Issel finds peace after turmoil of NBA

When several Detroit Pistons players boycotted the team’s shootaround a week ago in defiance of coach John Kuester, there was one man who could relate as well as anyone to Kuester’s predicament: former Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel.

Issel weathered a similar mutiny a little more than 10 years ago following a disastrous road trip by the Nuggets. After the team was embarrassed in a loss in Miami on Dec. 6, 2000, Issel complained that several of his players had been club-hopping the previous night and treating the trip “like a vacation.” The Nuggets didn’t win on the four-game Eastern trip, which ended with a two-point loss to the Boston Celtics. Issel ripped into forward Raef LaFrentz(notes) after that game for his poor play, which angered some of LaFrentz’s teammates.

Dan Issel hasn't coached since resigning from the Nuggets in December 2001.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

The Nuggets were expecting to have a day off after returning from the trip, which was normal for a team that had just played on consecutive nights. Still seething from losing to a poor Celtics team, Issel instead scheduled practice for 11 a.m. – only seven hours after the team had touched down in Denver following a return flight that had necessitated a stop in Nebraska to refuel.

“It was my fault,” Issel said this week, “because you should never call a practice as punishment.”

After Issel ordered the practice, Nuggets captains Nick Van Exel and George McCloud called for a boycott. Ryan Bowen(notes), James Posey(notes), Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Calbert Cheaney and Terry Davis showed, but eventually went home when no one else arrived. The incident caused a national stir in the sports world, and CNN even sent a crew to report on the Nuggets’ next home game.

The Nuggets rebounded to win 15 of 19 games during one stretch, but still finished shy of the playoffs with a 40-42 record. Issel thinks the team was scarred by the boycott, and he suspects the same for the Pistons.

“I’m sure John Kuester has made some of the mistakes that I made,” Issel said. “But the reality is, once something like that happens it’s never going to be the same. John has lost part of his reputation as a coach in the NBA. The players have probably lost something as well.

“If Rip Hamilton wants to go elsewhere I’m sure this didn’t enhance his trade value. It will never be the same. [Pistons general manager] Joe Dumars can say what he wants to about still having [Kuester’s] support and making a playoff push. But the only push they’re going to have now is getting this season over with.”

Issel’s coaching career ended a year later, not long after a TV camera caught him shouting a racial insult at a fan who had been heckling him. He apologized for the incident, which led to his resignation, and visited Denver’s Hispanic community to make amends.

A little less than eight years later, Issel filed for bankruptcy, claiming $4.5 million in debt owed to at least 34 creditors, including family, friends and a company that trained race horses. Two months later, he auctioned his 1970 Kentucky class ring, a 1975 25th anniversary ABA All-Star ring and a 1989 NBA All-Star ring to help pay off his debts.

“I don’t know if I had any other choice than to do what I did,” Issel said. “It was terribly embarrassing. People had confidence in my ability as a businessman. That’s why they loaned me the money in the first place.

“But it’s not like I gambled my money away. I’m not addicted to drugs. It was bad luck and bad timing and bad decisions.”

Issel now lives in Los Angeles where he is executive director at Bel Air Presbyterian Church. He loves his job and isn’t looking to return to coaching or an NBA front office. About the only basketball job that could attract him would be some part-time work as a TV analyst. For now, he is content to attend UCLA games and practices as a guest of Bruins coach Ben Howland, who attends his church.

“I’ve got a wonderful family that loves and supports me,” Issel said. “I got a nice job. I got my health. I’m doing well. I’m trying to move on.”

Dan Issel now says he was partially to blame for the practice boycott that Nuggets guard Nick Van Exel (No. 31) helped organize in December 2000.
(Getty Images)

Issel did attend the recent All-Star Game in Los Angeles and also spent time at the Jam Session, where he was happy to be greeted by fans who remembered his playing days with Kentucky, in addition to the ABA and NBA.

“I didn’t think there’d be a handful of people that recognized me,” Issel said. “But some people even had basketball cards.”

Nicknamed “The Horse,” Issel was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. He’s still the Nuggets’ second all-time leading scorer, placing him behind Alex English and ahead of Carmelo Anthony(notes), who recently persuaded Denver to trade him to the New York Knicks. Issel thinks Anthony will some day join him in the Hall, but he isn’t so sure Anthony’s No. 15 should be retired by the Nuggets alongside the numbers of English, David Thompson, Byron Beck, former coach Doug Moe – and Issel’s own No. 44.

“Certainly, Carmelo is in the conversation with probably David and Alex as the greatest Nugget ever,” Issel said. “But I don’t know about [jersey retirement]. Saying he wanted to leave and go someplace else, I don’t know if that’s an honor you want to bestow.

“When you look up at the four retired numbers and Doug, you’re talking about players and a coach who had their best years in Denver, wanted to be in Denver and were thrilled to be Nuggets. I don’t know if you want to retire Carmelo’s number. That’s a different conversation than saying he’s the greatest player to play in a Nuggets uniform.”

Issel, who served a short stint as the Nuggets’ general manager, thinks Denver’s front office did the best it could in trading Anthony under the circumstances. And he doesn’t think Anthony’s chances of winning a championship are much different in New York than they were in Denver.

Anthony’s situation also reminded Issel of when he felt forced to trade Ron Mercer to Orlando in 2001 after he couldn’t meet Mercer’s contract demands. When Issel was still coaching during the 2001-02 season, Van Exel asked for a trade, saying he was tired of losing.

“Carmelo is certainly a much better player than Ron Mercer,” Issel said. “But you can’t let players leave town and not get anything in return. I don’t think it’s good when a player wants to be traded, especially publicly. Those conversations can take place behind closed doors. I don’t think you do yourself a favor when you publicly say you want to be traded.”


Kings’ exit could make room for Warriors

Don’t expect the Golden State Warriors to complain if the Sacramento Kings move to Anaheim, Calif.

The Warriors are in the nation’s sixth largest media market in the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area. If the Kings move to Anaheim, the Warriors would also gain the 75-mile mark surrounding old Arco Arena – a market that includes Sacramento, Stockton, Davis and Vacaville – sources told Yahoo! Sports. The Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto market is the 20th largest in the country and bigger than the NBA markets in Portland, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis and New Orleans. Also, the Warriors would no longer have to share the Modesto, Fresno and Monterey markets and Nevada’s Reno and Lake Tahoe markets with the Kings.

“The Warriors won’t be crying spilled milk by seeing [the Kings] go,” one NBA executive said. “For that kind of market share and advantage, they’d say, ‘Can I help you pack?’ ”

The Warriors already have some season ticket-holders in Sacramento and should be able to increase their marketing and sponsorship revenue if the Kings leave. The Warriors have been in Northern California since 1962 while the Kings moved to Sacramento in 1985.


Hinrich upgrades Hawks’ defense

The Atlanta Hawks were often forced to have Joe Johnson(notes) defend Derrick Rose(notes), Rajon Rondo and other of the league’s top point guards because Mike Bibby(notes) struggled to guard them. And that’s the biggest reason why the Hawks decided to trade Bibby to the Washington Wizards for Kirk Hinrich(notes).

Hinrich is bigger than Bibby, and he’s also considered a tough defender. In the Hawks’ win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, he helped limit Rose to 12 points on 5-of-21 shooting.

“That’s kind of what they were looking for with the point guards in the Eastern Conference being so big,” Hinrich said. “With Deron Williams(notes) coming over, Rose and lot of those guys, they need someone strong.

“I’m just excited to be on a playoff team with a chance to make some things happen.”

Marc Spears is an NBA writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Friday, Mar 4, 2011