Batavia native Dan Issel talks about his Hall of Fame basketball career

Dan Issel keeps a hand in the picture for the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA as he clowns it up with the basketball team's all woman board of directors.  | FILE PHOTO
Dan Issel keeps a hand in the picture for the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA as he clowns it up with the basketball team's all woman board of directors. | FILE PHOTO

In a career that featured playing at the University of Kentucky and in the ABA and NBA, and culminated in being named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Dan Issel still remembers his time playing basketball in Batavia as the highlight of his basketball days.

“It all got started in Batavia,” Issel, 64, said. “The neat thing about Batavia is that the high school sports were part of the social life. Back when I played, there was just one class [in Illinois].”

Issel was born in Batavia, grew up on a farm in Missouri and moved back to Batavia when he was in sixth grade. Basketball was not something that he was just inherently good at.

“I didn’t really have much of an athletic background,” Issel said. “I went out for all of the sports because almost every able-bodied boy went out for the sports teams.

“I came around slowly. I played for the freshman team as a freshman and didn’t make the varsity team as a sophomore. I was a late bloomer.”

The summer between Issel’s sophomore and junior years, he went through a growth spurt. After an impressive junior season, he realized his basketball skills would allow him to get a college scholarship.

“[Choosing] Kentucky was a compromise,” Issel said. “My parents wanted me to go to Northwestern because it is a great academic institution. I signed a letter of intent to go to Wisconsin. It was my dad who finally said that if I was serious about basketball, there was no program better than Kentucky. They were really upping their recruitment of me.”

Landing in Kentucky meant Issel would play for legendary basketball coach Adolph Rupp.

“He is one of the best college coaches ever to coach the game,” Issel said. “I learned work ethic. He taught me if you wanted to work hard enough at it, you could accomplish some great things.”

Issel’s career average of 25.8 points per game is still a school record at Kentucky.

After his collegiate career, Issel was faced with the decision to join the ABA or the NBA.

“The fact that the [Kentucky] Colonels were in Kentucky was why I chose the ABA,” Issel said. “I actually signed with the Colonels before the NBA had its draft. I had really fallen in love with the state. I married a girl from Lexington. That was the first year that the ABA was serious about getting some of the better players.”

In his first season in the ABA, Issel averaged 29.9 points per game and 13.2 rebounds. The Kentucky Colonels eventually won the 1975 ABA championship
led by Artis Gilmore, Issel and Louie Dampier, who Issel said had a big role in him choosing to play in the ABA.

A series of trades landed Issel with the Denver Nuggets, who were one of the ABA teams that joined the NBA after the leagues merged in 1976.

“Getting traded to Denver during the last year of the ABA was a great break for me,” Issel said. “The next year there was no Kentucky Colonels and Denver was one of the teams that went into the NBA. The Colonels and the ABA will always have a special place in my heart.”

Issel talked about the advantage of having two leagues for the players at the time and the influence the ABA had on the basketball we see today.

“You had two different leagues bidding for your services,” Issel said. “The ABA was never able to get a national TV contract, which really was what led to its demise. However, in the ’70s, the ABA was getting better talent than the NBA. The NBA still had the rule that your college class had to graduate before you could enter the draft. The ABA had guys like Julius Erving and George Gervin.

“The ABA was a fun league. We weren’t in any of the major markets, but when you look back today and look at the influence it had, for existing only nine years, I think it is more popular today than it was then. The three-point line and the first slam dunk contest were from the ABA. The style of getting up and down the court came from the ABA. At the time, the NBA’s style was to walk it up the court and slam it into the big guys.”

With a career that spanned Division I college basketball, the ABA and the NBA, Issel had the opportunity to play against some of the game’s greatest players.

One player in his collegiate career stuck out more than any of the others.

“It would have to be the last game of my college career when I played against Artis Gilmore and Jacksonville,” Issel said of the best collegiate player he faced. “He is a hall of famer and he was fortunately my teammate for four years in the ABA.”

Issel said Dr. J (Erving) is his all-time favorite basketball player, but Kareem Abdul- Jabbar was the best player he went up against professionally.

“Fortunately, I didn’t have to guard [Dr. J],” Issel said. “I had to cover Kareem. Moses Malone gave me fits too. With my size, I was able to get on the perimeter and shoot jumpers against most big men. I couldn’t do that with Moses.”

At the end of his playing days, Issel had two stints as a coach in the NBA — from 1992-94 and 1999-2001 with the Denver Nuggets.

“They couldn’t have been more different,” Issel said of the Nuggets teams he coached. “The first time I coached, we had a great group of young players that were tired of losing. Guys like Dikembe Mutombo and LaPhonso Ellis. That team played hard and we were able to have some success. The second time, it was the complete opposite. It was a bunch of veteran players and that wasn’t much fun.”

Now, Issel lives in a northern suburb of Denver near two of his children and his four grandchildren. Even though he doesn’t make it back to Batavia all that often, Issel still remembers his time there fondly.

“One of the things I hold onto until this day is being a Cubs fan,” Issel said. “My senior year, a few of my buddies and I skipped school to go to the Cubs game on opening day. Somebody in Batavia called up the school and told them they saw us on WGN. We got in some trouble for that, but there’s no place like Wrigley Field.”

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