SLAM: Was it hard to maintain the same level of intensity and love for the game as a professional?
Issel: A little bit, because you’re playing so many more games, and it was a business, but I tried to play my entire career with that same spirit. You know, I couldn’t rely a whole lot on my talent to get me through. I really think that it was my work ethic that enabled me to achieve whatever I achieved in the game.
SLAM: I’m going to throw out some names and I just want to get your initial reaction. Artis Gilmore.
Issel: The strongest player I ever played against.
SLAM: Dr. J.
Issel: Probably the best player I ever played against. The one thing I remember about Dr. J is his huge hand. He held the basketball like the rest of us would hold a volleyball.
SLAM: George McGinnis.
Issel: The Backsmith. I saw George McGinnies play a high school all-star game, the Kentucky High School All-Stars against the Indiana High School All-Stars, and he looked like a man playing with a bunch of boys. He was really something.
SLAM: Doug Moe.
Issel: Doug’s a good guy, and he had the unique ability to be two very different people. When the game was being played, he was the most intense, foul-mouthed human being I have ever met, and when the game was not being played, he was the most laid-back, laziest guy I ever met.
SLAM: Did it ever bother you that he always referred to you as “my big stiff?”
Issel: [Laughs] No. I knew Doug loved me, so that slid off my back.
SLAM: Bill Walton.
Issel: Bill was probably the most complete center I ever saw: offense, defense, passing, ball-handling, rebounding, he did it all. Let me tell you my favorite Bill Walton story. There were seven people inducted into the Hall of Fame my year. They gave us each three minutes to speak. A few of us went a little over, some didn’t get to the three-minute mark. Bill Walton took 22 minutes.
SLAM: Alex English.
Issel: The most deceptive player that I ever played against or with. At the end of the game you would think, “Well Alex had a pretty nice night. He must have had 20, 20 points.” Then you’d get the stat sheet, and he’d have 36. He was so smooth on the court that you would never realize how many damm points he was scoring.
SLAM: Adrian Dantley.
Issel: Adrian was a very, very strong player who had a unique ability to get to the free-throw line. He was only about 6-4 playing power forward, and he couldn’t jump, but he never got his shot blocked. He always got his shot away, and more often than not, got to the free-throw line as well.
SLAM: Calvin Murphy.
Issel: Calvin was a water bug, and he was a great scorer. There was no way you could cover him with one man.
SLAM: Elvin Hayes.
Issel: I didn’t play against Elvin much, but he was probably the prototype power forward. Until Karl Malone came around. Big E was the way power forwards were supposed to play.
SLAM: Connie Hawkins.
Issel: Connie was gone by the time I got to the league—he had moved on to the NBA—but in the first ABA game I ever saw, when I was still in college, I saw him block a shot by catching it in mid-air. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. Connie Hawkins was amazing.
SLAM: In 15 years you missed less than 25 games. Are you proud of that, or do you look back and go, “What was I thinking?”
Issel: I’m very proud of it. They were paying me good money to play basketball, and I wanted to be out there. Some nights were good and some nights weren’t so good, but I was always there playing. And I was pretty fortunate. I never missed two games in a row, because I was banged and bruised but never had anything too bad. I think the worst was one night when I played with 103-degree temperature.
SLAM: What was the emotional highlight of your professional career?
Issel: Two things are my biggest thrills in basketball: winning the ABA championship in ’75, and coaching the Nuggets in the ’94 playoffs when we beat Seattle in the first round. We basically took a bunch of young kids who really had no business winning and beat the team with the best record in the NBA. And remember that in the next series, we were down three-zip to Utah and came back and took it to a seventh game. That whole run was a big thrill.
SLAM: It really looked like you were building something with the Nuggets. Then, BANG, you were gone, and it sort of fell apart. That must have been frustrating. And now you have to pick the pieces back up.
Issel: Yeah, it was frustrating to look back on, but a lot of that was my own choosing. Unfortunately, there were some factors that I really couldn’t control. It certainly makes you wonder what would have happened had I stayed and the team remained intact. But that’s the part of history now. We have to move forward.