On a recent plane trip to New York, Denver Nugget coach Doug Moe was talking about his veteran center, Dan Issel. "I call his overall game ugly," Moe said. "He's my 6'9" stiff."
Had he been speaking of any other player, Moe's comments might have been considered downright nasty, but compared with what other folks say about Issel, his words were actually sort of kind. University of Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who was a Wildcat assistant under Adolph Rupp when Issel played there, says. "The thing I remember about Dan is that he fell down all the time."
And if you judge Issel by standards of NBA excellence, you'll find that he's widely considered deficient in the following aspects of the game:
He's three to four inches too short for a center; he can't jump; at 35, he's too old; he's too white ("For his birthday, we're giving him a tan," says teammate Danny Schayes); he isn't strong enough; he doesn't rebound the way an NBA pivotman should, his career average of 9.6 per game saying "forward" rather than "center"; he can't clog up the middle; and he can't block shots. In fact, everyone in the NBA waits breathlessly for Issel's Annual Snuff, and seeing that he slapped one off the fingertips of the Nets' embarrassed Albert King last month, people can relax for the remainder of this season.
Pat Williams, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, says of Issel, "He's not a pro-type center, not defensive-minded, not an intimidator, and you can't win a title with him. But when his career is over, he'll be an immortal."
On opening night this season Issel scored his 25,000th point in the pros—becoming only the eighth player to reach that plateau—and he has subsequently passed Jerry West (25,192 points) and Rick Barry (25,279). That makes Issel—with 25,796 through last weekend—No. 6 on the alltime scoring list. He has John Havlicek (26,395) in sight—he'll catch Hondo this spring or early in 1984-85—and when Issel retires after next season, he'll have passed Oscar Robertson (26,710) and Elvin Hayes (27,086 through last Sunday and still counting, albeit very slowly) and will trail only Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) and soon-to-be-No. 1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (30,540 and still sky hooking). So there it will be, probably forevermore, the Big Three: Kareem, Wilt and Dan. No wonder Julius Erving, who also passed the 25,000-point mark earlier this season, marvels, "He's a prime-time player."
It seems you have to have played with or against Issel to know that, because to the casual fan Issel's ratings are so low that he has always seemed on the verge of being canceled. Perhaps that's because throughout his 14-year pro career, Issel (rhymes with missile) has labored in the oblivion of Louisville with the ABA Colonels and with Denver in the ABA and NBA, instead of high-profile towns like Boston or Los Angeles.
Besides, the Issel style of play is hardly dazzling. "I think I'm kind of a blue-collar player," he says. "There's nothing flashy at all about my game. I have to concentrate all the time. If I relax, I don't get anything accomplished."
"He's a dinosaur," says Carl Scheer, Denver's general manager. "He believes in an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. And he's never been appreciated as much as we appreciate him. Dan Issel is the Denver Nuggets." Putting his money where his mouth is, Scheer is paying Issel $575,000 this season and will pay him approximately $650,000 next year.
While Issel isn't about to return any of the loot, he argues that pro basketball players are overpaid. "We have a terrible image problem," he says. "The worst thing ever was the multiyear guaranteed contract. It took away all incentive. It's ridiculous to make this much money. Our priorities are all messed up. Something's wrong somewhere."
One look at Issel in a basketball uniform tells you what's wrong with his body. At 6'9" and 240 pounds, he's hardly the aircraft carrier that most NBA centers are. He's more a pocket battleship, and like one, he lobs long-range salvos with pinpoint accuracy. Issel playing with his back to the basket—as a typical NBA center would—is like a pocket battleship out of water.
Occasionally, teams do win with small centers, but they must have powerful help. The Bullets won the 1978 NBA championship with 6'7½" Wes Unseld in the pivot, but alongside him was 6'9½" Hayes; the Celtics won in 1974 and '76 with 6'9" Dave Cowens, but next to him was rugged Paul Silas; the Knicks won in 1970 and '73 with 6'9" Willis Reed, but his cohort was perhaps the best power forward in history, Dave DeBusschere. Issel's frontcourt mates in Denver are 6'7" Alex English and 6'8" Kiki Vandeweghe, who last year finished 1-2 on the NBA scoring list but who don't exactly sweep the glass clean. Except for his four-year pairing with 7'2" center Artis Gilmore on the Colonels, who won the 1975 ABA title, Issel hasn't played alongside much size or strength.
Issel may be limited in some ways as a center, but shooting isn't one of them. Indeed, his jumper is unsurpassed in the annals of NBA big men. "About the only thing to understand about my shooting is that I must have the ball," he says. Nobody understood that better than Rupp. Infuriated early in Issel's college career that the Wildcats weren't getting him the ball, Rupp called a fire-and-brimstone time-out. "This guy is going to be Kentucky's alltime leading scorer by the time he's through here," Rupp bellowed, "so I thought you all might like to meet him." The players caught on, and indeed Issel became the top scorer in Wildcat history (2,138 points). That record stands, which is incredible, because Issel set it in only three seasons (1967-68 through 1969-70); freshmen weren't eligible then, as they are now. Issel also established 20 single-season Wildcat scoring records his senior year and 13 career marks that still stand.
Issel's jump shot is effective from as far away as 24 feet, from the baseline or the top of the key, from the left side or the right. But because we've already disclosed that Issel can't jump, we must admit that what he takes is actually a hop shot. And what makes it so deadly—for eight straight seasons he has made more than 50% of his attempts—are his wrists, which give Issel one of the quickest releases in the NBA.
Issel uses his hop shot the way a good boxer utilizes his jab: All offensive moves start there. Men assigned to guard Issel have their choice of poison. "Dan presents a problem to me, since he has a really effective outside shot," says the Lakers' Abdul-Jabbar. "But he's agile enough to drive to the basket. So I have to get out and really guard him. And that takes me out from where I am the most effective—under the basket."
The move that propels Issel to the basket is a little head-and-pump fake that enables him to drive past the struggling defender for a kind of stumbling, bumbling, open-mouth layup. "It's the worst fake in the history of basketball and it works every time," Issel says. "I can't believe anyone goes for it." The fake is even more potent because, as New Jersey Nets coach Stan Albeck, who was a Colonel assistant when Issel played for them, explains, with Issel's well-known lack of jumping ability, "every black guy in the league figures he'll block Dan's jumper."
The NBA is being equally foolish, because it, too, is trying, in a figurative sense, to reject Issel's shot. The league has decided not to count the 12,823 points Issel scored in six ABA seasons and therefore ranks Issel 54th on its alltime scoring list. That's utter nonsense. Any league that had Issel, Dr. J, Barry, George Gervin, Moses Malone, Gilmore, Billy Cunningham—and, yes, Doug Moe—wasn't exactly chopped liver.
In Issel's last ABA season (1975-76) with the Nuggets he averaged 23.0 points a game. The next season, with the NBA Nuggets, he averaged 22.3. Talk about consistency. His career average is 23.3, and this year he's scoring 19.6 points a game.
Thankfully, fans, especially in basketball-smart places like Philadelphia, New York and Boston, appreciate talent. In those old NBA cities Issel plays to oohs and ahs; in Denver he plays to hysteria. In Kentucky he was known as King of the Blue Grass; now he's King of the Rocky Mountains. In 1982 a committee made up of sportswriters and civic officials from around the state selected Issel as Colorado pro athlete of the year. Other athletes who have been so honored include baseball's Tim Raines, then of the Denver Bears, in 1981, and golfer Hale Irwin, in 1980.
One reason Issel is so popular is that he runs up and down the floor, an activity eschewed by most NBA centers. No loping in the style of the 76ers' Malone; no jogging in the manner of Abdul-Jab-bar and almost every other big man. Running is demanded by the Nuggets' fast break, but Issel would do it anyway. Granted, Issel now goes only 28 to 30 minutes a game, but they're hustling minutes. Hustle is obviously important to Issel, but it takes a backseat to simply playing. In more than 13 years as a pro he has missed just 14 games, including one last Saturday because of a pulled left hamstring. Says Issel, "That record is what I'm most proud of, especially in a time when people question the pro basketball player's intensity—and his heart."
Issel has been passed over again for this week's NBA All-Star Game, which will be played in Denver's McNichols Arena, but he's accustomed to getting no respect. In 1971 he tied for second-team All-ABA center with Zelmo Beaty, behind Mel Daniels. In 1973 he was second team at forward, behind Erving and Cunningham; in 1974 he was second team behind Erving and George McGinnis; in 1976 he was again the second-team center, this time behind Gilmore. His only first-team all-ABA year was 1972, when he finished ahead of Erving. And he was never ABA MVP, losing out at various times to Daniels, Gilmore, Cunningham, Erving and McGinnis.
Even when things look as if they're working out for Issel, they don't. In 1977 he was voted the NBA Western Conference's All-Star center—the only time he has made the team in the NBA—ahead of Abdul-Jabbar. But that was only because Denver fans, taking a cue from Democrats in Illinois' Cook County, stuffed the ballot box. Fans everywhere except Denver were furious. Even Issel says it's "asinine to think I was a better center than Kareem." In the All-Star Game in Milwaukee, where Abdul-Jabbar had played before being traded to the Lakers in 1975, Issel was booed. He played only 10 minutes, failed to score and was so distraught he asked to be taken out of the game. Not in pique, but because he knew the fans wanted Abdul-Jabbar.
Predictably, Issel doesn't demand celebrity treatment or trappings. He doesn't own a fancy automobile—his garage houses an Oldsmobile and a Datsun—but confesses sheepishly he once had a Mercedes. "That," he says, "was our flashy-car period."
So what happened?
"Well, after my wife put a couple dents in it...."
"I didn't put the dents in it," protests Cheri, a former cheerleader at Kentucky who married Dan between their junior and senior years. "Other drivers did."
Issel continues: "After Cheri put a couple dents in it, I worried about it. So we got rid of it. I'd much rather have a broodmare than a Mercedes anyway."
That's true. He's deeply involved in the horse business as president of the Denver-based Blue Grass Breeders, Inc. Last November, at the Keeneland Sales, Issel purchased a mare in foal to Seattle Slew for $1,075,000. His company owns seven mares, and he has three more in partnership with Kentucky horseman Tom Gentry. Issel's reading runs to the daily Racing Form (California and Chicago editions), The Blood-Horse, The Horseman's Journal and The Thoroughbred Record. At home or on the road, Issel utilizes a computer terminal that allows him to assess the breeding of any horse that interests him.
"Horses are like humans," he says. "Some have incredibly large hearts, but you don't know which ones they are until they run. If selecting good horses was solely looking at confirmation and breeding, that would take all the fun out of it. Nothing is prettier than a thoroughbred running."
After he quits basketball Issel plans to pursue the horse business even more vigorously, buying more mares with the breeding potential to produce offspring worthy of being sold at Keeneland. "I'm kind of anxious to get on to the next field and see if I can do anything else but play basketball," he says. "Maybe the only thing that would depress me is to find out all I can do is basketball."
Issel was born in Geneva, Ill. and grew up in Batavia, then a country town but now more of a Chicago suburb. When he was four, his parents, Bob and Eleanor, moved to Green Ridge, Mo., where they bought a 160-acre dairy farm that came with 20 Holsteins. "That did so well," says Issel, "that my dad had to keep painting houses to feed us." For seven years the Issels fought the drought—they'd hoped to raise corn and tobacco as well—but the drought won. They sold the place and moved back to Batavia. That year the rains came. "The fellow who bought my place got a good crop out of what I planted," says Bob. Indeed, had the Issels hung on to the farm for one more year, they probably would have stayed for good, and Dan, then 10, almost certainly would have become a farmer instead of a center. "I hope my rural upbringing produced pretty strong character," Issel says. "I have a good sense of what's right and wrong. Maybe it's kind of a grass roots way of thinking. Country people are hardworking, proud and maybe a little naive."
When the Issels resettled in Batavia, their property on Harrison Street backed onto that of the Andersons on Republic Road. That's Anderson as in Kenny Anderson, the Cincinnati Bengal quarterback, who's a year younger than Issel. The two boys knocked around together, riding in Issel's red Ford convertible to the Twin Elms hamburger joint, draining gallons of milk at a sitting at the Issels' kitchen table. That was what passed for excitement in Batavia in the early 1960s. "You couldn't find trouble in Batavia if you went looking for it," says Issel. Today, Issel and Anderson co-own a 792-acre farm in Kentucky. Says Bob Issel, "Kenny wasn't a great ballplayer either. They both just did what the coaches told 'em and treated everybody decent. If either one of 'em had had natural ability, there's no telling what he could've done."
The most celebrated event in Dan's early life came during an eighth-grade gym class at McWayne Elementary. While running, he tripped and fell, and the first things to hit the floor were his three front teeth, which were knocked out. Issel was fitted for a temporary bridge, which he still uses, on the eminently sensible grounds that a permanent bridge probably would just get knocked out anyway. To this day, Issel's trademark is that gap. "It has always bothered other people more than me," he says.
"You don't have to look at yourself," Cheri says.
Issel didn't start on the Batavia High basketball team until he was a junior. And he considers himself fortunate that he had Don Vandersnick as his coach. Says Issel, "If he'd told us that if we dove off a water tower it would make us better basketball players, there would have been a line waiting to do it."
Vandersnick, 55, who now teaches in Lincoln, Ill., tried to show Issel how to dunk by training him with an easier-to-handle volleyball. Vandersnick also tried to put some spring in Issel's legs by having him jump up and grab the rim 50 times each day at practice. This was, as we have come to see, a futile effort.
Northwestern, Illinois and Wisconsin expressed a great deal of interest in Issel, but he chose Kentucky, where he became a favorite of Rupp's. No wonder. Issel was an old-fashioned player doing what an old-fashioned coach wanted. Trying. But try as they might, Issel and his supporting cast, notably guard Mike Casey and forward Mike Pratt, never made it past the Mideast Regional finals.
On completing his eligibility at Kentucky in 1970—Issel is still 18 hours short of a degree—he joined the Colonels and became a huge celebrity in Louisville, which is why he, and everyone else, was stunned in September of 1975 when owner John Y. Brown abruptly sold him to the Baltimore Claws for $750,000 cash. "I made the mistake of thinking I was indispensable to the Colonels," Issel says. "I found out very quickly that I wasn't.
"I didn't go to Baltimore. I've struck those 20 days from my life." Good idea. His one and only check (for $5,000) from the Claws, who folded a month after the trade without having played a game, bounced. Issel ended up with the Nuggets when Marvin Webster, then the team's center, came down with hepatitis and Denver needed a pivotman immediately.
Oddly, Issel originally signed with the Colonels because he and Cheri, a native of Lexington, love Kentucky; in 1971 he remained with the Colonels out of loyalty when he could have jumped to Phoenix of the NBA for a deal that, according to his attorney, J. Bruce Miller, would have made Issel the highest-paid athlete in the country. Blue-collar guys do those sorts of things. And Issel forgives and forgets. As furious as he was with Brown, Issel endorsed him in his successful run for governor of Kentucky in 1979—sort of. Said Issel back then, "I put up with John Y. for four years, and I think every Kentuckian should have to do the same thing."
But as lighthearted as Issel can be, he knows what counts. He loves being home in Englewood, a Denver suburb, and is calm even as son Scott, 5, zings rubber-tipped darts at him and daughter Sheridan, 12, gets increasingly antsy about her equestrian lessons. A year ago, Dan's brother, Greg, 32, a house painter in Batavia, needed a kidney for a transplant operation; Dan promptly volunteered to be the donor, even though that would have meant the end of his basketball career. "Why wouldn't I offer?" Issel says. "He's my brother." As it turned out, Dan had the wrong blood type and the donor instead was Bob Issel, who says succinctly, "It had to be done, we did it, and it's over."
Bob Martin, the sports director of radio station KOA, says of Issel, "He understands his role in basketball and basketball's role in life." Former Nugget coach Larry Brown, now at the University of Kansas, says, "We always compare centers to Kareem or Moses, but Dan has had a pretty darn great effect himself." No wonder Kenny Anderson gets defensive when it's suggested his friend isn't among the NBA's top centers. "People who know basketball," Anderson says, "place him among the game's greats."
Indeed, Issel's numbers point to greatness, and maybe, as any working stiff knows, his problem has been that it's hard to get respect when you wear a blue collar. "I'm not surprised I scored all these points and passed all these other players," Issel says. "But I'm surprised I stayed around long enough to do it. Gosh, imagine passing Jerry West and Rick Barry. It's incredible."
And when he retires in the spring of '85, it should be Kareem, Wilt and Dan. Now that's really incredible.