Dan Issel and the 1994 Nuggets: Our greatest moments outshine our biggest mistakes

Dan Issel back in 1994 pacing the sidelines for the Nuggets. - J.D. Cuban, Getty Images

How a horse breeder took a broadcast television job covering the Denver Nuggets in the late 80's and morphed into the coach who gave Denver it's greatest basketball moment. Dan Issel and your 1994 Nuggets.

I was given a wine and navy blue colored Nuggets t-shirt shortly after the team changed their colors from the rainbow skyline in 1993. I wore it proudly. Even said Ellis on the back. As a long time and beleaguered (admittedly young) Nuggets fan, the team that entered the playoffs in 1994 shortly before my 16th birthday was the best Nuggets team Denver had seen in four long years.

My dad's favorite player in the history of the Nuggets was Dan Issel. He often regaled me with tales of how he would work extra shifts and the Greyhound Bus Station downtown (as well as working a day job at the Rocky Mountain News) during the 70's and listening to Al Albert say on the radio "A Missile from Issel!!" or "The Horse of Course!!" when Dan would hit his patented jump shot. That left an impression on me, and when Issel became Nuggets coach, it was like watching a part of my dad's history being played out before my young eyes.

It was May 7th, 1994, on Saturday afternoon ... Dan Issel helped give me, and my dad, one of the greatest moments of our lives.

****

"To this day, I believe that had Denver somehow been able to win either the third game of that conference semifinal with Utah, or the seventh game in Salt Lake City, we might have seen the city's first major professional sports championship parade ... in 1994, instead of 1996."

- Sandy Clough, long-time Denver talk show host

No one knows Denver Nuggets history quite like Clough, and in this case he is absolutely right. The 1994 Nuggets, coached by Dan Issel had that championship feel about them after knocking out Seattle in what was then the greatest upset in NBA history.

No one knew that when Issel was hired in 1992 nor had they an inkling of what was to come. What is clear now, based on the wreckage of history, is that he was the only coach who was right for that particular team. As Bernie Bickerstaff, who was the Nuggets general manager from 1990-97, later found out it was far easier to destroy what both he and Issel left than it was to build upon it. To put it another way, Bernie couldn't coach/motivate that particular team the way Dan could.

"Dan Issel was the consummate player's coach..." Phonz said "I loved playing for him, especially when he was wearing his "lucky" brown suit!" -LaPhonso Ellis


How Dan Issel left Denver should never obscure his Hall of Fame playing career, nor should it change what is maybe his best accomplishment, coaching ... no ... willing a young Nuggets team to the most improbable playoff run in NBA history. A team that, to a man (aside from Issel's up and down relationship with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) seemed to respect Issel as a coach and as a mentor.

LaPhonso Ellis spoke glowingly about Issel the coach when I asked him, "Dan Issel was the consummate player's coach." Phonz said "Open to game and practice-impacting suggestions while holding us accountable for our on/off court actions. I loved playing for him, especially when he was wearing his "lucky" brown suit!"

Make no mistake, it was magic.

Chapter 1: The Horse, of course ...

Who better than a future Hall of Famer to restore credibility to your moribund organization? Who better than one of the greatest Nuggets players in NBA and ABA History. Despite Bill Simmons' rather snarky attempt to minimize the moment, what Dan Issel accomplished with the 1994 Denver Nuggets was far more significant and has a longer lasting impact than anyone at the time could have suspected.

Dan Issel was hired in 1992 after spending almost three seasons part-time color announcing for the Nuggets TV broadcasts on what was then known as Prime Sports (which morphed into Fox Sports). During these broadcasts, specifically during the Paul Westhead years (1990-92), he would be openly critical of how the Nuggets were running their offense. In fact, it was Issel who first suggested that Westhead was using 4th pick in the NBA Draft Dikembe Mutombo wrong, that he would be better off used as a defense-first center. Rather than the offense-focused center that Westhead was trying to make him be.

Hiring Issel proved to be one of the best moves Bickerstaff made during his tenure as general manager. As Mike Monroe, former long time Denver Post Nuggets beat writer and current Spurs beat writer for the San Antionio Express News told me. "It was a very well reasoned hire by Bernie, despite Dan having zero head coaching experience." Issel was respected in Denver and had clout. His name elevated the moribund organization by itself.

Issel's task, once hired, was to play the "young" players as much as possible. This was given added boost when in the 1992 NBA Draft the Nuggets selected Laphonso Ellis with the 5th pick and Bryant Stith with the 13th pick. Issel decided to dramatically slow the pace from the Westhead era, and focus on half court sets with an inside out game centered on Phonz and Deke. For those too young to remember Phonz, think Kenneth Faried with more fundamentals and a pretty good 15 ft jumper. Issel's task was to play this young talent, no matter the outcome, and develop these players as best he could.

Clough recently told me about a conversation that Ellis and the new coach had during Issel's first camp in 1992, "One day early in camp" Clough retold, "Dan approached Ellis to deliver a bit of a verbal push, if not quite a pep talk. 'Phonz, you'll be playing around 35 minutes a game, whether you're real good or real bad. It'll be a lot better for both of us if you're real good.'"

More than changing the offense, Issel had to change to culture in Denver from national joke to something akin to mild respect. This was a hard task. While the process of rebuilding was plain (and foreseen by previous head coach Doug Moe in 1989) the Nuggets choice of Westhead to replace Moe in 1990 was nearly disastrous. The team, in 1990-91 gave up record amounts of points (including a record 106 in the first half to the Phoenix Suns) and were considered to be a bit of an embarrassment around the NBA. Westhead's "system" of shoot as soon as possible and play no defense was ridiculous on it's face. The Nuggets finished with the worst record in the league in 1991 (20-62) and that allowed them to draft Mutombo with the 4th pick in the draft. Next year, Westhead slowed things down just a bit, but only won 4 more games over the previous season (24-58). Enter Dan Issel.

Issel said: 'Phonz, you'll be playing around 35 minutes a game, whether you're real good or real bad... It'll be a lot better for both of us if you're real good.' -


Recently, Issel gave an interview to a small online publication called Yorkville. In there, he sounds off about his ability to coach such a young team in 1992 "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."

While the team was now loaded with Lottery drafted talent, it was raw, unfocused, undisciplined, and in some cases considered to be busts (specifically Rauf - then known as Chris Jackson). Issel set about molding young players into a team that would play hard every night while still allowing for the mistakes that come with such a young team. Issel's first season in Denver the team finished with a 36-46 record, a 12 game improvement over the previous year. Included that season were thrilling victories over the Los Angeles Clippers and eventual conference champion Phoenix Suns on the last day of the season.

Chapter 2: From outside in, to inside out

If there is one thing Dan Issel knew, it was big men. As an undersized (6'9") center for the majority of his career, his job was to cover the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Moses Malone and other iconic big men of the 70's and 80's. He used to drive Kareem (who didn't play much defense anyway) crazy with a slight head fake and drive to the rim. He was the perfect big man for Doug Moe and Larry Brown, and knew how to use his body. This made him a member of the basketball Hall of Fame, which he was elected to during his first season as Nuggets head coach.

One of the biggest tasks Issel had was to mold his talented front court of Ellis and Mutombo into a workable, sound, unit to fit the new approach. One key to Issel's development was the trust he developed with both players, in particular Ellis. Phonz and Issel had grown close during his tenure, and the bond was great and the young power forward was proving to be a great force in the league. Strong enough to muscle down low, and athletic enough to both drive the lane and shoot from outside.

Additionally, coming off of Paul Westhead's run and shoot system of no defense, Issel liberated Mutombo from focusing on offense. Issel's edict? Just do what you do best, play defense and maximize your percentages by staying close to the basket. Multiple NBA sources have spoken to me about this, and they have said this was the most integral moment of Dikembe's time in the NBA. Having a coach that allowed him to do what he did best, at that pivotal moment in his career, was likely what started him on the path to be a great defensive big man.

Trust is an enormous part of development. Monroe, said that Ellis and Issel formed almost a father/son relationship. While not quite on that level, you could say that Deke formed a trust in what Issel was telling him as well. It was this trust from his front court (as well as from reserve big man Brian Williams, who was a major factor for the Nuggets in the playoffs) was the major catalyst for the Nuggets success in 1993-94. Leading the Nuggets to their first playoff appearance in 4 years with a record of 42-40. The 8th seed.

Chapter 3: Out-coaching a legend. Denver vs Seattle First Round

In doing extensive research of this story, I found it hard to pin-point the obvious large influence and effect that Dan Issel had on this particular Nuggets team. You could tell from the moment he took over they were more competitive, and with the addition of Ellis and Bryant Stith the roster was beginning to become quite talented. However, there is a weird dichotomy that has obscured something very, very obvious. Something that I didn't see until I began to watch the entire Nuggets/Supersonics series from 1994. Something you can't draw up on a chalk board.

Will to win.

In retrospect it's hard to relate to those who weren't around at that time how MASSIVE an underdog the Nuggets were in the quarterfinal round against the Seattle Supersonics. 8-seed over 1-seed upsets have happened since (The New York Knicks in the lockout shortened 1999 season. Golden State Warriors over the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. Memphis Grizzlies over the San Antonio Spurs in 2011) but the Nuggets were the first, and pre-1995 expansion. Talent was less diluted then and the Sonics steamrolled through the regular season that year like an unstoppable train. They just barely missed going to the Finals in 1993, losing to the Phoenix Suns in 7 games. This was considered to be the Sonics turn.

The Nuggets were expected to be blown out in every game. Only one player on the Nuggets roster had playoff experience, and that player was their oldest (29 year old Reggie Williams). The Nuggets were by far the youngest team in the League. I was supposed to be another in the long tradition of NBA teams going through the "steps". Develop, get better, lose in first round, lose in second round, go to conference finals/Finals. That sort of thing.

History wouldn't let this happen, and in hindsight, neither would the Nuggets coach.

After getting annihilated in their first game of the series, Issel was visibly down in his post-game interviews. Not sure his team was up to the challenge of facing such a talented team like the Sonics while Denver's squad seemed overwhelmed. The second game was tracking the same way, until an adjustment was made at halftime of Game 2 that forever altered the series ... and history. Issel played Brian Williams in conjunction with Mutombo for a much longer period and found that the big lineup bothered Shawn Kemp. Also, Issel kept Deke shadowing Kemp for most of the rest of the series. These two moves essentially eliminated Gary Payton's ability to drive the lane and create, and neutralized Kemp to the point where he was virtually a non-factor for the remaining games, relegated to mid-range jumpers and blocked layups.

Maybe Issel's biggest move was focusing on fire cracker Robert Pack, back up point guard and all around athletic freak. It was clear mid-way through game 2 that Pack was bothering Payton. After holding out that camp, Pack had a good year ... but it wasn't until the 1994 playoffs that he really shined. Who can forget his thunderous dunk over Kemp in Game 3? Maybe Pack's biggest contribution came as being a point guard floor general. Often you would see Pack getting on Williams or Mutombo for not running plays correctly, then Pack would run the same play over until they perfected it. As Issel told Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated "When Robert comes into a game, something is going to happen," says Issel. "Sometimes it's something wonderful, sometimes it's something not so wonderful, sometimes it's something just, well, strange."

Pack's wildcard status was an important step considering Abdul-Rauf was rendered almost completely ineffective for the entire 5 game series. It would prove to be a brave, and correct, move by Issel. Eschewing the starter and finisher role that Rauf had carved out for himself, Issel rode the hot hand of Pack in the last moments of Game 4 and Game 5. This proved to be invaluable, however, likely deepened the gap between Rauf and Issel heading in to the next season.

These are all moves that George Karl never was able to adjust to. The upstart Nuggets, by simply adding more big man playing time, and relying on spark plug Robert Pack had so set the Sonics off kilter that they never recovered from the body blow.

All the league sources and insiders from that time that I spoke to said that Issel was by no means an x's and o's coach. Denver radio host Les Shapiro (who was the lead sports anchor on Channel 4 and was with the team during that magical playoff run in 1994) said that Issel had the good sense to let his players play. Most say that Dan's heart wasn't in to being a coach, and based on what happened the following year it seems that this was a very accurate assessment. However, during that magical time in the month of May it seems that whatever he did ... worked. The Nuggets managed to out tough, out play and out execute the Seattle Supersonics for three games ... it was at the time the most stunning upset in NBA history.

An upset so massive, it forever stayed with George Karl. You could argue what Issel and the Nuggets managed to do by winning that playoff series 94 is two-fold. They pulled off (in pre-90's expansion era) the biggest upset in NBA history AND branded Karl as a coach who couldn't get it done in the playoffs in one fell swoop. There are those who argue that if it was a seven game series the Nuggets would have lost to the talent-superior Sonics. I don't buy this. That Nuggets team was HOT and the only comparable streak is the Colorado Rockies of 2007. The momentum was so severely on the Nuggets side that I don't believe a longer series would have mattered.

The next series versus Utah the Nuggets nearly pulled off an even more dramatic feat. They became one of only a handful of teams to ever come back from 0-3 down to tie a series. You could argue that Issel actually did more "coaching" in that particular series that the previous one. As Sandy Clough said, if the Nuggets pulled of a victory in game three at home (a game they were leading through most of, and then lost on a Jeff Hornacek shot with no time remaining) you very well could have seen the Nuggets take on the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. Think about that. We will go over the Utah series in greater length later this season. It was, arguably, the greatest playoff series in Nuggets history ... without being victorious. Many people say that Issel was best at motivating his team, and the job he did in making his team believe? Priceless.

But ... what of Dan Issel?

Chapter 4: It shouldn't have ended this way

In one way, the journey this article led me on has been uplifting and life-affirming on the greatest of ways. The Nuggets were classic underdogs who used guts, determination and youthful confidence to pull off one of the most remarkable playoff runs in NBA history. However, considering the events that began to transpire immediately in that offseason there is a twinge of sadness that accompanies this glorious time.

Just a year after this playoff run, the Nuggets were on their way to becoming one of the worst teams in NBA history. A combination of a disagreeable working relationship between Issel and Bickerstaff, a controversial signing of sharpshooter Dale Ellis (with poor attitude on the court and domestic violence issues off the court), coupled with the offseason injury of LaPhonso Ellis while playing a pick up basketball game with Bryant Stith led to the sudden and abrupt departure of Dan Issel in January of 1995.

It was a shock to fans, and apparently players alike. Mutombo was quoted in the Orlando Sentinal as saying ''He didn't say anything,'' Mutombo said. ''He didn't say hello. He was just quiet. We were looking at him in the distance. It was like, 'Big fella's mad, big fella's mad.' Everybody was saying, 'Big fella's mad.' '' Issel was quoted as saying at the time that he didn't like the person he had become. This is likely true, but his fractious working relationship with Bickerstaff had deteriorated so badly it likely contributed to the decision.

You cannot, however, stress enough that Issel himself wasn't passionate about the coaching profession. There were many, many extraneous factors surrounding Issel's life that contributed to his decision making in the 90's. Most of the people I spoke to about this article said that Issel's passion was not in coaching, more on the horses and the horse farm that sadly went under prior to going into the broadcast booth in 1988. While Dan loved basketball, it seems that coaching wasn't something that moved him the way his beloved horses did.

Issel was cynical about modern NBA players and that likely contributed to his burn-out in 1995. While he later returned to the Nuggets to restore credibility (or at least attempt to) after Bernie Bickerstaff so thoroughly gutted the franchise in 1996-97 that the team had virtually no assets or movable draft picks to recover. He went from Team President/General Manager to General Manager/Coach. It just didn't work. Mistakes were made. It was messy. It ended, sadly, in December of 2001 when a drunk fan, giving Issel the business for most of the game taunted him as he left for the locker room. Issel retorted in a manner that was shocking to everyone, likely including himself. Hair-trigger temper in full, cynical, view.

What is left out of history is, Issel did quite a bit to repair his reputation in the weeks following that incident at the Pepsi Center. Visited the Mexican community and apologized to them profusely and publicly. Issel resigned, wasn't fired. For all intents and purposes it appeared the Nuggets had no intention of firing Issel. The end, it seemed, came by Dan's own actions and decision.

In the end, we are only left by our actions and how people remember us. Dan Issel SHOULD be remembered as a Hall of Fame player who contributed to, and gave, the city of Denver maybe it's greatest basketball moment. The coaching and motivating Issel did during that magical run in the month of may should never be obscured by the events years later. This is a man who will always be one of the greatest Nuggets of all time, and a man who coached them to their most memorable moment. To me, that makes him untouchable.

Our mistakes don't define us like our accomplishments do. It would be a shame if we let that happen. Issel and the '94 Nuggets did something no one else had done. His place in history is safe with me, and others who cherish that memory forever.

****

The clock ticked down and Dikembe Mutombo collapsed to the floor of the Seattle Coliseum with ball raised above his head in emotional overflow. The crowd descended upon him in and the camera panned to his face. A smile that morphed into tears of joy.

Me, 16 year old kid who loved the Nuggets fell to his back on the living room floor and wildly kicked his legs in the air while saying "Yeeeeahhhhhhhhhh!!! Yeeeeeaaaahhhhh!!!". It was life imitating sport. You gave this to me Dan Issel. You gave me this moment. Dan......Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

The entire 1994 Western Conference quarterfinal series between the Seattle Supersonics and Denver Nuggets can be viewed right here

***

Twitter: @jmorton78

mortonagency@juno.com

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