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Horse Sense

In his storied playing career with the Denver Nuggets, Dan Issel amassed 16,589 points and pulled down 6,630 rebounds--both club records.

Now his daunting task is to score a few points with the fans. And any kind of Nuggets rebound will be welcome.

As the new vice president, general manager and designated savior of the NBA's most futile team--last season, the second-worst team in league history--the big guy with the sandy hair and the chiseled face has been on the job since March 25. Believe it: The Horse hasn't exactly been grazing in the pasture. The college season was over by the time he replaced the fired Allan Bristow, but he's visited pro tryout camps in Norfolk, Phoenix and Chicago. He's watched enough game film footage to encircle the globe. He's worked the phones with agents and fellow general managers all over the league. He's compiled secret shopping lists of head coaches and free agents. Trying to get a name out of him is like trying to take a basketball away from him in the old days.

In recent weeks Issel has also put half a dozen of this year's top college draft prospects through workouts at the Denver University Fieldhouse. Want to sprint the length of the court fifteen or twenty times in a row, finishing each trip with a pull-up jumper? Okay, but that's just the final installment in Issel's grueling mini-series of drills. And it comes before you drag your sweaty self into the weight room to pump some iron.

Issel's own first test will come next Wednesday in Vancouver, when he will start putting Humpty Dumpty together again using the third pick in the draft. By all rights, any team that finished 11-71 and eclipsed thirteen all-time franchise lows should automatically get the first three choices in the draft, along with a loaded pistol and a letter of condolence from Michael Jordan. But league rules dictate a lottery. And traditional Nuggets luck dictates a hose job: In five previous drawings, the team never improved its draft position; this year it owned one-quarter of the pills in the bottle--more than anyone else--and still wound up third of thirteen teams.

"I think our top priorities are the top priorities that almost every club in the league has--a center and a point guard," Issel said in a recent interview. "But it looks like [Arizona point guard Mike] Bibby is going to be the first pick and [Pacific center Michael] Olowokandi is going to be the second pick. So at that point, we've got to take the best basketball player that's left...so I don't know if we can really address a particular need. At this point, you win eleven games, you're not filling a hole. Well, we are filling a hole. But it's a deep, deep, deep hole. So we can't afford to draft for a position."

Translation: Barring some last-minute pick-swapping, Issel will probably choose either 6-6 North Carolina swingman Vince Carter, a great leaper with lots of speed and unlimited NBA potential, or 6-7 Kansas forward Paul Pierce, a slick shooter who averaged 20.4 points per game in his junior year and left school a year early for the NBA. The other possibility is probably Pierce's teammate, 6-11 Raef La Frentz. "As far as the next level, I don't know who will be the better player," Issel said. "I would suspect it's going to be [Pierce]."

By next week, the Nugs will have several new faces in the fold--last year, five Bristow-picked rookies suited up--but that's just the beginning of the mysteries for a team that has been sliding steadily downhill since upsetting the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the 1994 playoffs. In hitting bottom last season, the Nuggets set club records for lowest average points per game (89), consecutive losses (23), worst field-goal percentage (.417) and consecutive games with fewer than 100 points scored (20). In fact, the club posted three of its six all-time lowest-scoring games in just one year. For the first time ever, its top scorer was a sub: twelve-year NBA veteran Johnny Newman.

What to do?
"When you win eleven games," Issel said, "I don't think you have a lot of players who are untouchables. Obviously we have a nucleus of players we'd like to keep together and who can improve, but we have to make a number of additions to this club as well."

Presumably, the "untouchables" are veteran forward LaPhonso Ellis, oft troubled by injury, maybe promising second-year guard Bobby Jackson and...well, who knows? Issel isn't talking, but you can bet his wish list of free agents features the L.A. Clippers' Ike Austin and Charlotte's Matt Geiger (both back-up centers with some starting experience), the L.A. Lakers' Rick Fox, Miami's Brent Barry, Indiana's Travis Best, Chicago's Scott Burrell and former Nugget Tommy Hammonds, now in Minnesota. These are not exactly names with the ring of Jordan, Hill or Duncan, but that's a deep, deep, deep hole the Nuggets are trying to climb out of.

Meanwhile, Phoenix's Kevin Johnson says he's retired, but who knows? And The One That Got Away for draft picks, Antonio McDyess, might just be willing to return from Phoenix to play ball in Denver's new Pepsi Center (due to open in 1999)--especially if the Nuggets have the right coach.

That, of course, is the other major mystery facing the team. Following the dismissal of Bill Hanzlik and his assistants (T.R. Dunn and Brian Winters) on April 20, Issel has been contemplating choices to be the Nuggets' eighth head coach of the 1990s. One of the names that keeps popping up is the Nuggets' third head coach of the Nineties--Dan Issel. Again, you don't get much from the Horse's mouth, except that he sees himself as a dark horse.

"We've got a list of candidates, a wish list," he said. "But it's not a very long list. I would definitely be a long shot to coach this team. This [general manager] is the job I want. I got the job I want. When I came back to this organization in 1988, ten years ago, the game plan was that I'd be the next GM, and I think it is a full-time job. But if I can't find anybody I think can do better, then I might do it for a year or two. Hopefully, I won't have to make that decision."

Rumor has it that Bulls coach Phil Jackson could end the mystery in a hurry. Jordan and company have just won their sixth NBA title in eight years, but the party's over in Chicago, and Jackson remains a possibility here. Less so Seattle's George Karl, whom Issel declined to call with serious talk when the Sonics' season ended.

Draft choices. Free agents. A new coach. A major housecleaning that could turn the nameplates on the practice gym lockers at DU--LAUDERDALE, GARRETT, FORTSON, NEWMAN--into so many gravestones. Where will it end?

"If you're talking about a contender for an NBA championship," Issel said, "obviously that's going to take a long time. The teams in the fight at the end this year were all veteran clubs that have kept their players together for a long time. But if you're talking about being competitive enough to win every game when we take the floor in McNichols--or have a chance to win every game--to make the playoffs, I'd be disappointed if that didn't happen in two or three years."

And the looming player lockout? What would it do to the best-laid plans of the worst team in the NBA if players and owners fail to reach a labor agreement by the end of June--a prospect that looks increasingly likely?

The man who scored 16,589 Nuggets points can only shake his head slowly at that. "That's something I don't have any control over," he said. "I don't have time to think about it. There are enough things that I do have control over to keep me busy, to keep me worrying."

Like the faint rim of light high above a deep, deep, deep hole.

Perfect, wasn't it?
The finest player ever to lace up a pair of Nikes puts an exquisite finishing touch on the NBA final--and perhaps on his incredible career. Perfect: The back-door steal from baffled Karl Malone with twenty seconds left to play. Perfect: The seventeen-foot fallaway jumper with five seconds remaining to give his club a one-point win. Perfect: Fifteen of 35 from the field and twelve of fifteen from the free-throw stripe, amounting to a 45-point performance when it counted most. Perfect: Another transcendent night from the greatest player in the game when his team needed him most, when Scottie Pippen could barely rise from the bench, so bad was the pain.

Some of the T-shirts read: "2 X 3"--a twin tribute to the "double threepeat" the Chicago Bulls have just accomplished with their sixth NBA title in eight years and to the "23" on the front of Michael Jordan's jersey. Other T-shirts read: "Sixth Sense," which is exactly what Jordan showed in quantities Sunday night in Salt Lake City.

Shall we ever see another like him? Probably not, and that made his last-minute heroics all the more memorable. Instead of cruising into the land of the gods at age 35, he once more played protagonist in the drama. Watching Jordan blaze his way through the twilight, it almost made you sorry the NBA had nixed another playoff finals T-shirt design, the one that read: "Real Men Do It Six Times.

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