Original Old School: A Man Called Horse

While the current NBA players are fighting for their rights in the form of excruciating, seemingly never-ending lockout negotiations, we figured now was a great time to look back on some of history’s best hoopers. Up next: Hall of Famer Dan Issel. The feature below was originally published in SLAM 29 (October, 1998).—Ed.

by Alan Paul

Some guys just have to keep proving themselves. Take Dan Issel. The University of Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer, the 6-9 Issel averaged 33.9 ppg and 13.2 rpg his senior year to lead the Wildcats to a 27-2 record and the top of the regular-season polls. Still, NBA scouts considered his future shaky, dubbing him too short to be a center and too slow to be a forward. So when the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels offered him mad dollars to stay in the bluegrass state, Issel was more than happy to take the money.

Utilizing an ability to drive to the hoop and an accurate long-range jumper, Issel took the upstart league by storm, averaging 29.9 ppg and 13.2 rpg his rookie year of ’70-’71. Over the next five years, he averaged 25.6 ppg and 10.9 rpg and played a key role on the Colonels’ 75 championship squad—a team equal to any of its NBA contemporaries. Still, Issel’s doubters remained when the league folded in ’76 and his new team, the Denver Nuggets, was absorbed by the NBA.

Playing for Doug Moe’s run-and-stun squads, Issel picked up right where he had left off, averaging 20.4 ppg and 7.9 rpg in a nine-year NBA career. When he retired in ’85, Issel’s combined ABA-NBA points totaled 27, 482, fourth highest at that point. He still ranks sixth, behind only Wilt, Kareem, Michael, Dr. J and Moses Malone, and just ahead of Oscar Robertson, John Havlicek and Dominique Wilkins. Issel may not have been as much fun to watch, but there was definitely a certain beauty to watching a man nicknamed “Horse” galloping around the court, flashing a toothless grin as he drained jumpers or scrapped for boards.

“He was a terrific pro center,” Moe said when Issel announced his retirement. “It’s true that he couldn’t jump, block shots or intimidate, but what he had done will rank him among the basketball greats.”

Issel’s stature was secured in ’93 when he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. This off-season, he was named the Nuggets general manager. It’s a huge job, but keep your eyes open: no one’s made much money betting against Issel yet.

SLAM: You once said that anyone who saw you play in 10th grade would be shocked to find out you where in the Hall of Fame.

Issel: Yeah, that’s true. To say I was a late bloomer would be a major understatement. I never played early, and I really wasn’t good in high school until my senior year. When I was a freshman, I couldn’t make the freshman/sophomore team, and when I was a sophomore I couldn’t make the varsity. It wasn’t until very late in my high school career that it looked like I was going to be anything but a very ordinary player.

SLAM: Coming out of college, a lot of scouts questioned whether you could ever play in the NBA, yet you retired as the fourth leading scorer in professional basketball history. What didn’t the scouts see?

Issel: They weren’t sure what my position would be; I was undersized for a center, and there were questions about my quickness to play forward. At the time, they didn’t discriminate between power forwards and small forwards; you just had a center, two forwards and two guards.

I have to say that going to the ABA to start my career was certainly a big benefit. It gave me a chance to get my feet wet, and there weren’t a lot of great centers in the ABA. The Pacers’ Mel Daniels could have played for any team in professional basketball, as could have Artis Gilmore. But it wasn’t consistent throughout the league, which helped me develop, and by the time the merger took place, I had enough experience to play center pretty well.

SLAM: What did you do to compensate for your lack of size?

Issel: I was always able to shoot the 18-foot jump shot and draw people who just weren’t comfortable playing away from the basket out of the paint, and make them run around.

SLAM: And what did you do on the defensive end against guys three-to-six inches taller than you?

Issel: I always tried to be pretty well educated about what each player liked to do—to know what their favorite moves were, then try to take it away from them. I wanted to make them beat me with something else. So, for instance, against Kareem I would try to take away the sky hook, so that he had to take it stepping away from the basket rather than stepping to it. I don’t know how successful I was with him or anyone else, but at least it was often a stand-off.

SLAM: Who was your toughest opponent?

Issel: No question about it: Moses Malone. I relied on going outside and shooting the jump shot, or drawing my man out and driving to the hoop, but Moses always had not only size on me but quickness as well. That part of his game was really overlooked, but Moses was scary quick. That’s why he was such a great offensive rebounder.

SLAM: Your first year in the ABA you played center and averaged almost 30 points and 13 rebounds. Then Artis Gilmore arrived, and you slid over to forward and formed a very tough frontcourt. What was it like playing with a center as dominating as Artis?

Issel: It was great, especially on the defensive end of the floor—because he would erase an awful lot of defensive mistakes back there. Actually, for most of the years we both played center with our back to the basket, because most of the coaches used us in a high/low post setup. But in ’75, the year we won the championship, Hubie Brown was the coach, and he asked me to play strictly forward. We opened up the middle of the floor for Artis, and my numbers reflect that; the scoring was definitely down. But we won the championship, so it was hard to argue with Hubie’s thinking.

SLAM: Do you think that the quality of play in the ABA has been underrated?

Issel: Well, I don’t know about that. Actually, the farther we get away from it, the more credit the ABA seems to be getting. But certainly some people have laughed it off unfairly. The other day I heard someone compare the ABA’s relationship to the NBA to the Canadian Football League and the NFL today. I just laughed at them and said, “Obviously you weren’t there to see what was going on.” No one who saw the games could possibly say that. I would put our ’75 Kentucky Colonels championship team up against any professional basketball team of that era. Some of those early 70’s Pacer teams were also as good as any basketball team anywhere. I know that, and the people that where there playing know it.

SLAM: In fact, didn’t you guys challenge the NBA-champion Warriors to a series in 75?

Issel: Yeah. Our owner, John Y. Brown, issued a challenge to play Golden State with Rick Barry and Clifford Ray. Of course, they weren’t going to play us, because they had nothing to gain, but you’ll never convince me we wouldn’t have beaten them in a seven-game series.

SLAM: Did you guys have a sense that having stuff like bikini-clad ball girls was detrimental to the reputation of the league?

Issel: I don’t think anybody really cared. We were just hoping that enough people would show up so the paychecks would cash the next week.

SLAM: You and Dr. J entered the Hall of Fame together in ’93, as the first inductees to have started your careers in the ABA. Somebody at that time said that his afro at its height was higher than your vertical jump.

Issel: [Laughs] That’s a good line. I hadn’t heard that, but that’s probably the truth. His afro was awesome. When he came into the ABA, he had more hair than I had ever seen. It was a real honor going into the Hall of Fame with Julius. I was proud of myself, of him and of the ABA, really.

SLAM: It’s fun to joke about your not being able to jump, but you were a damm good rebounder. Is leaping ability overrated in its importance for rebounding?

Issel: Well, yeah, I think it is, actually. I’ve always advocated that position is a lot more important than how high you jump. And I think that that can be said about scoring, too. I mean, Julius would jump up and dunk the ball with his elbow, whereas I would pick it up off the floor and lay it in the basket. Now, he was a lot more entertaining and captivating to watch than me, but they both counted two points.

SLAM: But you didn’t just score garbage points. You had a sweet J. As you mentioned, you were one of the first centers to go outside and shoot the jumper.

Issel: Yeah and it was mostly out of necessity. I was a pretty good outside shooter going into college, but I really developed it at Kentucky. Adolph Rupp would begin each practice with a half-hour of shooting. And it wasn’t taking a shot and talking with your buddy, and walking back out and taking another shot, like shooting practice is today. First of all, there was no talking whatsoever, and secondly, you shot the ball and you ran got the rebound and dribbled it back out and took another shot. As a center, shooting nothing but lay-ups and hook shots for an hour every day got a little boring, so I started working on the outside jump-shot, and that’s where I really developed it. Once I got to the pros, I developed it even more, out of necessity.