An ABA pioneer, Batavia's Issel helped shape modern NBA
A question asked on occasion is which NBA superstar is most underrated?
Well, the numbers alone make a solid argument for Dan Issel. The Batavia native ranks 11th on the all-time scoring list, just below Shaquille O'Neal and above Hakeem Olajuwon.
Issel is easily the highest scorer among players who grew up in the Chicago area, with 4,000 more points than Dwyane Wade.
The only caveat is Issel spent part of his career in the American Basketball Association, the rival league that partially merged with the NBA in 1976. At the same time, Issel scored more points in the NBA than the ABA, and the ABA had plenty of star power with guys like Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Artis Gilmore.
Issel pondered the question from his home in Louisville, Ky., where he's helping lead the effort to bring an NBA team to the city.
"Maybe, probably ... there was never anything very flashy to my game," he said. "I've told people I'd pick the ball off the floor and lay it off the backboard and Doc (Erving) would come in for a spectacular dunk two feet above the rim, but both baskets counted the same.
"I can understand why there was never anything that would drop your jaw about my game, but I don't know. I know the numbers. Whether I was underrated or not doesn't really matter."
After finishing his college career at Kentucky, Issel led the ABA in scoring as a rookie in 1970-71 with 29.9 points per game. The next season, he averaged 30.6 points.
Issel won an ABA title with the Kentucky Colonels in '75, then was traded to Denver and transitioned to the NBA with the Nuggets, playing through 1985. Issel also had two stints as head coach of the Nuggets, over a total of six years. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.
"The ABA was a wide-open game," Issel said. "The NBA had more good big men. We got up and down and shot the ball, and the NBA at that time was still kind of a walk the ball up the court and try to slam it inside to a big guy.
"Because it was more open and we were scoring more points in the ABA, the numbers wouldn't have been the same. I'd like to think I would have had some success in the NBA, but it certainly helped my career that I had a chance to develop the first few years in the ABA."
Issel didn't wait for the NBA Draft before choosing to join the ABA. Shortly after his senior year ended, he got a call from Dallas Chaparrals coach Cliff Hagan, a former Kentucky All-American., with news that Dallas had his ABA rights.
"It was such a crazy time. The ABA would have a draft every other week," Issel said. "They'd draft underclassmen, then they'd draft NBA players who they thought might jump. I said, 'Well, Cliff that's very nice, but there's only one team in the ABA that I would consider playing for and that's the Kentucky Colonels.'"
Issel received another call about a week later from the Colonels, who conveniently managed to secure his rights and Issel followed through on his promise.
"I'd fallen in love with Kentucky, I'd married a girl from Lexington and one of my best friends in the whole wide world was Louie Dampier, who was playing for the Colonels," he said. "We knew the money was about the same, so it was a pretty easy choice just to move 75 miles up the road and play with the Colonels."
It takes only a few highlights to understand what made Issel special. At 6-feet-9, he could shoot from the outside and had great two-step quickness. If a defender stepped out to take away his jumper, Issel would blow past him with one dribble and a lay in. Issel would be an ideal stretch-four in today's NBA.
"I tell people the NBA waited just long enough to adopt a lot of things the ABA did," he said. "They never did the red, white and blue basketball, but just about everything else that started in the ABA is now incorporated in the NBA and I think it's a much more entertaining form of basketball."
Batavia to Bluegrass
Batavia High School has become a football power in recent years, but has a long reputation as a hot spot for basketball. During Issel's time, it was a hub for all sports, despite being a fraction of its current size.
Issel's backyard lined up with the house of Ken Anderson, future quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals. A pitcher from Issel's high school class, Byron Von Hoff, was a second-round draft pick of the New York Mets. Von Hoff's older brother Bruce reached the majors with Houston. And in 1967, Batavia grad Sharron Moran was LPGA rookie of the year.
"The weekend entertainment for the town was almost entirely built around the sporting events, especially football and basketball," Issel said. "The high school games were always packed. My last two years on varsity we were the last district team eliminated in the state. It was a lot of fun, a lot of fond memories."
When it came time to choose a college, Issel said his parents preferred Northwestern and he liked Wisconsin, but eventually Kentucky assistant Joe B. Hall came calling.
"Kentucky really put on the full-court press," he said, "and I can remember my father coming into my bedroom at night and saying, 'You know, if you're serious about this basketball, you ought to think about that.' At that time, Kentucky had had more All-Americans and more professional players than any other college program. So that's where I decided to go."
When Issel arrived as a freshman, Kentucky had just lost to Texas Western in the NCAA title game. After a year on the freshman team, Issel played in the NCAA Tournament the next three seasons, but Kentucky lost in the Elite Eight to Ohio State and Jacksonville, and did not reach the Final Four.
"I look at it like it's the biggest hole in my basketball resume," he said. "My senior year, we had another All-American on our team named Mike Casey who had a compound fracture of his left leg from a car accident and didn't get to play at all. That was the year after Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) graduated (from UCLA). I always felt if we had Mike Casey healthy, we would have given it a good shot."
Issel said playing for Adolph Rupp was an interesting experience. Rupp coached at Kentucky from 1930-72 and died in '77.
"He was tough. He was a strict disciplinarian," Issel said of Rupp. "But he was so far ahead of his time basketball-wise. We didn't call any plays. All of the plays were initiated by a pass and what the passer did after that. In other words, if the pass went guard-to-guard, it was one formation. If the pass went guard-to-forward and the guard cut behind, it was another one. If the guard cut in front, it was another one.
"So there were no called plays. We practiced those plays and ran them with such perfection. If you were supposed to set a screen on a particular play, if you didn't knock that man off, then you were over there sitting next to coach Rupp. He was head and shoulders above his time as far as the Xs and Os of the game."
Cheers to red, white and blue
Issel's last college game was an Elite Eight loss to Jacksonville and center Artis Gilmore. A year later, Issel and Gilmore were teammates with the Colonels, basketball's original twin towers.
One sad aspect to Issel's career is the ABA didn't have a national television outlet, so few people outside of the ABA markets saw those two play together and not much footage exists today. When the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976, the Colonels ceased to exist and Gilmore joined the Bulls.
"We're still great friends to this day," Issel said. "Playing with Artis was terrific because he was a great defensive eraser. All the defensive mistakes we made on the perimeter, Artis cleaned them up in the middle of the floor. In those days, he had the big Afro. He looked very intimidating, but Artis is really a kind, kind soul and a great guy."
The ABA became renowned for a wide-open style of play, colorful characters and an anything-goes attitude. Issel said whatever crazy stories you may have heard about the ABA, they are probably true.
"I think the craziest was how bad the facilities were that we played in," he said. "In a lot of different arenas, we would dress at the hotel, three or four guys would get in a cab and have their uniforms on under trench coats. Then after the games, we'd put on the trench coach and a towel over our heads.
"Most of the time we stayed in Holiday Inns and things like that. There was a flight we took to Greensboro (N.C.), propeller plane and the flight from Louisville to Greensboro stopped four different times. It was all coach. To see poor Artis Gilmore try to get in a coach seat was a joke. It was certainly a different brand of professional sports."