Dan Issel initially didn’t seem to have the physical abilities required for stardom in the NBA. He wasn’t particularly quick on his feet, he wasn’t that strong, and he didn’t have a great vertical leap.
Because he wasn’t big enough or strong enough to go toe-to-toe with most of the league’s centers, he did his damage with a smooth, accurate outside shot and by outrunning his counterparts on the floor. He had an awkward but effective head fake, a clumsy but capable drive to the hoop, and an incredible work ethic.
He was one of the most durable players in basketball history, missing only 24 games in 15 professional seasons, a feat that earned him his nickname, “the Horse.” His hardworking style of play was legendary in the state of Kentucky.
After a standout career at the University of Kentucky he moved on to the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association. In six ABA seasons, Issel led the league in total points three times (including a record 2,538 in 1971-72), was an All-Star each year and won an ABA Championship with the Colonels in 1975.
After his stellar college career Issel chose to stay close to home and play for the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, who had selected him in the first round of the 1970 ABA Draft. With Spencer Haywood having departed to the NBA’s Seattle Super Sonics, the door was left open for a new ABA scoring leader, and Issel stepped right in. He averaged 29.9 ppg as a rookie in 1970-71, narrowly edging the New York Nets’ Rick Barry (29.4 ppg) for the league scoring title.
Issel played in the 1971 ABA All-Star Game and shared ABA Rookie of the Year honors with Charlie Scott of the Virginia Squires. The Colonels finished the regular season at 44-40, a distant second to Virginia (55-29) in the Eastern Division. But in the playoffs the Colonels dumped the Squires, then pushed the Utah Stars to the limit in the ABA Finals before losing in Game 7.
Issel was even more prolific in 1971-72. Playing in 83 of 84 games, he set an ABA single-season record for total points with 2,538. Still, his average of 30.6 ppg ranked third in the league behind Scott (34.6 ppg) and Barry (31.5), both of whom played fewer games. In the second of his six ABA All-Star Games, Issel scored 21 points, collected 9 rebounds, and was named Most Valuable Player.
Issel’s scoring average dropped slightly over the next few years, but the Colonels as a team maintained their superior performance. They boasted a powerful lineup that included Gilmore, who led the league in rebounding for three consecutive seasons, and long-distance scoring threat Louie Dampier, who finished as the ABA’s all-time career leader in points, field goals, three-point field goals, and assists.
Prior to the 1975-76 season, the Colonels traded Issel to the Baltimore Claws (formerly the Memphis Hustlers) for Tom Owens and cash. But the Claws folded before the season began, and Issel was subsequently traded to the Denver Nuggets for Dave Robisch and cash. He spent the rest of his career with the Nuggets and became one of the most popular sports figures in Denver history.
Issel joined a powerful Nuggets team that also included high-flying David Thompson, who ranked third in the league in scoring with 26.0 ppg in 1975-76. Issel placed seventh with 22.9 ppg and helped the Nuggets to an ABA-best 60-24 record. Denver had championship hopes entering the postseason, but the Nuggets fell to the New York Nets in the ABA Finals — the last one ever.
Dan was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and won the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 1985.
Around the Web:
Dan Issel’s Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Speech
Remember the ABA – Dan Issel
Basketball News with Brett Ballantini: Dan Issel Interview
Legends Profile: Dan Issel
NBA Encyclopedia: Dan Issel