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
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)
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