Years Active: 1971 – 1985
Career Stats: 22.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.5 bpg, 50% FG, 79% FT
Accolades: ABA – Rookie of the Year (1971), All-ABA 1st Team (1972), 4x All-ABA 2nd Team (1971, 1973-74, 1976), All-Rookie 1st Team (1971), 6x All-Star (1971-76), All-Star Game MVP (1972), ABA Champion (1975)
NBA – All-Star (1977)
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.”
The complaints of so-called dainty “big men” that prance around the perimeter are nothing new basketball fans. Elvin Hayes and Bob McAdoo took their fair share of heat in the 1970s for not being “tough enough” and so did Dan Issel despite the evident utility of such big men then and now (Dirk Nowitzki).
Issel, simply put, was a scoring machine. He still remains the University of Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer despite only playing 3 years there. In professional basketball, he retired as the 4th all-time leading scorer behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving. Issel did put up some highly impressive single season scoring averages, but like any accomplishment of this sort, it was heavily indebted to career longevity. Issel only missed 24 of a possible 1242 games in his career.
The course he took to these points was unorthodox for a center. Like Hayes and McAdoo, Issel was a marksman from long-distance. His jumper extended nearly out to the three-point line, which invariably drew opposing centers out of their comfort zone. Issel would either calmly sink the jumper or deceive the defender with a pump fake and make his way toward the rim. Another favored method for Issel was scoring on the break.
He was by no means someone you could describe as fast, but neither were opposing centers in his era, for the most part, and Issel had the bonus of a motor that never stopped running. And he hit the ground running in his professional basketball career.
As a rookie, he led the ABA in scoring with 30ppg in 1971 and led the Kentucky Colonels all the way to the ABA Finals where they lost in 7 games to the Utah Stars. The next season, the 6’9″ Issel was shifted to power forward to accommodate the arrival of 7’2″ Artis Gilmore to the Kentucky lineup. Issel showed no slowing down averaging a career high 30.6ppg that season. The Colonels were a huge success during these years. Losing another game 7 Finals heartbreaker this time in 1973 to the Indiana Pacers and getting revenge in 1975 in a 5 game championship route of Indiana.
That would be Issel’s last act as a Colonel. In the summer of 1975 he was traded 1st to Baltimore, which quickly folded, and then to the Denver Nuggets. Moving back to center, Issel teamed up with David Thompson and Bobby Jones to lead Denver to the ABA Finals in 1976 (beating Kentucky along the way) before losing to New Jersey in 6 games.
Merging with the NBA that summer, Issel and the Nuggets took their act to the NBA and there was no drama to their play. Despite roster changes (Thompson and Jones making way for George McGinnis and then Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe in the early 80s) and coaching switches (Larry Brown for Donnie Walsh and then Doug Moe) the Nuggets always scored like Chicagoans voted: early and often.
This style reached its zenith between 1981 and 1985 when the Nuggets never failed to average less than 120 points a game for a season. And 5 different times Issel was part of a troika of teammates that averaged at least 20ppg a piece. Something that rarely happens ever let alone this many times on one team.
With all that high-flying amazement, the Nuggets never got back to a finals with Issel. The closest they came was the Western Conference Finals in 1978 (losing to Seattle) and in 1985 (losing to the Lakers). That ’85 series would see Issel score his final NBA points. Going out in style, Dan swished a 3-point bomb as the Great Western Forum crowd cheered him on.
A 6’9″ perpetually-balding center with a devilish grin is certainly not what we expect when thinking of ABA personalities and NBA legends. But Dan Issel was certainly one of the best and, indeed, he is immortal: his number is retired by the Nuggets, he’s a Hall of Famer and to this day retains the most successful pro career of any Kentucky Wildcat. Eat your heart out, Ron Mercer.