 23.8 points per game. In a January 31 contest against New Jersey he poured in a career-high 47 points, helping Denver to a 127-126 victory. Although the team struggled, the Nuggets made a key acquisition during the season that turned their fortunes around. On Feb. 1 Denver sent McGinnis to Indiana for forward Alex English, who went on to play 10 seasons with the Nuggets and become the team's all-time leading scorer, and a first-round draft choice.
With English aboard, Denver began an unprecedented four-year scoring binge. In 1980-81 the Nuggets were subpar but exciting, ringing in 121.8 points per game to lead the league in offense. Coach Doug Moe took over midway through the season and instituted a wide-open offensive scheme that became a Denver trademark in the 1980s. Thompson, English, and Issel all averaged better than 20 points that season, with Issel finishing at 21.9. In 1981-82 the Nuggets boosted their scoring average to 126.5 points per game, pushed their won-lost record above .500, and sneaked back into the playoffs. Issel averaged 22.9 points for the year but couldn't prevent a first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns.
The 1982-83 edition of the team again led the NBA in scoring (123.2 ppg), finished 45-37, and then fell to San Antonio in the playoffs. English (28.4 ppg), Kiki Vandeweghe (26.7), and Issel (21.6) provided the fireworks. In 1983-84 the club scored 123.7 points per contest while slipping to a 38-44 record. Issel, nearing the end of his career, saw his scoring average dip below 20 points per game (19.8) for the first time in five seasons.
Although the undersized Issel seemed to have played his entire career out of position, he was comfortable playing center. "That's the position I grew up playing," he said in NBA Today. "I think I'm better at center because I don't put the ball on the floor as well as most forwards do. I also think I'd have trouble defending people outside if I played small forward." He further explained in Sports Illustrated, "I think I'm kind of a blue-collar player. There's nothing flashy about my game. I have to concentrate all the time. If I relax, I don't get anything accomplished." Denver's General Manager Carl Scheer added, "He's a dinosaur. He believes in an honest day's work."
Issel slowed considerably in 1984-85, averaging just 12.8 points. He retired after the season with his name all over the record books, ranking fourth on the combined ABA/NBA list in total points (27,482) and was among the top 10 in games played, minutes played, and field goals made. Issel retired as Denver's leading scorer, with 16,589 points for an average of 20.7 points per game. (He was surpassed by Alex English a few years later.) Issel also topped the team's all-time charts for free throws made (4,214) and rebounds (6,630).
After retirement Issel moved back to Versailles, Kentucky, to run his Courtland Farm horse-breeding business. "The Horse" had always enjoyed raising horses, but he did not abandon basketball entirely. He spent a year doing color commentary for University of Kentucky basketball games and then returned to Denver as a Nuggets broadcaster from 1988 to 1992.
Denver General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff was impressed by Issel's astute commentary, and although Issel had no coaching experience, Bickerstaff handed him the reins for the 1992-93 season. As a rookie NBA head coach, Issel guided a young Nuggets squad to a 36-46 record, a 12-game improvement over the previous year. Denver's lineup, led by Dikembe Mutombo and Chris Jackson (who changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf the following year), showed promise, and Issel began to gain a reputation as one of the league's bright young coaches.
He cemented that reputation in 1993-94. After posting a 42-40 record to claim the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Nuggets put together one of the most exciting postseason runs in recent playoff history. In the first round Denver drew Seattle, a powerful team which had posted the best record in the league. After losing the first two games the Nuggets came roaring back to win three straight and claim the series, becoming the first eighth seed in NBA Playoff history to upset a No. 1 seed, and only the fifth team to come back from a two-games-to-none deficit.
In the conference semifinals Denver fell behind the Utah Jazz, three games to none, then rallied once again. No team had ever won a seven-game series after losing the first three games, but the Nuggets had a chance after winning Games 4, 5, and 6. In Game 7, however, Utah prevailed, 91-81, ending Denver's Cinderella performance.
After their exciting playoff run, Issel and the Nuggets had high hopes entering the 1994-95 campaign. However, midway through the season with Denver hovering around .500 in the Midwest Division, Issel unexpectedly resigned as head coach. During his two and a half year stint on the sidelines in Denver, he compiled a 96-102 record.
Issel and the Nuggets were reuninited once again on March 25, 1998 when he was named vice president and general manager of a franchise that would end up the 1997-98 season with an 11-71 record. With the new role, Issel was given the task of restoring the winning tradition of the Denver franchise.
Issel was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. He was never considered a superstar and was never flashy. Instead he was an iron man with a smooth jump shot, an effective head fake, and an easy humor. Issel earned his place in NBA history by hustling and squeezing the most out of his talents.
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