There is an NBA story that can still bring a smile to Dan Issel’s face. It generally always has. It is of the first time the Nuggets’ star big man faced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the NBA.
It was a November game against the L.A. Lakers in 1976, when during a trip down the court, Abdul-Jabbar looked back at Issel and said, “How you doing, Byron?”
As in, Byron Beck.
Beck was Issel’s Nuggets teammate, and Abdul-Jabbar knew it. The legendary center was getting an early jab in, a shot at getting in Issel’s head. It did not work. Issel scored 27 points that game, and the Nuggets beat the Lakers 122-112, one of their 50 wins that season.
Issel was right in the middle of ton of the Nuggets’ success during his 10 years with the franchise, nine of those when the team was in the NBA. His Nuggets teams (both ABA and NBA) won 444 of the 802 games (.553) in which he played. He averaged 20.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and shot 50.7 percent in his time in Denver. Those things alone warranted his number being retired by the Nuggets in 1985.
His time with the Nuggets in the ABA and NBA, combined with his ABA years with Kentucky and a stellar college career at the University of Kentucky, earned Issel induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. He was the first Nugget to be voted into the Hall.
Issel set the all-around bar for excellence in the Nuggets organization. When he retired, he was the team’s all-time leading scorer (16,589 points) and rebounder (6,630). And he set the standard for durability. If there was a game, Issel was suiting up for it. Over the course of his entire 15-year career – ABA and NBA – he played in an eye-popping 1,218 of a possible 1,242 games. That’s 98 percent of all of the games. Ninety-eight percent. In ABA games only, that meant being there for all 84, which he did twice. Being available all the time, and grinding through games and seasons with toughness to be envied, earned him the nickname, “The Horse.”
Helping lead the Nuggets to 45 or more wins in seven of his 10 seasons — and all of his accolades — earned him a well-deserved space on the Nuggets’ Mount Rushmore.