Former coach Dan Issel has homecoming with Denver Nuggets after painful departure
As Denver seeks its first NBA championship, the legendary player is happy to be involved with the franchise after their 2001 split
DENVER – The first shot of the 2023 NBA Finals was not taken by Denver Nuggets stars Nikola Jokić or Jamal Murray. Rather, a former Nuggets star in Dan Issel.
After 47 seasons in the league, the Nuggets were about to play in Game 1 of their first appearance in the NBA Finals. Denver could have chosen former greats such as Alex English, Fat Lever, Dikembe Mutombo or Carmelo Anthony to represent them on this historic night. But more than two decades after Issel responded to a heckling fan with a racially insensitive remark and resigned as Nuggets coach, the franchise chose to spotlight “The Horse” before the start of the NBA Finals.
“I don’t know if I ever have had a reception like this since I left,” Issel, who missed a promotional free throw before Game 1, told Andscape. “I was at a game earlier this [season] and they put me on the Jumbotron and there was a nice reception. But nothing like Game 1. I wish I was involved a little bit more. I love the franchise. I’ve done everything from player to coach to administration to doing the color on the TV game.
“But they’ve started to ask me back. I’ve done several season ticket gatherings this year. So, it’s fun to be around again.”
Long before Jokić was born, Issel was arguably the best player in Nuggets franchise history.
Issel was a member of the Nuggets when they played in their last season in the American Basketball Association, losing to Julius “Dr. J” Erving and the New York Nets in the 1976 ABA Finals. The Nuggets were one of four NBA teams that merged into the NBA during the 1976-77 season. Issel was the Nuggets’ all-time leading scorer with 25,198 points from 1975 to 1985 before being passed by English.
Issel is a Basketball Hall of Famer who ranks 12th all-time on the NBA-ABA career points list with 27,482. The former University of Kentucky star was nicknamed “The Horse” due to his durability, only missing 24 games during his 15-year pro basketball career. The seven-time All-Star also is the Nuggets’ all-time leader in free throws made and total rebounds. The 1985 J. Walter Kennedy Citizen Award winner’s No. 44 jersey was also retired by the Nuggets.
“He was really good. He would have been interesting in today’s game because he was a 3-point shooter,’’ said former Nuggets star forward Bill Hanzlik. “He was able to drop those 28-footers and also go to the hoop. He was an undersized center. He was strong. He would just go, was powerful. Strong legs. Didn’t back down from anything.”
ESPN NBA analyst and former Nuggets forward Jalen Rose said, “Dan not only was a certified walking bucket in the ABA and NBA, but I had the privilege of also calling him coach. I’m thankful for all the things he taught me.”
Issel coached two former Nuggets players who are now assistant coaches, Popeye Jones and Ryan Bowen. Jones and Bowen were very excited to see Issel get honored during Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
“When I walked off the court after Game 1, he actually called my name,” Jones said. “I saw him under the basket. He gave me a big hug. He coached the way he played. He was a fiery competitor, tough-minded and gritty as a player. He was tough-minded as a coach as well.”
Bowen, who hugged Issel after Game 1, said: “There are few names when you think of the Denver Nuggets, and Dan Issel is one of those. He gave me my opportunity as a player to be part of the Nuggets. He believed in me.”
Issel also had his ups and downs as a coach and president of basketball operations for the Nuggets.
Issel had a 180-208 record during two stints as Nuggets coach from 1992-95 and 1999 to 2001. The highlight of his coaching career was leading the eighth-seed Nuggets to a historic upset of the top-seed Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the 1994 NBA playoffs. Thirty-four games into the 1994-95 season, Issel resigned on Jan. 14, 1995, after stating that the duties and pressures of the job “have started to make me something I don’t want to be.”
Issel, however, returned to coaching while also serving as the president of basketball operations before the 1999-2000 season. He replaced then-coach Mike D’Antoni on Sept. 14, 1999. Training camp was just weeks away. Issel had said beforehand that D’Antoni deserved to return for a second season.
Issel told Andscape he didn’t want to return to coaching but was told to by then-new Nuggets owner Bill Laurie. Issel said he reluctantly agreed to and that D’Antoni has refused to talk to him ever since his dismissal from Denver.
“I didn’t want to coach the second time,” Issel said. “And a lot of people think that I fired Mike D’Antoni because I had an ego and I wanted to coach. I had no intentions of coaching the second time.”
Said Bowen: “My first season in the NBA was kind of wild. Mike D’Antoni was the coach. And then right in September is when Dan said he was going to coach the team.”
The stress that weighed on Issel during his first coaching stint with Denver returned the second time around. After the Nuggets were routed 95-78 at Miami on Dec. 6, 2000, Issel complained that several of his players were in nightclubs the night before the game and treated the road trip “like a vacation.” The Nuggets were winless during the four-game Eastern Conference trip, which concluded with a tough two-point loss at Boston. Nuggets players became frustrated with Issel after he verbally ripped into forward Raef LaFrentz for playing poorly.
Issel called practice the day the Nuggets returned from the road trip in the early hours of the morning after stopping to refuel in Nebraska. Nuggets captains Nick Van Exel and George McCloud called for a team boycott of the 11 a.m. practice. Most of the players didn’t come to practice, and there was also talk of potentially boycotting the next game, which didn’t happen. The Nuggets responded by winning 15 of 19 games during one stretch, but still finished shy of making the 2000 NBA playoffs with a 40-42 record.
“There were a few guys that came in and got treatment,” Bowen said of the practice boycott. “I remember walking out on the court and Dan is just sitting there. I think Dan knew he messed up. If I remember right, he fined us all and says, ‘I’m going to fine you guys all $1,000 for skipping practice. But I’m going to fine myself more for calling practice.’ ”
Issel also was stressed because of his roller-coaster relationship with Van Exel. Issel signed the 1998 NBA All-Star guard to a six-year contract with incentives that could push the deal to $77 million. Van Exel was once fined and suspended for a game in Houston for conduct detrimental to the team. In retaliation, he gave the fine letter to Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla to run in the paper.
Years later, Issel said, Van Exel, now an Atlanta Hawks assistant coach, apologized to him.
“[My wife] Cheri and I went to the game, and we went back in the hallway after the game, to say hello to Nick,” Issel said. “And Nick and I walked out to the bus together. And Nick said, ‘I’m sorry the way that I acted when I was here.’ And I hugged him. I always thought that I was kind of a player’s coach. He was the only player I never cracked. And I don’t know why. I don’t think I did anything wrong. I think it was just a matter of Nick didn’t trust anybody. I almost cried.
“You’re young and you think you know it all, and you think you’re doing the right thing, and then time passes and you get a little smarter. And of all of the people I ever coached, if I had to pick somebody to take a last-minute shot to win the game, it’d be Nick Van Exel.”
Van Exel said he wanted to be traded because he was “tired of losing” on Dec. 8, 2001, after the Nuggets fell to a 7-13 record. Three days later in the Nuggets’ return to Denver, the fans booed Van Exel every time he touched the ball during a tough 99-96 loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
As Issel and Van Exel walked through the tunnel to depart the floor at the same time, a fan leaned down and heckled Issel about the loss. An angry Issel told the fan, “Go drink another beer you Mexican piece of s—.” Those words were caught on video by a local television station camera operator. The next day, the Nuggets and the NBA suspended Issel four games without pay, costing him more than $112,000.
“I don’t believe anything happens by coincidence,” Issel said. “I think there was a reason that there was a camera there when a camera had never been there. And it was time for me to go. I wish it hadn’t gone that way, but that job was making me something that I didn’t want to be.”
In reflection, Bowen said, “You know how Dan is, he’s so fiery. It was obviously unfortunate what happened. It was a weird time. No one knew what was going on. I just felt bad about the situation in general. It was really tough at the time, especially with what Dan did for me.”
Issel owned up to his mistake with no excuses and tried to make amends. He apologized to the Hispanic community in public and private, and to the City of Denver. Issel issued a public apology at Luna’s on 38th, a Mexican restaurant, after eating lunch with local Hispanic leaders. Colorado Sen. Rob Hernandez said at the time that Issel’s actions were “clearly forgivable.” Hispanic groups in Colorado called off a Nuggets boycott after Issel apologized.
“I wanted them to understand that wasn’t who I really was,” Issel said. “I wanted them to understand that was a heat of the moment, stupid thing to do. And I never acted like I was a victim. I stood up and took full responsibility for it. And [then-NBA commissioner] David [Stern] suspended me for four games, and I could have come back and coached after those four games. But I thought it was best to just walk away from it at that point …
“What really stood out to me was their acceptance. I had several meetings with the leaders of the Mexican community, and after I apologized, they came up and said, ‘We understand, we get it. We forgive.’ And it was just that the fact that I did that and the fact that they were very acceptable to it.”
Issel was expected to return during a Dec. 26, 2001, home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Instead, he accepted a buyout and resigned as coach and president. LaFrentz said at the time that Issel “wasn’t happy coaching.” Then-Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said, “after a lot of soul-searching, Dan realized that perhaps coaching wasn’t for him.”
“Coaching was making me angry,” Issel said. “I don’t use language like that, and the fact that I would say something like that just showed how the pressure was getting to me. We had a change of ownership. Stan [Kroenke] had just bought the team, and I knew that Stan brought in Kiki [Vandeweghe as general manager], and so I knew Stan wanted his own people anyway, so I probably would’ve made it to the end of the year. But it just made me a different person. So, it was time to go …
“It was a relief that I didn’t have to coach that team anymore. And a lot of people supported me and a lot of people didn’t. But I don’t have too many regrets in life, but that’s certainly one of them.”
Today, Issel and his wife live in Denver, where they are close to their two children and their five grandchildren. Issel co-hosts a daily sports radio show broadcast out of Louisville, Kentucky. The 74-year-old is also part of a group that hopes to get an NBA expansion team in Louisville.
Since his departure from coaching, Issel has been recognized briefly on the Jumbrotron at Nuggets games, but he said the VIP treatment he was given in Game 1 of the NBA Finals was different. The Nuggets gave him a private car and had a team representative at his side. While Issel attended a pregame sponsorship event, his grandchildren, who range in age from 7 to 20, were treated to dinner. He was given two baseline tickets for Game 1 of the Finals and four other Finals tickets. Issel also beat a drum to inspire the fans to chant, “Let’s go Nuggets!”
“It was so much fun,” Issel said. “I don’t have anything to do with this team, but you can’t have as many years invested in an organization as I have with the Nuggets and not feel the pride and maybe even some ownership in what’s going on right now. So, for the Nuggets to ask me to be a part of it … I’ll remember the rest of my life the way they announced me.”
Said Bowen: “You could tell it was a neat experience for him. And afterwards, I texted him and said, ‘You might want to work on your free throws.’ He said, ‘You’re right.’ ”
Issel went to the NBA Western Conference finals twice as a member of the Nuggets, but never the NBA Finals. He also has no problem saying that Jokić, a two-time NBA MVP, is already “the best player in franchise history.”
Issel believes that Jokić and the Nuggets will be 2023 NBA champions.
“People say, ‘How do you stop him?’ ” Issel said. “I said, ‘Darned if I know.’ He’s got to be the most unselfish superstar in the league … He’s doing things where he is on lists with Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson, for crying out loud. He’s incredible.
“It’s our turn to win the championship. I really think it’s our turn.”