The Nuggets aren't proud of their protest, but they're happy with what it has wrought
Nuggets coach Dan Issel was stood up by his own players on Dec. 11. He called a practice and nobody came. The team's one-day walkout became a national scandal: It cast Denver as Exhibit A for everything that's wrong with today's NBA, and it humiliated Issel, who arrived at the gym with no inkling of the boycott and left wondering if his days as coach were numbered.
It turns out (for the moment, at least) that Issel had nothing to worry about. Rather than being torn apart by the protest, the Nuggets have become one of the league's hottest teams, using better balance and an improved defense to win six of eight games and climb above .500 (16-15) through Tuesday. "That incident brought us a lot closer, and we needed that," says power forward Antonio McDyess, a tri-captain. "Even though it was a bad thing to do, if it caused this team to play a lot better, then we did the best thing by doing it."
The negative publicity forced the players to become more team-oriented overnight in order to prove they weren't the self-absorbed monsters the boycott made them appear to be. Issel, too, says he has learned from the mutiny. He's not even bothered that it was led by one of his most vocal supporters, tri-captain Nick Van Exel. After acquiring Van Exel from the Lakers in June 1998, Issel—who also serves as team president—ignored the advice of others in the organization and signed him to a seven-year, $77 million deal.
"I gave Nick that big contract because he was worth it," Issel says. "He's Number 2 in the league in assist-to-turnovers ratio, and he's Number 5 in assists. You can choose to think of Nick as the immature player he was in L.A. You can choose to say he was the one who led the revolt. I choose to look at him as one of the best point guards in the league. Was he the ringleader? Probably. But he is also the ringleader of everything that goes on in that locker room, and that's because he has the guts to take a stand. I wouldn't trade Nick Van Exel for any point guard in the league."
The rift between Issel and his players started on Dec. 5, when they landed in Miami to begin an East Coast trip. That night some of the players took a limousine and went club-hopping. The following evening the Heat thrashed Denver 95-78, and Issel ripped his players, saying that they were "treating the road like a vacation."
"It was obvious by the way they played," Issel says of the effect of the late-night partying. "Some guys couldn't even pass the ball."
The Nuggets felt it was hypocritical of Issel to question their dedication when he doesn't put in the long hours typical of NBA coaches. He doesn't believe in studying film and computer printouts to break down the tendencies of opponents. When most of the players met in Denver for voluntary workouts last September, neither Issel nor his assistants were on hand to work with them. Asked if the players are justified in accusing him of not working hard enough, Issel says, "It's probably a fair criticism. But I've got to coach like I've got to coach, and if we're not successful, then they can have somebody else do it."
Denver went on to drop all four games on the trip, culminating in a 104-102 overtime loss at Boston on Dec. 10. That defeat was especially galling to Issel: Celtics center Tony Battie—whom Issel had referred to as El Busto before dealing him to the Lakers in the Van Exel trade—outplayed Issel's first-round pick of 1998, Raef LaFrentz, who went scoreless for the first of two games. After the loss, Issel tore into LaFrentz, then ordered the team to practice at 11 the next morning in Denver. The flight home arrived at 3 a.m.
No sooner had the coach stormed out of the locker room, say team sources, than Van Exel called for the boycott to show Issel he had no right to punish them. ( Van Exel declined to discuss the incident with SI.) "We decided not to go to practice," says tri-captain George McCloud. "It's one of the worst incidents I've ever been part of. We did Dan an injustice, and we did ourselves an injustice."