One of the most decorated players in the history of the NBA, Dan Issel's success as a basketball player has recently been overshadowed by his well-publicised failure as a coach. Prior to his resignation in December of 2001 as head coach of the Denver Nuggets, Issel was known mostly for his hatred and alienation of his players (despite the fact that he hired them himself in his dual role as General Manager and Head Coach), which got to the point that they refused to practise in protest of his poor treatment of them. Naturally, this caused quite a stir in the media, but there was worse to come. On December 11, 2001, Issel made headlines, when during a Nuggets away game versus the Charlotte (now New Orleans) Hornets, he responded to a taunt by a Hornets fan, telling him to "go drink another fucking beer, you fucking Mexican piece of shit".
Daniel Paul Issel was born in Batavia, Illinois, on October 25, 1948. He seemed destined for a career in basketball, when at Batavia High he was named All-American, All-State, and All-Conference. He was also enshrined in the Illinois basketball hall of fame.
He attended college in Kentucky, where he had an extremely successful career under Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp. This included two NCAA championships, both first team All-America (1970) and second team All-America (1969) honors, while averaging 33.9 ppg in his senior year. Altogether, he scored 2,138 points at Kentucky, breaking the record for career points, only one of 23 records that Issel broke during his time there.
In the 1970 Draft
, Issel was selected by the Kentucky Colonels
(now the Detroit Pistons
) of the ABA
In his rookie
year, he led the ABA in scoring with 29.9ppg, and was named co-Rookie of the Year
(he shared the honor with Charlie Scott
of the Virginia Squires
. He played with the Colonels until 1975, by which point he had been named either first or second All-ABA team every year but one, had won a championship
in 1975, and had played in 5 ABA All-Star
games (receiving the All-Star MVP
nod in 1972). Prior to the 1975-76 season, the Colonels traded Issel to the Baltimore Claws
for Tom Owens
. When the Claws folded before the season even began, Issel went to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Dave Robisch
Issel would spend the rest of his career in Denver, where he was selected twice more to the All-Star team in 1976 and 1977 (although by the second time the ABA had become the NBA). Issel retired in 1985 as the Nuggets' second all-time leading scorer (16,589 points), the Nuggets' all-time leading rebounder (6,630 rebounds), and ranks first in free throws made (4,214) and attempted (5,277) and second in minutes (25,200). He also earned the nickname "Horse" for his work ethic and durability, appearing in 1,218 of a possible 1,242 games. Despite being 6'9", Issel was most comfortable playing the Center position, and was known for having a good outside shot as well as a goofy looking head fake, which for some reason, worked every time.
After his retirement in 1985, Issel headed out to Versailles, Kentucky, where he planned to breed horses. But basketball remained on his radar. He spent a year at his alma mater, the University of Kentucky, acting as a color commentator during basketball games. In 1988, Issel went back to Denver as a broadcaster from 1988 until 1992. The Nuggets GM at the time, Bernie Bickerstaff, was so impressed by Issel's insightful commentary that he hired Issel as head coach, although he had no prior coaching experience.
Having played most of his career in Denver, the Nuggets' fans were delighted to see him return to the organisation as head coach on May 20, 1992. In the 1992-1993 season, the Nuggets went 36-46 (hey, it's better than the 24-48 record of 1991-2), before making it to the playoffs the next two consecutive seasons. In 1994, the Nuggets made NBA history when they beat the heavily favored Seattle Supersonics in the first round of Western Conference playoffs, becoming the first ever eigth-seeded team to knock out the top-seeded team. But Issel found himself becoming disenchanted with the game, and the egos of his players, most notably their self-centeredness and lack of work ethic. On January 15, 1995, Issel surprised Nuggets fans by stepping down as head coach.
It could have ended there, but unfortunately for Issel he returned to the head coaching (along with the General Manager position as well as Vice-President) job he detested three years later on March 25, 1998. Exactly why Issel thought it would better the second time around remains a mystery to this day. Assigned the formidable task of restoring the winning tradition to an underachieving Nuggets squad, Issel failed miserably. In 1997-8 his team finished with an awful 11-71 record.
In the following years he spent coaching in Denver, the situation only got worse. His tendencies to take his frustrations out on his players resulted in his alienation of Raef LaFrentz, the young C/PF with good outside range who was described at the time as the club's only asset, as well as leading scorer PG Nick Van Exel, who demanded to be traded. His treatment of his players got to the point that in December of 2000, his players in effect had a mutiny, refusing to practise for Issel. The media went up into a frenzy as they rushed to air all of Denver's dirty laundry. Much of this centred around his treatment of whipping boy LaFrentz, who was described as the "6'11" puppy Issel verbally kicked in the locker room" by sports columnist Mark Kiszla:
"I'm not one of those players who blows up every time I'm disciplined. I've been disciplined my entire life...I know Dan just wants to get the most out of me he can. But he tears me down as a person...he hasn't been in a good mood much this year. Whenever [Issel] walked in the room, we all kind of freaked, waiting to see what he was upset about today." -C/PF Raef LaFrentz, now of the Dallas Mavericks
Following that incident, however, things seemed to cool down in Denver. Issel, LaFrentz, and the rest of the squad more or less quietly went about losing their games as usual. The rift appeared to be healing until in December of the following year, when Issel made disparaging remarks about a Mexican fan during a game in Charlotte. Naturally, both the sports community and the Hispanic community were shocked by his outburst, and Issel was suspended for four days without pay (which amounted to just over $112,000). He apologised publicly and privately to both the Hispanic community as well as the Nuggets organisation. On his own accord, Issel went on a leave of absence, yet no effort was made to force him to resign, while the worst punishment he faced was his falling out of favor with the fans and becoming the butt of more than a few jokes.
"Grabbing his crotch and using his best prison vocabulary, Mike Tyson challenged [reporter Mark] Malinowski to fight and then accused him of being 'scared like a little white prick.' Now if a white heavyweight grabbed his crotch and called a black reporter a 'little black prick,' he'd be spending the rest of his days playing Parcheesi with Al Campanis and Dan Issel." -Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly
Still, the name Dan Issel was almost synonymous with the Denver Nuggets franchise
. He was their all-star, an MVP, a coach, a Hall-of-Famer, a general manager, a commentator, and a vice-President. On December 26, the organisation decided on a cushy buyout
for Issel's contract, while suggesting that he could return to the organisation in a few years or so, when things cooled down. Issel promptly handed in his resignation.
Although nowadays he is known more for his temper than his basketball skills, Issel's jersey (#44) hangs from the rafters of the Pepsi Center as one of four retired numbers in Nuggets history, and he was also inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. After Issel's final season, the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America honored him with the J. Walter Kennedy Award for his outstanding community service. With his 27,482 points, Issel is seventh on the all-time ABA/NBA scoring list, behind only the likes of only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. Issel has been inducted into both the Colorado and Kentucky basketball Halls of Fame. Also, while his head coaching record with Denver of 180-208 isn't all that impressive, since it's Denver, he's actually the third-winningest coach in club history.