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On a recent plane trip to New York, Denver Nugget coach Doug Moe was talking about his veteran center, Dan Issel. "I call his overall game ugly," Moe said. "He's my 6'9" stiff."
Had he been speaking of any other player, Moe's comments might have been considered downright nasty, but compared with what other folks say about Issel, his words were actually sort of kind. University of Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who was a Wildcat assistant under Adolph Rupp when Issel played there, says. "The thing I remember about Dan is that he fell down all the time."
And if you judge Issel by standards of NBA excellence, you'll find that he's widely considered deficient in the following aspects of the game:
He's three to four inches too short for a center; he can't jump; at 35, he's too old; he's too white ("For his birthday, we're giving him a tan," says teammate Danny Schayes); he isn't strong enough; he doesn't rebound the way an NBA pivotman should, his career average of 9.6 per game saying "forward" rather than "center"; he can't clog up the middle; and he can't block shots. In fact, everyone in the NBA waits breathlessly for Issel's Annual Snuff, and seeing that he slapped one off the fingertips of the Nets' embarrassed Albert King last month, people can relax for the remainder of this season.
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."
On opening night this season Issel scored his 25,000th point in the pros—becoming only the eighth player to reach that plateau—and he has subsequently passed Jerry West (25,192 points) and Rick Barry (25,279). That makes Issel—with 25,796 through last weekend—No. 6 on the alltime scoring list. He has John Havlicek (26,395) in sight—he'll catch Hondo this spring or early in 1984-85—and when Issel retires after next season, he'll have passed Oscar Robertson (26,710) and Elvin Hayes (27,086 through last Sunday and still counting, albeit very slowly) and will trail only Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) and soon-to-be-No. 1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (30,540 and still sky hooking). So there it will be, probably forevermore, the Big Three: Kareem, Wilt and Dan. No wonder Julius Erving, who also passed the 25,000-point mark earlier this season, marvels, "He's a prime-time player."
It seems you have to have played with or against Issel to know that, because to the casual fan Issel's ratings are so low that he has always seemed on the verge of being canceled. Perhaps that's because throughout his 14-year pro career, Issel (rhymes with missile) has labored in the oblivion of Louisville with the ABA Colonels and with Denver in the ABA and NBA, instead of high-profile towns like Boston or Los Angeles.
Besides, the Issel style of play is hardly dazzling. "I think I'm kind of a blue-collar player," he says. "There's nothing flashy at all about my game. I have to concentrate all the time. If I relax, I don't get anything accomplished."
"He's a dinosaur," says Carl Scheer, Denver's general manager. "He believes in an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. And he's never been appreciated as much as we appreciate him. Dan Issel is the Denver Nuggets." Putting his money where his mouth is, Scheer is paying Issel $575,000 this season and will pay him approximately $650,000 next year.
While Issel isn't about to return any of the loot, he argues that pro basketball players are overpaid. "We have a terrible image problem," he says. "The worst thing ever was the multiyear guaranteed contract. It took away all incentive. It's ridiculous to make this much money. Our priorities are all messed up. Something's wrong somewhere."