Dan Issel’s Inexorable, 1972

[In his autobiography Parting Shots, Dan Issel writes with considerable help from Denver Post columnist Buddy Martin, “Shooters are adrenaline junkies . . . Shooters would trade their first-born for a 50-point night. Shooters are addicted to reading their names in headlines. Shooters have themselves paged at K-marts just to hear their names over the loudspeaker. Shooters yank the cords of Venetian blinds just to experience the sound of singing nylon mesh.”

Issel became known as “a shooter” by the middle of his pro career. He would launch his near-automatic 20-foot bombs, ala Jerry Lucas, and draw away the other team’s big man from underneath the basket. Issel hoisted his final shot in 1985, having averaged more than 20 points per game in five of his eight NBA seasons. Adding his considerable body of work during his first six seasons in the ABA, Issel left with 27,482 points to his name over a 15-season career, going out as the then-fourth-highest pro scorer of all-time. 

But Issel had entered the ABA in 1970 as a hard-nosed All-American from Kentucky who just about always got the job done. Issel’s toughness (his nickname was “Horse”) carried over throughout his career, even when he later wore the label of “shooter.” It explains his 11,133 career rebounds and extreme durability. Issel missed a grand total of 24 games as a pro.

This article, from the March 1972 issue of SPORT Magazine, profiles Issel’s “inexorable” qualities during his second season with the ABA Kentucky Colonels. The profile was written by a 28-year-old freelancer named Rodger Huehner. The name didn’t ring a bell for me. After a little digging, I discovered that Huehner died in June 1977 from carbon monoxide poisoning while boating with his brother in Maine. Here’s to his memory.]

Practice is over for the Kentucky Colonels. Their idle chatter echoes up the steps from the locker room into the empty floor of the University of Louisville gymnasium. Empty that is except for one man. Still dressed in blue practice trunks and sweatshirt, Dan Issel, the ABA’s leading scorer last season and now one of the league’s best forwards, weaves solitary patterns beneath the basket. He crunches by imaginary opponents as he closes on the basket for a smooth, gliding layup. He pushes a jump shot from 15 feet out and grins as it arcs smoothly through the cords. A moment later, that same large, handsome face creases in anger as another shot caroms off the rim. He keeps moving around the court, his sneakers squeaking as he cuts and shoots, again and again. Sweat drips from his forehead, stinging his eyes. Finally, less satisfied than tired, Issel cradles the ball in a muscular arm and walk off the court, reluctantly, as if relishing the thought that he will return again. 

There is an unmistakable quality about Dan Issel on the basketball court: Once he makes up his mind to do something, he will do everything possible to accomplish it. Inexorable. It’s a word you can look up. It means unyielding, relentless, a quality which shall not be denied. That is the way Dan Issel plays basketball. 

Off-court, shorter, easier words can be applied to him: Quiet, amiable, humorous, even humble. Words that seem strange when you consider they are being attached to a man who is 6-foot-9, weighs 240 pounds, and at age 22 signed a contract with the Colonels worth a reported $1.4 million, about the same amount the Milwaukee Bucks gave Kareem Jabbar. 

The extra time Issel spends practicing, that ceremony of perfection in the gym, has to have a lot to do with what the Colonels think he’s worth. Yet Issel tells me he sees nothing special about it. “I spend an extra 15 or 20 minutes when I feel there’s something wrong with my shot,” he says. “When I feel that maybe I’m pulling it one way or the other and it’s just not going in the basket, then I’ll stay after regular practice or get there a little early and shoot until I have my form.

“I’m built like an athlete, but as a basketball player, I don’t have that much natural ability,” he continues. “I’m not flashy with a lot of slick moves or anything like that. I just try to get the job done. My coaches probably contributed 90 percent of my success; I just pushed myself as hard as I could.” The usual bromides, the smug homilies of an established player? I wondered. 

My wonder extended to a game I saw the Colonels play against the Utah Stars one Saturday night late last fall. It was the first time the two teams had met since the 1971 championship series when Issel was center, and the Colonels pushed the highly favored Stars to seven games before losing. Now, 7-foot-2 rookie Artis Gilmore is at center, flanked by Issel and Cincy Powell to give the Colonels a much-stronger forward line. 

In the backcourt are two small, but high-scoring, guards Darel Carrier and Louis Dampier. Only the season will tell whether the combination will win a championship, but, that forward, Issel looks stronger than ever. Some of the notes that I scribbled down during that game tell the story. 

“Issel takes Cincy Powell lob pass over head of Red Robbins (a Utah forward) for easy layup . . . Issel moves out for the ball, takes 20-foot jumper—falls cleanly through. Kentucky 12-10 . . . Cincy to Issel. Powers into boards—25-20. Looks extremely strong . . . Gilmore comes to top of key as Issel roams freely under basket. Dampier bounces pass to Issel who muscles through two Utah defenders for layup, 35-35.”

Those notes also recall fleeting pictures in the mind, Issel drives on the basket with unswerving strength, his straight, dark-blond hair waving around his head. He hits his shot and slaps his hands gleefully together. A charging foul is called on him, and he shouts angrily at the referee: “I had a step on him, I had the position, he didn’t.” And then he races upcourt, his face contorted in anger, a hint of his extreme intensity. 

By halftime, the Colonels lead 65-53. Issel has scored 22 points to his opponent Red Robbins’ two. He moved freely, taking the ball inside whenever possible; pulling up short for a jump shot that rolls with near perfection off his fingertips whenever the lane closed. Only Willie Wise, the Stars’ forward who played on the other side of the court and scored 18 points, kept his team from being pushed all the way to Cincinnati. Then things tightened up.

In the second half, the Stars’ defense falls back. Manny Leaks, stronger at 215 pounds than Robbins, is sent in to guard Issel. Muscle heaves upon muscle. Still, Issel pressures his opponent aside to hit first a layup, then a jumper. So, Utah adjusts again, dropping both Leaks and Wise on Issel. At the same time, they pressure Kentucky’s guards; the passes no longer work well and several go awry. A 19-point lead quickly melts away. While Issel does not look bad—he winds up scoring 35 points—Utah wins, 111-106. 

The Colonels’ locker room is as icily silent as a burial crypt. Issel feels the defeat keenly, but it is not a part of his nature to brood on transient losses. “You’re a jinx,” he says tiredly as I poke my head around the door “a damn New York jinx.” I can’t quarrel with him: Three times I have watched the Colonels play; three times they have lost. Then he suddenly grins. “We’ll win some like this back. It was a tough one to lose, but we will come back. Just hang loose.” 

Hang loose. We will win, inexorably we’ll win. That’s a glimpse of Dan Issel. In many ways, he expresses a basic American credo: If you work hard enough for something, you’ll eventually get it. 

The Dan Issel you encounter at his home provides a revealing counterpoint to the one you see on the basketball court. The road to his house winds east of Louisville, through the land that shaped him. They call it Middle America. Long gone now are the visions of simple rural beauty that geographic term once conjured. Instead the land is marked by decaying small towns, abandoned farms, four-lane highways, Dairy Queens and Burger Kings, endless highways bordered by neon-lit roadhouses and steakhouses and motels and mobile home parks. Out of this Midwest came Dan Issel, shooting a ball through a thin, metal hoop with astounding accuracy, driven by the values that still can be found hidden beneath the junkyard chrome. 

He lives in a tasteful, luxury housing development outside Louisville. Issel waits for me on the front steps and waves as the cab approaches. His muscular frame nearly hides the doorway. He appears relaxed, dressed in a brown sport shirt and matching bell bottoms; a blue coffee cup dangles from his fingers as he ushers me into the living room. Across the hall is a den; behind us is a living room and a kitchen. Three bedrooms take up the second floor. The only display of opulence is a swimming pool, cold and blue beneath the grey sky. But it is not large, nor even kidney shaped, merely a rectangular, functional pool built for swimming—modest and practical. 

We speak first of his present season. At the beginning of December, he was leading the ABA in scoring again with 837 points, averaging 32.2 points per game. The Colonels, as a team, lead the Eastern Division by two and a half games with a 19-7 record, the best in the league. Clearly, he has made the transition from center to forward, and the team has benefited. 

Dan agrees. “Playing forward, it’s a lot easier to get the ball; there’re picks and screens and usually they don’t double-team a forward.  It’s pretty hard for a team to fall off on you, because they’re going to leave someone else closer to the basket open. Last year, at center, I had to work myself open. It’s a lot easier for a team to slough-off, double-team, on the man in the middle. This year, I’m not so closely guarded, so I’m getting more shots.”

Dan Issel was a short center, but as a forward, he is very large, so close is he to the line that physically divides center from forward. His determination made up for lack of size last year, and he was named co-Rookie of the Year. In many of the postseason polls that picked Indiana’s Mel Daniels as All-League center, Dan Issel received votes as a forward. 

His success there surprised few observers of the ABA, least of all Frank Ramsey, the Colonels’ coach for much of last season. “He’s got one of the quickest first steps I’ve ever seen,” Ramsey said. “Play him close, and with that step and his strength, he’s by you. Play him loose, and he’ll kill you with that jump shot.” So good was Issel’s shooting that Ramsey said he found himself at one point in the season believing “that everything Dan put up would go in.”

Joe Mullaney, the Colonels’ coach today, agrees. “Dan’s a very orthodox player,” Mullaney says. “He might throw in a head feint every now and then. But basically, when he gets the ball and feels he can score, he’ll either shoot over the other fellow or try to drive by him.”

This man, Daniel Paul Issel, was born October 25, 1948, in Geneva, Illinois. At the age of four, his family moved to Sedalia, Missouri, then to Batavia, Illinois, another small town two miles to the south of Geneva, when he was in the sixth grade.  

In the Midwest, a hoop is a mandatory appendage to any garage. Yet Dan Issel says basketball wasn’t really important to him at first. Through his sophomore year in high school, Issel played football, basketball, baseball, and ran track. He was good at none of these sports. 

“Then,” he says, “my luck changed. They hired a basketball coach from Galva, Illinois, who had some fine teams there, taking them to the state tournament several times. Batavia had never made it to the district.” The summer after a sophomore year, Issel grew to 6-foot-7, and that new coach, Donovan Vandersnick, worked closely with him. 

That school year, 1963-64, Batavia went 28-2 and got all the way to the state sectional. Dan Issel was named to the all-conference team and a number of all-area teams. “I got some letters from colleges offering me the possibility of going to their school on a scholarship,” he says. “That’s when I decided I wanted to play basketball more than anything else. Then he went on to add, “There was also the prestige. People who excelled in athletics were looked up to.”

Not that Dan couldn’t have made it any other way. One of his high school teachers who had Issel in an advanced math class told me that “grades were never a problem for Dan. He was an intelligent boy, and he could have gone on to college on the basis of his grades.” But, says Issel, “I just wanted to play basketball.”

Play he did. His senior year was all basketball. Batavia went to the finals of the sectional before losing. Dan made the all-state team, and recruiters began crowding him. Eventually, he decided on Kentucky.

Not surprisingly, the well-manicured Issel got along with old Adolph Rupp from the beginning. “Dan was one of the most coachable young men I ever had the pleasure to work with,” Rupp told me. “I merely had to suggest something to him, and he would do it right away.”

By the end of Issel’s college career, he had led Kentucky to three straight Southeast Conference titles. He also set several Kentucky records, the most prominent of which was 2,138 points at an average of 25.7 points a game for the three years he played. 

As a pro, he exceeded that output in his first season, scoring 2,480 points at an average of slightly more than 29 ppg. Signing with the Colonels in a league that possessed at-best a shaky future was no problem, he says. His blue eyes twinkled slightly, for he knows that I know the size of his contract.

“Sure,” he admits, “the money was a definite factor. Playing in the ABA wasn’t, because someday we’ll be on the same level as the NBA, if we aren’t already there. But I also like Kentucky, I like living here.” (He also married here. His wife, the former Cheri Hughes, was a cheerleader for Kentucky.)

He went on: “I also have to consider and be grateful for the fact that only by being an athlete would I be where I am at 23 years of age. I could have been a good accountant or a good banker, but they reach their peak in their 40s, if at all. I’ll know that pleasure when we win a championship.”

In Issel’s rookie season, the Colonels finished in second place in the East, then beat Virginia four games to two for the Eastern title. They extended Utah to seven games in the finals. Dan set an ABA playoff record with 534 points in two series. But the forward line of Utah outrebounded Kentucky’s 51-36 and scored on nearly half their shots. “I didn’t feel that badly,” Dan admits. “I wanted to win, but I know we’ll be back.” There he is again, thinking positive, being inexorable. 

The Sunday following the loss to Utah, I flew back to New York with the Colonels and spoke with Louis Dampier. Issel, Dampier points out, is a good man to have around a team. “He’s a very likable, good-natured guy with a great sense of humor. He’s a pleasure to be with.”

That night, the Colonels play the Nets in a bandstand euphemistically called the Island Garden. The Nets, like the Stars, are hustling, and Issel is pressured under the boards first by Jim Ard, then by Tom Washington. 

The Colonels stay close enough to tie the Nets in the final seconds when rookie Jim O’Brien grabs an offensive rebound and scores to send the game into overtime at 101-all. Then the Colonels take the lead for good. With some 40 seconds left, Issel hits on a layup to make it 107-106. The Colonels win, 108-106. 

But Issel did not look particularly good. Several times, he had the ball slapped away from him, several times he let passes and scoring opportunities escape. “Well how much did he score?” a happy Joe Mullaney asks me. I hadn’t looked at the stats, so I guess 22. “How can you complain about that?” he asks. “Look, good game or bad game, I know he’s giving everything he’s got out there, and that he’ll get the job done.”

Inside the locker room, the Colonels are ecstatic. “Hey,” Dan shouts when he sees me, “we broke your jinx.” His grin was infectious. “This makes up for a lot,” he says. He was hunched over, tired, sipping a beer.  “But you didn’t have such a good night,” I say. “No,” he answers, “but the next time, they’ll drop through.”

Later, I look at the stats and discover that he scored 28 points and pulled down 15 rebounds, 11 on offense. Even looking bad, he gets the job done. And then I realized, as though I hadn’t known it all along, as hard as Dan Issel works, they’re eventually going to drop through. It’s inexorable.

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