ProHoopsHistory HOF: Dan Issel

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Dan Issel
Dan Issel

On May 22, 1985, a great career came to end in Los Angeles, which is want to happen. In the final game of that year’s Western Conference Finals, the Laker fans in attendance gave a rousing standing ovation as Dan Issel trotted off the court for the last time. Moments earlier Issel, a 6’9″ center, had nailed a three-pointer. It was one of just two field goals he made that night exhibiting the decline his body and skills had taken over 16 years of pro ball.

Of course, Dan Issel never played a single year, game, or minute for the Lakers. Still, the fans of Los Angeles and basketball worldwide had to give it up for a player such as Dan Issel.

As he retired, Issel possessed the following all-time ranks for pro basketball: 5th in games played, 6th in minutes played, 6th in field goals made, 4th in free throws made, 15th in rebounds grabbed, and 4th in points scored. Only Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Julius Erving had scored more points than Dan up to that point. This was a basketball institution leaving the court for the last time.

When he first entered the hardwood domain of the ABA back in 1970, Issel wasn’t yet an institution but he certainly had the framework. He led the ABA in scoring with 30 points per game that season and with the aid of little Louie Dampier, he took the Kentucky Colonels to the ABA Finals where they lost in seven games to the Utah Stars.

The Colonels beefed up their title chances the next year adding Artis Gilmore. The Issel-Dampier-Gilmore Colonels were a cornerstone of the ABA. Gilmore brought the intimidating inside defense, hook shots, and rebounding. Dampier brought the hot outside shooting and steady ball-handling. Issel brought a boatload of careening hustle, more rebounding, mobile offense from a big man, and easy fastbreak points.

Yep, a man who was no one’s exemplar of speed, would clean up on fastbreak points. He had the ability, much like Robert Parish, to never stop running and would invariably catch his winded and unsuspecting opponents off-guard for an easy lay up or dunk.

The Colonels captured the ABA title in 1975 after a few close brushes with championship glory, but the nucleus that brought them the ring was broken up that offseason. Issel was traded to the Denver Nuggets and there he’d stay for the rest of his career. He’d play with super players like David Thompson, Bobby Jones, George McGinnis, Kiki Vandeghwe, and Alex English over the years, but the Nuggets never repeated the title success of the Colonels.

Oh, they came close a couple of times. In 1976 they lost in the ABA Finals to the New York Nets. In 1978 they were taken down by the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA’s Western Conference Finals. And in 1985, they were bounced by the Los Angeles Lakers.

It was the end of the line for Dan Issel as a player, but it was a mighty fine road to that point that deserved all the appreciation it received and all that’s yet to come.

Years Played: 1970 – 1985

Accolades

ABA -
Champion (1975)
Rookie of the Year (1971)
All-ABA 1st Team (1971)
4x All-ABA 2nd Team (1971, 1973-’74, 1976)
All-Star Game MVP (1972)
6x All-Star (1971-’76)

NBA -
All-Star (1977)

Statistics

ABA - 1100 Games
25.6 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 49.1% FG, 78.6% FT
PPG Leader (1971)

NBA - 718 Games
20.4 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 50.6% FG, 79.7% FT

Contemporary ABA/NBA Ranks (1970-71 through 1984-85 season)
3rd Points, 11th PPG
1st FTs Made, 3rd FGs Made
5th Rebounds, 25th RPG
24th Steals, 29th Blocks
1st Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Mack Calvin

Mack Calvin

Like any proper ABA legend, Mack Calvin has one fantastic name. Also, like any proper ABA legend, Mack Calvin had a fantastic game.

The most exciting little man in the annals of the ABA, Calvin was blindingly quick. He could burst by you and leave your retinas blistered, your corneas busted, and your pupils punctured. The fury of  his drives was unstoppable and led to insufferable nights for opponents. Calvin loved it all though, making the All-ABA 1st Team three times in his career.

Little Mack averaged a tremendous 7.7 free throws per game in the ABA and made 86.6% of them. In 1975 and 1976 he led the league with free throw percentages of 89.6% and 88.8%, respectively. To foul him was to basically give up the points anyways. The problem, though, was that Calvin would force the issue and leave you in an untenable position. Fouling was all that you could do. The diminutive Calvin is the ABA’s all-time leader in free throws made and attempted, and is third all-time in that league in FT%. Rarely do you find out that someone 6’0″ tall is the leader in free throws made.

Mack’s quickness didn’t just lead to forays at the rim and the line, he also had a devastating pull up jumper. The compact Calvin was strong beyond his size and could always muster up a good shot. And his best shots all came in the ABA. Whether with the Los Angeles Stars (who Mack led to the ABA Finals as a rookie), the Floridians (with whom Mack was the only bright spot), the Carolina Cougars (who utilized Mack as a sort of “Release the Kracken” offensive force), the Virginia Squires (the less said the better), or the Denver Nuggets (a game away from another Finals appearance), Calvin was a stud in the ABA.

The NBA, though, never thought too highly of Calvin. When Mack entered the draft out of Southern California, the hometown Lakers drafted him 187th overall, gave him an invite to training camp, and a possible t-shirt. Little wonder he chose the LA Stars of the ABA. Bob Bass pretty much summed up why Calvin was able to succeed in the ABA:

“[The ABA] was a wide-open league, a league that ran the fast break and didn’t have a lot of big men clogging the middle. That was why little guards such as Larry [Brown] and Mack Calvin bloomed in that league; the accent was on speed and finesse, while the NBA played walk the ball up the court and jam it down your throat.”

For seven great years, Calvin was able to play wild, loose, and free in the ABA. Maybe if the NBA was more amenable to his style of play “Mack the Knife” would have cut out a greater legacy for himself. As it stands, you can’t say the ABA’s 2nd all-time leading playmaker and 8th leading scorer didn’t do well nonetheless.

Years Played: 1969 – 1981

Accolades

ABA – 
3x All-ABA 1st Team (1971, 1974-’75)
All-ABA 2nd Team (1973)
5x All-Star (1971-’75)
All-Rookie Team (1970)

Statistics

ABA – 533 Games
19.9 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 45.1% FG, 86.6% FT
APG Leader (1975), 2x FT% Leader (1975-’76)

NBA – 222 Games
7.0 PPG, 2.5 APG, 1.2 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 42.0% FG, 84.8% FT

Contemporary ABA/NBA Ranks (1969-70 through 1980-81 season)
13th Assists, 18th APG
6th FTs Made, 4th FT%
32nd Points
26th Games Played, 40th Minutes Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: David Thompson

David Thompson

As great as David Thompson was, his career was not quite as awesome as it could have been. Without a doubt it was much shorter than it should have been. A perilous addiction to cocaine corroded then ruined his promising and amazing talent. It scuttled prematurely one of basketball’s best shooting guards between the reigns of Jerry West and Michael Jordan.

But enough of what could, would, and should have been. What David Thompson accomplished is still remarkable and noteworthy.

Drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, Thompson spurned the NBA for the dazzling Denver Nuggets of the ABA. It wasn’t just a great move from an artistic and financial standpoint, it was a great “basketball” decision. The Hawks had the third-worst record in the NBA in 1974-75 season and would follow that up with the second-worst record in the 1975-76 season. In contrast, the Denver Nuggets in 1976 boasted high-scoring center Dan Issel, defensive ace Bobby Jones, and now the wunderkind David Thompson. For the second-straight season, they achieved the ABA’s best regular season record.

With his dazzling array of dunks, acrobatic layups, and fundamentally sound jumper, Thompson finished third in the ABA in points per game, captured the All-Star Game MVP, and Rookie of the Year. He continued his assault in the playoffs pushing the Nuggets to the ABA Finals against Julius Erving’s New York Nets. The Nuggets fell in six games thanks to Dr. J’s surgical attack, but the sky seemed the limit for the Nuggets as the ABA merged with the NBA for the 1976-77 season.

David Thompson dunk

The 1977 Nuggets finished with 50 wins and the Midwest Division’s best record giving critics of the ABA’s talent level a good kick in the pants in the process. The next year, 1978, proved to be Thompson’s high-water mark as the Nuggets again achieved the best record in the Midwest Division.

In the playoffs they survived a harrowing series with the up and coming Milwaukee Bucks of Marques Johnson. Thompson sealed the series victory for the Nuggets with a 37-point effort in Game 7 as Denver won 116 to 110. In the Western Conference Finals against the Seattle SuperSonics, Thompson ignited for 35 points on 16-for-27 shooting in Game 5 to stave off elimination. The Sonics, however, were the better ball club and closed out the Nuggets the next contest.

From that point on, the Nuggets faded from contention as Thompson delved into drug abuse, despite (or perhaps because of) signing the most lucrative contract in sports history. Signing for nearly $1 million a year, Thompson’s play and behavior made the contract an albatross on the Nuggets by 1982 and he was traded to the Sonics. After two more seasons, Thompson’s career was effectively ended by a tumble down the stairs at New York’s Studio 54 nightclub. His knees were torn up, his credibility washed away.

Since that low point, Thompson has built himself back up into a fine person. David Thompson, the man, we should remember is a tenacious survivor who’s triumphed over cocaine and alcohol addiction.

Despite the travails, Thompson’s basketball career shouldn’t be thought of as a complete loss or what-if. The determination and purpose he possessed is best exemplified by his performance on April 9, 1978. Thompson scored an unbelievable 73 points. He had 53 of them by halftime. He made 20 of his first 21 shots.

That’s David Thompson, the basketball player we should remember.

Seasons Played: 1976 – 1983

Denver Nuggets

Accolades

ABA -
Rookie of the Year (1976)
All-Star Game MVP (1976)
All-ABA 2nd Team (1976)
All-Star (1976)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1976)

NBA -
All-Star Game MVP (1979)
2x All-NBA 1st Team (1977-’78)
4x All-Star (1977-’79, 1983)

Statistics

ABA - 83 Games
26.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 51.5% FG, 79.4% FT
NBA - 509 Games
22.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.2 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 50.4% FG, 77.8% FT

Contemporary ABA/NBA Ranks (1976 – 1983)
6th Points, 7th PPG
8th FGs Made, 38th FG%
6th FTs Made, 45th FT%
31st Assists, 41st APG
26th Blocks, 29th BPG
14th Minutes Played, 32nd Games Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Dikembe Mutombo

Dikembe Mutombo (itzyourzradio.com)
Dikembe Mutombo (itzyourzradio.com)

A usually gregarious and affable man, Dikembe Mutombo was as rude a host imaginable in the NBA. He was thoroughly unwelcoming to anyone who would attempt to come into his house. Penetrating guards, sky-walking forwards, and hulking centers were equally dismissed from his abode with disdain. After rejecting these unwelcomed overtures, Mutombo would surely wave a stern finger to make sure such foolishness wasn’t tried again.

Opponents never quite got the message though.

3,289 times Mutombo would officially reject wayward shots that dared enter his domain. Thousands more he intimidated. Four times he’d be recognized as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year for his stingy block parties. An irascible few succeeded in storming Dikembe’s paint and, as they claimed, climbed Mount Mutombo. These successful few led the brash many to failure.

Mutombo left this trail of devastation across a path that went from Denver to Atlanta to Philly. From New Jersey to New York to Houston. It spanned 18 years and 1196 games.

The most endearing moment in Mutombo’s career came early on, though. It was during his third season, the 1993-94 season in Denver. His 8th-seed Nuggets upended the Seattle SuperSonics in a first-round upset. Mutombo averaged a gaudy 12.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 6.2 blocks a game. As the Nuggets toppled Seattle, Mount Mutombo crumbled to the floor in ecstasy. 

He’d later help Atlanta to become a perennial playoff team. He pushed the Sixers into the realm of title contenders in 2001. He proved a surprisingly effective stopgap for the Rockets late in his career when starter Yao Ming went down to injury. Sadly, Mutombo’s own career ended due to an in-game injury in the 2009 playoffs.

The moment was hard to watch because a man of such intense dignity and impassioned skill was hobbled by a bad knee he could no longer control. Still, no one moment, whether ecstasy in victory or agony of injury, can encapsulate and define a person. It’s the sheer body of work, the routine, that defines a person. Mutombo’s body of work, the routine, proved that his being was pure hall of famer.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUyqp3kSYIs]

Seasons Played: 1992 – 2009

Accolades

NBA -
4x Defensive Player of the Year (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001)
3x All-Defensive 1st Team (1997-’98, 2001)
3x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1995, 1999, 2002)
All-NBA 2nd Team (2001), 2x All-NBA 3rd Team (1998, 2002)
8x All-Star (1992, 1995-’98, 2000-’02)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1992)

Statistics

NBA - 1196 Games
9.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 51.8% FG, 68.4% FT
3x BPG Leader (1994-’96), 2x RPG Leader (2000-’01)
2nd All-Time in Blocks, 7th All-Time in BPG
19th All-Time in Rebounds

Pro Hoops History HOF: Bobby Jones

(remembertheaba.com)
(remembertheaba.com)

Few defenders have ever come as tough and agile as Bobby Jones. He played a physical, cerebral defensive style predicated on fundamentals and not grabbing, clutching, or cheap-shotting opponents. His results would be nasty for opponents, but at least they had the honor of being shut down by a gentleman like Bobby Jones.

Jones’ regal defense began in the ABA, a league more known for its offensive fireworks than defensive showstoppers. As a member of the Denver Nuggets, Jones was instantly named a member of the All-Defensive 1st Team in his rookie season. In his second season he repeated that accomplishment and with Dan Issel and David Thompson propelled the Nuggets to the ABA’s best record. They also got a Finals showdown with the New York Nets and Julius Erving.

Dr. J was the ABA’s premier player and even the best defenders sometimes become helpless. Erving lit up Jones for the series averaging 37.7 points and the Nets won the title. As fate would have it, the two small forwards would soon team up and form the nucleus of an NBA titan.

With the ABA folding after the 1976 season, Jones tranferred to the NBA with the Nuggets, but was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1978. The Sixers had already pilfered Erving from the Nets and thus made the fateful decision to make Jones their sixth man backing up the Doctor.

With no complaints, Jones packed in all of his defensive (and offensive) punch into the truncated time and proved the difference maker numerous times for the Sixers. For you see, just because Jones didn’t start the game didn’t mean he wasn’t on the court in crunch time. Over and over again he’d deliver timely blocks, steals, rebounds, and hustle plays to thwart opponents and save the Sixers.

The NBA recognized Jones for the amazing defender he was with eight straight All-Defensive 1st Team appearances, bringing his career total to 10. All the while his offense was an understated asset. He was never prone to racking up huge scoring games, but what shots he did take he hit. (He also had some hops and could throw down unexpected jams). Three times he led the NBA  and ABA in FG% and never shot less than 52% for a season. When it comes to forwards all-time (with a minimum 200 games), Jones is 6th in FG%. And the five guys ahead of him combined have scored just 790 more points than Jones did.

A savvy offensive player. A 10x All-Defensive 1st Team member. The first ever Sixth Man of the Year back in 1983. An NBA champion that same year. Bobby Jones has a lot going for himself and proved that hustle isn’t a substitute for talent, it is indeed a talent all unto itself.

Seasons Played: 1975 – 1986

Accolades

ABA -
2x All-Defensive 1st Team (1975-’76)
All-ABA 2nd Team (1976)
All-Star (1976)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1975)
NBA -
Champion (1983)
Sixth Man of the Year (1983)
8x All-Defensive 1st Team (1977-’84)
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1985)
4x All-Star (1977-’78, 1981-’82)

Statistics

ABA - 167 Games
14.9 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 3.8 APG, 2.0 SPG, 2.0 BPG, 59.2% FG, 69.7% FT
2x FG% Leader (1975-’76)
1st All-Time FG%, 11th All-Time Blocks, 16th All-Time Steals

NBA - 654 Games
11.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 55.0% FG, 78.0% FT
FG% Leader (1978)
14th All-Time FG%

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Alex English

Alex English

In an era of high-scoring small forwards like Bernard King, Mark Aguirre, and Adrian Dantley, none lasted as long or were as persistent as Alex English.

English didn’t average over 20 PPG until his 5th NBA season at the age of 27 in 1981. He wouldn’t drop below the mark again until the 1990 season at age 36. During this nine season run, that first campaign in 1981 was the only one where he averaged below 25 PPG.

Doug Moe’s high octane offense in Denver certainly created many opportunities to score, but not any old player can make that kind of fast-paced offense work as efficiently as English. He shot 51% from the field during his run of glory and an excellent 84% from the free throw line.

Despite the fast-paced offense English always scored with a leisurely quality and debonair demeanor. He certainly wasn’t moving slow, but he never seemed in a rush. His high-arching jump shot was impossible to block. He was spectacular cutting off the ball and slipping by defenders for layups and chip shots. He was also a better passer than given credit for. It wasn’t flashy but English would make the right dump to a cutter at the right time to score the assist.

English’s Denver Nuggets were a mainstay in the Western Conference playoffs in the 1980s. First working alongside Kiki Vandeghwe and Dan Issel, and later Fat Lever and Calvin Natt, English was the key cog on these Nuggets clubs. Their finest season was in 1985 where they won 52 regular season games and advanced to the Western Finals. But with Lever hobbled and missing games, the Nuggets were already off to disadvantaged start. English was tremendous through the first four games averaging 30 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 51.1% FG and 87.1% FT.  That scintilliating performance came to end in Game 4. English hurt his wrist and only played 24 minutes, but nonetheless managed to drop 28 points in the limited action that game.

The Los Angeles Lakers won the series 4-1 and that was the closest English’s Nuggets came to the NBA Finals.

Team success was constant if not complete for English, but personally he’s remembered best as the man who scored more points than anyone else in the 1980s. That is indeed the best way to remember him. In an era with Aguirre, King, and, Dantley, but also Jordan, Bird, Moses, and Kareem, English outscored them all. And he did it in shockingly unselfish fashion. It’s what he did best and it’s what helped the Nuggets most.

Years Played: 1976 – 1991

Denver Nuggets 1980s

Accolades

NBA -
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1982-’83, 1986)
8x All-Star (1982-’89)

Statistics

NBA - 1193 Games
21.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.6 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 50.7% FG, 83.2% FT
PPG Leader (1983)

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1976-77 through 1990-91 season)
2nd Points, 19th PPG
1st FGs Made, 39th FG%
8th FTs Made, 19th FT%
16th Rebounds, 15th Assists
22nd Steals, 22nd Blocks
1st Games Played, 2nd Minutes Played

The Lowdown: Robert Pack

Years Active: 1992 – 2004
Regular Season Stats: 552 games, 20.8 mpg
8.9 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.0 rpg, 1.1 spg, 42.5% FG, 78.7% FT
Postseason Stats: 33 games, 13.2 mpg
5.2 ppg, 1.9 apg, 1.1 rpg, 0.7 spg, 38.3% FG, 73% FT

Hoopedia

Robert Pack is the quintessential “you had to have been there” player.

He played 13 seasons, but only appeared in half of the possible games due to injury or not being actively rostered by an NBA franchise. From 1995 to 1997, the point guard put up 14.5 points, 7.7 assists, and 1.7 steals a game, but a bevvy of injuries limited him to 127 games throughout those 3 seasons, the supposed peak of his career.

He appeared in the playoffs in 4 different seasons but was basically a non-factor in three of them for the Mavericks, Blazers, and Hornets. The rest of the squads he appered on were moribund: the late-90s Mavericks, the mid-90s Bullets and Nets. If you haven’t noticed yet, Pack never stuck with one team too long either.

So what’s the fuss? You had to have been there!

Robert Pack was absolutely sensational as the point guard for the Denver Nuggets from the 1992-93 season through the 1994-95 season. This guy was listed at 6’2″ but they must have counted his dazzling high-top fade in the measurement. His on-court speed though was not to be denied. Pack could move up and down the court in a flash. It’s the reason why Denver was so insistent on prying him from the Portland Trail Blzaers in the summer of 1992:

Pack yesterday got his first practice with the team, and with it his first look at the team’s Reader’s Digest playbook. What Issel wants to see from Pack isn’t how he runs plays, though. It is how he runs. Pack’s strength is getting the ball upcourt quickly, an ideal trait for Issel’s passing-game offense.

“It’s important, in the passing game, that you get down and get into it before the defenses get a chance to set,” [Denver coach Dan] Issel said. “If you have a point guard who just sort of hammers the ball and brings it down slow, and you let a good defense like Chicago get set, it’s going to be hard to score against it. That’s why we shot 38 percent against the Bulls.”

- Mike Monroe, Denver Post, October 26, 1992

Coach Issel certainly didn’t have to worry about Pack holding up the pace. In fact, the Nuggets were 3rd in the league in pace during the 1992-93 season as Pack and Mahmoud Abdul-Raouf burned the hardwood rubber. Pack in particular was prone not only to set up teammates for baskets but to also do what you had to have been there to see… to do that thing that made him so special…

Pack could jump out the gym and throw down! Sure he really only had one dunk, but when it was consistently being thrown down on men a foot taller than him, it was truly spectacular. The Nuggets though only had a 36-46 record and thus missed the playoffs. The next season, though, Robert Pack and the Nuggets would give not only spectacular final scores, but a stupendous playoff run.

The Nuggets went 42-40 in the 1994 season and snuck into the 8th seed against the Seattle SuperSonics.Falling behind 2-0, the Nuggets came back to force a 5th and deciding game in Seattle. Pack, having played putrid in the previous four games, delivered a stellar performance of 23 points (8-15 FG, 3-5 3PT, 4-4 FT) off the bench. Brian Williams also had a great game off the bench with 17 points and 19 rebounds. The Nuggets behind this bench duo and Dikembe Mutombo upset the #1 seed Sonics. The Nuggets nearly repeated this comeback feet in the 2nd round as they fell behind 3-0 against Utah and forced a Game 7. But the bid fell short.

The 1994-95 season was unfortunately Pack’s apex. He finally gained a starting spot in the Denver lineup but in February of that season hurt his knee ultimately requiring surgery. Traded to Washington the following offseason, Pack never again enjoyed a healthy season as a litany of leg injuries hampered his career.

But believe me, watching this man play in the Mile High City was a thrill a moment that my words can’t do justice to. Even YouTube clips can sort of, but not completely, get the point across.

To fully get the joy of watching Robert Pack’s mid-1990s play, well, YOU HAD TO HAVE BEEN THERE!

And I’m glad I was.