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One look at Issel in a basketball uniform tells you what's wrong with his body. At 6'9" and 240 pounds, he's hardly the aircraft carrier that most NBA centers are. He's more a pocket battleship, and like one, he lobs long-range salvos with pinpoint accuracy. Issel playing with his back to the basket—as a typical NBA center would—is like a pocket battleship out of water.
Occasionally, teams do win with small centers, but they must have powerful help. The Bullets won the 1978 NBA championship with 6'7½" Wes Unseld in the pivot, but alongside him was 6'9½" Hayes; the Celtics won in 1974 and '76 with 6'9" Dave Cowens, but next to him was rugged Paul Silas; the Knicks won in 1970 and '73 with 6'9" Willis Reed, but his cohort was perhaps the best power forward in history, Dave DeBusschere. Issel's frontcourt mates in Denver are 6'7" Alex English and 6'8" Kiki Vandeweghe, who last year finished 1-2 on the NBA scoring list but who don't exactly sweep the glass clean. Except for his four-year pairing with 7'2" center Artis Gilmore on the Colonels, who won the 1975 ABA title, Issel hasn't played alongside much size or strength.
Issel may be limited in some ways as a center, but shooting isn't one of them. Indeed, his jumper is unsurpassed in the annals of NBA big men. "About the only thing to understand about my shooting is that I must have the ball," he says. Nobody understood that better than Rupp. Infuriated early in Issel's college career that the Wildcats weren't getting him the ball, Rupp called a fire-and-brimstone time-out. "This guy is going to be Kentucky's alltime leading scorer by the time he's through here," Rupp bellowed, "so I thought you all might like to meet him." The players caught on, and indeed Issel became the top scorer in Wildcat history (2,138 points). That record stands, which is incredible, because Issel set it in only three seasons (1967-68 through 1969-70); freshmen weren't eligible then, as they are now. Issel also established 20 single-season Wildcat scoring records his senior year and 13 career marks that still stand.
Issel's jump shot is effective from as far away as 24 feet, from the baseline or the top of the key, from the left side or the right. But because we've already disclosed that Issel can't jump, we must admit that what he takes is actually a hop shot. And what makes it so deadly—for eight straight seasons he has made more than 50% of his attempts—are his wrists, which give Issel one of the quickest releases in the NBA.
Issel uses his hop shot the way a good boxer utilizes his jab: All offensive moves start there. Men assigned to guard Issel have their choice of poison. "Dan presents a problem to me, since he has a really effective outside shot," says the Lakers' Abdul-Jabbar. "But he's agile enough to drive to the basket. So I have to get out and really guard him. And that takes me out from where I am the most effective—under the basket."
The move that propels Issel to the basket is a little head-and-pump fake that enables him to drive past the struggling defender for a kind of stumbling, bumbling, open-mouth layup. "It's the worst fake in the history of basketball and it works every time," Issel says. "I can't believe anyone goes for it." The fake is even more potent because, as New Jersey Nets coach Stan Albeck, who was a Colonel assistant when Issel played for them, explains, with Issel's well-known lack of jumping ability, "every black guy in the league figures he'll block Dan's jumper."
The NBA is being equally foolish, because it, too, is trying, in a figurative sense, to reject Issel's shot. The league has decided not to count the 12,823 points Issel scored in six ABA seasons and therefore ranks Issel 54th on its alltime scoring list. That's utter nonsense. Any league that had Issel, Dr. J, Barry, George Gervin, Moses Malone, Gilmore, Billy Cunningham—and, yes, Doug Moe—wasn't exactly chopped liver.
In Issel's last ABA season (1975-76) with the Nuggets he averaged 23.0 points a game. The next season, with the NBA Nuggets, he averaged 22.3. Talk about consistency. His career average is 23.3, and this year he's scoring 19.6 points a game.
Thankfully, fans, especially in basketball-smart places like Philadelphia, New York and Boston, appreciate talent. In those old NBA cities Issel plays to oohs and ahs; in Denver he plays to hysteria. In Kentucky he was known as King of the Blue Grass; now he's King of the Rocky Mountains. In 1982 a committee made up of sportswriters and civic officials from around the state selected Issel as Colorado pro athlete of the year. Other athletes who have been so honored include baseball's Tim Raines, then of the Denver Bears, in 1981, and golfer Hale Irwin, in 1980.
One reason Issel is so popular is that he runs up and down the floor, an activity eschewed by most NBA centers. No loping in the style of the 76ers' Malone; no jogging in the manner of Abdul-Jab-bar and almost every other big man. Running is demanded by the Nuggets' fast break, but Issel would do it anyway. Granted, Issel now goes only 28 to 30 minutes a game, but they're hustling minutes. Hustle is obviously important to Issel, but it takes a backseat to simply playing. In more than 13 years as a pro he has missed just 14 games, including one last Saturday because of a pulled left hamstring. Says Issel, "That record is what I'm most proud of, especially in a time when people question the pro basketball player's intensity—and his heart."