Legends profile: Dan Issel
Dan Issel dominated in the ABA before doing likewise with the Denver Nuggets in the NBA.
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 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 ABA. In six 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 in 1976. In nine seasons with the Nuggets, Issel averaged better than 20 points six times and made one trip to the All-Star Game.
He retired in 1985 as one of the greatest scorers in basketball history. At the time of his retirement, 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 coach, and in 1993-94 he engineered one of the biggest upsets in NBA Playoff history.
Issel was born and raised in Batavia, Ill., 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 3-pointer), 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. When asked to recall Issel’s college playing style, former Kentucky assistant coach Joe B. Hall told Sports Illustrated: “The thing I remember about Dan is that he fell down all the time.”
The ABA’s Kentucky Colonels selected Issel in the first round of the 1970 ABA Draft and with Spencer Haywood having departed to the NBA, the door was left open for a new ABA scoring leader. 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 nine rebounds, and was named MVP.
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.
Issel’s scoring average dropped slightly over the next few years, but the Colonels as a team maintained their superior performance. In 1972-73, Kentucky went 56-28 and lost in Game 7 of the ABA Finals to the Indiana Pacers. Issel scored 27.3 ppg that season, third in the league behind Erving and George 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 went 12-3 in the playoffs, completing their championship run by trouncing Indiana, 4-1, 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, but it fell to the New York Nets in the final ABA Finals.
The ABA-NBA merger in 1977 brought the Nuggets into the NBA along with three other ABA clubs — the Indiana Pacers, the New York Nets and the San Antonio Spurs. Only the Nuggets enjoyed immediate success as 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. Issel averaged 22.3 ppg and he made his only NBA All-Star appearance, but the Nuggets’ first NBA playoff run was short as they lost to the eventual-champion Portland Trail Blazers in the West 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.”
In 1977-78 Nuggets finished 48-34 and won the Midwest again before falling to Seattle in six games in the Western Conference finals. Issel scored 21.3 ppg, while teammate Thompson battled to the last game of the season before losing the NBA scoring title to the Spurs’ George Gervin.
The Nuggets acquired McGinnis in 1978-79, who joined Thompson as Denver’s top two offensive options. Issel’s average dipped to 17.0 ppg and Denver finished a game behind the Kansas City Kings in the Midwest Division. In the playoffs, Issel pushed his scoring to 24.3 ppg, but the Nuggets were ousted in the first round by the Lakers.
Issel was a bright spot on an otherwise lackluster team in 1979-80. The Nuggets finished 30-52 and out of the playoffs, but Issel ranked seventh in the league in scoring with 23.8 ppg. 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 English, who would one day become the Nuggets’ all-time leading scorer.
With English aboard, Denver began an unprecedented four-year scoring binge. Moe took over midway through the 1980-81 season and instituted a wide-open offensive scheme that became a Denver trademark in the 1980s. In 1981-82, the Nuggets averaged 126.5 ppg, pushed their won-lost record above .500, and sneaked back into the playoffs. Still, Denver was ousted in the first round, this time by Phoneix.
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. In 1983-84 the club scored 123.7 ppg 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.”
Issel retired after the 1984-85 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 was Denver’s all-time leading scorer (16,589 points, 20.7 ppg), but was surpassed by 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, Ky., 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 Kentucky basketball games and then returned to Denver as a Nuggets broadcaster from 1988-92.
Then-Denver GM 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 coach, Issel guided a young Nuggets squad to a 36-46 record, a 12-game improvement over the previous year.
He cemented his reputation as a bright, young coach 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 ever. Drawing the No. 1-seeded Seattle Sonics, the Nuggets fell into an 0-2 hole in the best-of-5 series before winning three straight to claim the series. They became the first No. 8 seed in playoff history to upset a No. 1 seed.
In the conference semifinals, Denver trailed Utah, 3-0, 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 won, ending Denver’s Cinderella season.
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, Issel unexpectedly resigned. He was 96-102 in his 2 1/2 years on the bench.
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 finished the 1997-98 season with a league-and franchise-worst 11-71 record. After an off-court controversy involving a fan, Issel resigned from his post with the Nuggets.
Issel was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.