Dan Issel

Born: October 25, 1948
Position: Center, Power Forward
Professional Career:
Kentucky Colonels (ABA): 1970-1975
Denver Nuggets (ABA/NBA): 1975-1985

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.”

Via “King of the Rocky Mountains” by Douglas Looney

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.

And by the way, Pat Williams, Dan Issel’s Kentucky Colonels did win the ABA title in 1975.

Ten years later on May 22, 1985, a great career came to end in Los Angeles. 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, and 15th in rebounds grabbed. Most importantly, 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.

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 pro basketball Issel did put up some highly impressive single season scoring averages, but his career scoring totals were heavily indebted to a remarkable longevity, consistency, and durability.

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.


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.

The Colonels were a huge success during these years. In 1973, they lost another seven-game Finals series, this time to the Indiana Pacers. Then in 1975, the Colonels got revenge on their rivals in a 4-1 series manhandling of Indiana.

Amazingly winning the championship would be Issel’s last act as a Colonel. In the summer of 1975 he was traded first to the infamous Baltimore Hustlers/Claws, 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 the New York Nets in six games. Denver had the better overall team, but Julius Erving turned into a supernova for the Nets that series.

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. FIVE different times Issel was part of a troika of teammates that averaged at least 20 PPG a piece. That’s something that rarely happens – let alone happens that many times on one team.

Even 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 that 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.


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)

All-Star (1977)


Regular Season Career Averages (1218 games):
22.6 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, .499 FG%, .793 FT%
21.4 PER, .181 WS/48

Playoff Career Averages (133 games):
22.1 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, .487 FG%, .822 FT%
20.1 PER, .161 WS/48

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Artis Gilmore


Considering the latent sheer force he could muster, there was no doubt the A-Train could steamroll anybody. Standing 7’2″ and weighing 240 lbs., Artis Gilmore was the biggest and strongest man in the history of the ABA. However, Gilmore was somewhat of a gentle giant, generally affable and gracious. He played basketball with strength, but never resorted to using his power as a despotic, diabolical force like other players who’d have been uncontrollable intimidators if they possessed Artis’ capabilities.

Artis merely used his towering frame and divine strength to just win ball games. And he won a lot of ball games.

Teaming with Louie Dampier and Dan Issel, Gilmore formed the core of the Kentucky Colonels who were always in title contention in the ABA. In his rookie year of 1972, Artis’ Colonels won an ABA record 68 games. The next year they made the ABA Finals only to be downed by the Indiana Pacers in 7 games. In 1975, the Colonels exacted revenge by beating Indiana in five games to capture the title.

When the ABA shuttered its doors and merged with the NBA, Gilmore was THE big prize since the Colonels were folding and presumably any NBA team had a shot at the skyline tall center. Truthfully, though, the fix was in and the Chicago Bulls were awarded Gilmore as a way to invigorate basketball in the NBA’s third-largest market. Things didn’t quite work out as the A-Train was derailed by a cast of unremarkable players until 1981 when Reggie Theus gave him some aid and the Bulls won a playoff series.

All and all, though, the Chicago days were disappointing from a team perspective, but Artis was not slowing down one bit.

Gilmore Dunk

During his Chicago stay, Gilmore averaged 20 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. His field goal percentage, already exceedingly high, rocketed to the moon. He led the league in 1981 with a field goal percentage of .670. Over the next five years he maintained a shooting percentage of over 60%.

He shot so high from the field thanks to two shots: the dunk and the hook. His dunks weren’t flashy, but holy Naismith did they deliver some force. If Artis rose for a dunk you weren’t likely to stop him without some serious repercussions for your own well-being. The A-Train’s hook shot was nearly as devastating as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s more famed sky hook, but it was no where near as graceful.

Indeed, take stock of what’s just been mentioned: Gilmore dunked powerfully, but not with flash. He dropped hooks, but they weren’t pretty. The A-Train’s other nickname was “Rigor Artis” as the big man petrified as his career wore on.

Even as he once again found team success with the San Antonio Spurs during the mid-1980s, Gilmore’s game just never enlivened the average imagination. His best attributes were rebounding, stonewall defense and flawless shot selection. The closest thing to gorgeousness Gilmore had on the court was a precipitous drop step.

When it’s all said and done, Gilmore will never be first choice for most entertaining center, but there’s definitely a beauty in his methodical, unrelenting style and power.

Years Played: 1971 – 1988


Champion (1975)
MVP (1972)
Playoff MVP (1975)
Rookie of the Year (1972)
5x All-ABA 1st Team (1972-’76)
4x All-Defensive 1st Team (1973-’76)
5x All-Star (1972-’76)
All-Star Game MVP (1974)
All-Rookie Team (1972)

6x All-Star (1978-’79, 1981-’83, 1986)
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1978)


ABA - 420 Games
22.3 PPG, 17.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 3.4 BPG, 55.7% FG, 66.8% FT
4x RPG Leader (1972-’74, 1976), 2x FG% Leader (1972-’73)
 909 Games
17.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.9 BPG, 59.9% FG, 71.3% FT
4x FG% Leader (1981-’84)

Contemporary NBA/ABA Ranks (1971-72 season through 1987-88 season)
5th Points, 38th PPG
5th FGs Made, 2nd FG%
4th FTs Made, 30th Assists
1st Rebounds, 4th RPG
1st Blocks, 3rd BPG
1st Games Played, 2nd Minutes Played

Pro Hoops History HOF: Louie Dampier


When the ABA comes to mind, the likes of Julius Erving, George Gervin, Mel Daniels, and Artis Gilmore flicker first in memory. However, there was a small little guard in Kentucky who may not quickly come to mind, but was steadfastly attached to the ABA.

Louie Dampier played every season of the ABA’s existence. Dampier played more games and minutes than any other ABA player. He also scored more points, dished out more assists, and made more three-pointers than anyone else in that league’s history. He should have a place right alongside Dr. J and the Ice Man in ABA lore.

He debuted with the Colonels in the 1967-68 season. His career benefited immensely from the three-point shot, a shot debuted professionally in the American Basketball League in the early 1960s. Precious few may have used that shot before Dampier, but he made it a deadly basketball weapon. In 1969 he nailed 199 three-pointers. The following season he swished 198. These stood as the record number of three-pointers made by a player for a single season for over 30 years.*

*(A few players broke it in the mid-90s, but they benefited from a shortened distance)

The Colonels however weren’t quite successful on the court during these early years. After the acquisition of Dan Issel and Artis Gilmore, though, the Colonels became perennial contenders in the ABA. Dampier transitioned into more a passing guard with that tremendous front-line. His number of field goal attempts also decreased, but the quality increased. His overall FG% rose steadily from 42% his rookie season to 50% in 1975 with Issel and Gilmore providing him cover.

During his decade in Kentucky, Dampier endured only one losing season and helped lead the Colonels to three ABA Finals including the title in 1975. The powerful Colonels, however, didn’t make the transition to the NBA in 1976 when the ABA was merged with the older league. Dampier still found his way onto the San Antonio Spurs, an ABA team that did survive to the NBA.

His years with the Spurs were not as productive or illustrious but by this point, Dampier was 32-years old and was already showing signs of decline in his final Kentucky season (1976). That his glory days came in a defunct league with a defunct team doesn’t help folks recover the career that Dampier enjoyed. It was one that truly presaged today’s era of three-pointer domination.

A shame that the man who indeed presaged it all isn’t always given his proper credit and due.

Years Played: 1967 – 1979

Kentucky Colonels


Champion (1975)
4x All-ABA 2nd Team (1968-’70, 1974)
7x All-Star (1968-’70, 1972-’75)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1968)


ABA - 728 Games
18.9 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.1 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 43.9% FG, 35.8% 3PT, 82.6% FT
3PT% Leader (1974), MPG Leader (1969)

All-Time ABA Ranks
1st All-Time Points, 19th All-Time PPG
1st 3PTs Made, 4th 3PT%
1st FGs Made
1st Assists, 4th APG
10th FTs Made, 15th FT%
1st Minutes Played, 1st Games Played

NBA - 232 Games
6.7 PPG, 2.8 APG, 1.1 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 48.8% FG, 74.8% FT

Contemporary NBA/ABA Ranks (1967-68 through 1978-79)
1st 3PTs Made, 1st 3PT%
6th Assists, 19th APG
14th Points, 14th FGs Made
38th FTs Made, 24th FT%
2nd Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

The Lowdown: Louie Dampier

Years Active: 1968 – 1979
Regular Season Stats: 960 games, 33.5 mpg
15.9 ppg, 4.9 apg, 2.6 rpg, 0.8 spg, 44.4% FG, 82% FT, 35.8% 3PT
Postseason Stats: 109 games, 37.1 mpg
15.1 ppg, 6.0 apg, 2.8 rpg, 0.9 spg, 43.6% FG, 78.1% FT
Accolades: 7x ABA All-Star (1968-70, ’72-’75), 4x All-ABA 2nd Team (1968-70, ’74), ABA All-Rookie 1st Team (1968), ABA Champion (1975)

Dampier with teammate Dan Issel (#44) shooting over Willie Wise (#42) / Photo via nasljerseys.com

“God taught Louie how to shoot, and I took credit for it.” – Adolph Rupp, University  of Kentucky head coach

Via “They Said It” by Robert H. Boyle

If the Lord Almighty taught any ball player how to shoot, Louie Dampier is indeed a fine candidate. His release was divine. The stroke heavenly. The touch transcendent. Dampier’s jumper wasn’t just long-range, it was fluent from downtown. His early years in the ABA were a prophetic oracle of what was to come in the NBA 25 years later.

Although drafted by the Cincinnati Royals, Dampier took to the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels during that league’s inaugural season, 1967-68. His rookie campaign was solid: 21 points, 3.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game. Just good enough for an All-Star appearance and placement on the All-Rookie 1st team. Pretty good. But the next two seasons really saw Dampier go to town.

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