The Nuggets aren't proud of their protest, but they're happy with
what it has wrought
Nuggets coach Dan Issel was stood up by his own players on Dec.
11. He called a practice and nobody came. The team's one-day
walkout became a national scandal: It cast Denver as Exhibit A
for everything that's wrong with today's NBA, and it humiliated
Issel, who arrived at the gym with no inkling of the boycott and
left wondering if his days as coach were numbered.
It turns out (for the moment, at least) that Issel had nothing to
worry about. Rather than being torn apart by the protest, the
Nuggets have become one of the league's hottest teams, using
better balance and an improved defense to win six of eight games
and climb above .500 (16-15) through Tuesday. "That incident
brought us a lot closer, and we needed that," says power forward
Antonio McDyess, a tri-captain. "Even though it was a bad thing
to do, if it caused this team to play a lot better, then we did
the best thing by doing it."
The negative publicity forced the players to become more
team-oriented overnight in order to prove they weren't the
self-absorbed monsters the boycott made them appear to be. Issel,
too, says he has learned from the mutiny. He's not even bothered
that it was led by one of his most vocal supporters, tri-captain
Nick Van Exel. After acquiring Van Exel from the Lakers in June
1998, Issel--who also serves as team president--ignored the advice
of others in the organization and signed him to a seven-year, $77
"I gave Nick that big contract because he was worth it," Issel
says. "He's Number 2 in the league in assist-to-turnovers ratio,
and he's Number 5 in assists. You can choose to think of Nick as
the immature player he was in L.A. You can choose to say he was
the one who led the revolt. I choose to look at him as one of the
best point guards in the league. Was he the ringleader? Probably.
But he is also the ringleader of everything that goes on in that
locker room, and that's because he has the guts to take a stand.
I wouldn't trade Nick Van Exel for any point guard in the
The rift between Issel and his players started on Dec. 5, when
they landed in Miami to begin an East Coast trip. That night some
of the players took a limousine and went club-hopping. The
following evening the Heat thrashed Denver 95-78, and Issel
ripped his players, saying that they were "treating the road like
"It was obvious by the way they played," Issel says of the effect
of the late-night partying. "Some guys couldn't even pass the
The Nuggets felt it was hypocritical of Issel to question their
dedication when he doesn't put in the long hours typical of NBA
coaches. He doesn't believe in studying film and computer
printouts to break down the tendencies of opponents. When most of
the players met in Denver for voluntary workouts last September,
neither Issel nor his assistants were on hand to work with them.
Asked if the players are justified in accusing him of not working
hard enough, Issel says, "It's probably a fair criticism. But
I've got to coach like I've got to coach, and if we're not
successful, then they can have somebody else do it."
Denver went on to drop all four games on the trip, culminating in
a 104-102 overtime loss at Boston on Dec. 10. That defeat was
especially galling to Issel: Celtics center Tony Battie--whom
Issel had referred to as El Busto before dealing him to the
Lakers in the Van Exel trade--outplayed Issel's first-round pick
of 1998, Raef LaFrentz, who went scoreless for the first of two
games. After the loss, Issel tore into LaFrentz, then ordered the
team to practice at 11 the next morning in Denver. The flight
home arrived at 3 a.m.
No sooner had the coach stormed out of the locker room, say team
sources, than Van Exel called for the boycott to show Issel he
had no right to punish them. (Van Exel declined to discuss the
incident with SI.) "We decided not to go to practice," says
tri-captain George McCloud. "It's one of the worst incidents I've
ever been part of. We did Dan an injustice, and we did ourselves
It was reported that several players were circling the Pepsi
Arena parking lot in their cars on the morning of Dec. 11 to make
sure that no one broke ranks. But a majority of the Nuggets did
come to the arena that day--in case the boycott was rescinded at
the last minute. Players describe a panicky scene of teammates
running into the locker room and back out to their cars,
wondering whether McCloud, McDyess or Van Exel would show up.
"You didn't know what was going to happen," says second-year
forward James Posey, who was among those in the parking lot. "You
didn't want to be the one who was at home if we decided to call
[the boycott] off."
When no one appeared on the court for practice, Issel's staff
found several players in the locker room, including backups Ryan
Bowen, Terry Davis, Calbert Cheaney and Tracy Murray. While they
hadn't wanted to break ranks, they didn't want to put their
careers at risk either. "When we realized what was going on, we
told them to go home," says Issel. "If that's what they were
going to do, they ought to do it all together."
Posey told The Denver Post that the team talked about boycotting
the Dec. 12 home game against Miami, but Posey and his teammates
now deny that was ever considered. In the meantime Issel says he
has tried to mend his frazzled relationship with LaFrentz, who
through Tuesday had averaged 15.4 points since the protest.
Stanley Kroenke, the first-year owner of the Nuggets, has said
that Issel will remain as coach for the rest of this season at
least--which means Issel probably has to lead Denver to the
playoffs to keep his job.
The players insist they weren't trying to get Issel fired--they
only wanted his attention. The night after the boycotted practice
they lost at home to the Heat 96-85 while their coach sat
uncharacteristically mute on the bench. The three captains held
another meeting. On the morning of Dec. 13 they demanded that
Issel resume hollering at them. "It's not right for us to force
Dan to act out of character," McCloud says. "We need him to be
"It wasn't fun to go through," says Issel. "But if we continue to
play well, then it was worth going through."
He Finally Gets The Points
Mavericks Guard Steve Nash
Here's a story you don't hear every day: It's about an NBA
sharpshooter who didn't want to shoot. "I keep kidding him that
he's a slow learner," Mavericks G.M. and coach Don Nelson says of
26-year-old Steve Nash, who has emerged as one of the league's
most exciting point guards. "For a long time Steve shot only when
he had to, when there was a short amount of time on the shot
After acquiring Nash from the Suns in June 1998 for the rights to
Pat Garrity, two players and a first-round draft choice (used by
Phoenix in 1999 to select Shawn Marion), Nelson wanted the
inherently unselfish Nash to behave more selfishly and look for
his own shot. Nash insists that he wasn't resistant to the
notion--it's just that his body wouldn't let him do it. In his
first season in Dallas he battled plantar fasciitis in his right
foot, which led to back ailments. Signed to a six-year, $33
million deal, he was booed at Reunion Arena and criticized as
slow and inconsistent.
Last season Nash missed 25 games with a strained tendon in his
right ankle but while sitting out recovered from his other
injuries. Since his return at midseason he has become the point
guard Nelson envisioned, turning fast-breaking Dallas into one of
the league's most entertaining teams. Nash is sure-handed in
dense traffic, passes in ways reminiscent of Bob Cousy--over the
head, behind the back--and feeds the open man so that he can fire
quickly and naturally. "Usually perimeter players will eventually
move inside and clog the lane," assistant coach Kiki Vandeweghe
says. "Our guys hold their spots because they're so confident in
Steve's ability to get them the ball."
Nelson was right, however: What makes Nash so effective is his
ability as a scorer. After averaging only 8.3 points in his first
two seasons with the Mavericks, he was averaging 16.4 points,
along with 7.2 assists, through Tuesday for 20-12 Dallas. The
Mavs ranked fourth in the league in shooting (45.9%), and Nash,
the reluctant marksman, was hitting 49.7% from the field, 44.1%
from beyond the arc and 92.0% from the line. "I've had half-hour
games of H-O-R-S-E with Steve," says Vandeweghe, who was an elite
shooter until his retirement in 1993. "Over the last year or two
he's developed a little runner that he can make from 12 to 15
When Dallas traded for Jazz guard Howard Eisley and signed him to
a seven-year, $41 million contract last summer, Nash wondered if
Nelson might be having doubts about him. "It made me question
what [management] thought of me, but I never for one moment
questioned my own abilities," Nash says. After leading Canada to
a surprising seventh-place finish in Sydney, Nash beat out Eisley
for the starting job in training camp. Rather than become rivals,
however, they have become backcourt mates. An early-season injury
to power forward Gary Trent opened up a starting position for
Eisley, whose talents for playmaking, shooting and defense have
made him the perfect complement to Nash.
The close friendship of Nash, Michael Finley and Dirk
Nowitzki--Dallas's so-called Big Three--should help the Mavs pull
together while assistant Donnie Nelson takes over for his father,
who was scheduled to undergo surgery for prostate cancer on
Thursday and may not return until March. Finley concedes his
close relationship with Nash may be a factor in keeping him in
Dallas when he becomes a free agent this summer. "Trust in my
teammates is definitely an issue," Finley says. "Steve is tough.
I worked out with him two summers ago, and it was one of my
toughest workouts. We lifted weights and shot jumper after jumper
against each other. Every time you lost you had to do push-ups. I
bet I still owe him 200."
The floppy-haired Nash is developing a reputation on both sides
of the Atlantic, with British tabloid reporters calling to check
on rumors of an affair between him and Geri Halliwell, the former
Spice Girl who has been seen at Dallas games. Nash's friends say
he was the one being pursued. "We're friends," Nash, who has a
girlfriend, says of Halliwell.
It seems all types of celebrities are having trouble catching
Nash these days. Now that he's healthy and scoring from long
range, he's no longer hearing the criticism that he's too slow to
play the point. "If you can hit the outside shot," says
Vandeweghe, "nobody can guard you."
A McKey Contribution
Outside the Box Score
Pacers forward Derrick McKey had played only seven minutes in the
five previous games when coach Isiah Thomas sent him in for the
fourth quarter against the Magic on Christmas. McKey shut down
Tracy McGrady, holding him to 1-of-9 shooting in Indiana's 103-93
For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Though his coach suspects that Van Exel was the leader of the mutiny, he still stands by him.
COLOR PHOTO: LAYNE MURDOCH/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Nash's passing conjures up images of Cousy, but it's his scoring that has Dallas on a roll.
Around The Rim
The Heat players voted unanimously to practice on Christmas,
bypassing a league rule that prohibits teams from forcing players
to practice on that holiday. Their vote came a week after coach
Pat Riley berated all but four of them for being late to a
practice. "I always felt we're a great work-ethic team," Riley
Adding insult to injury, the Magic is on the hook for Grant
Hill's entire $9.7 million salary this season, though because of
surgery to repair his left ankle, Hill will have played only
four games. Orlando couldn't procure a disability insurance
policy for Hill before he signed his seven-year, $93 million
deal last August because his ankle injury was deemed a
Nets center Evan Eschmeyer spent his off-season co-founding an
Internet business. He hopes that Bigtimerecruit.com, which went
online in November, will become the national recruiting database
for high school athletes in all sports. "A basketball coach in
Georgia will be able to search for all the 6'5" players in his
state, or all the ones who are averaging eight rebounds," says
After playing backup center Nazr Mohammed only 59 seconds in a
99-91 win last month at Chicago, 76ers coach Larry Brown felt a
bit sad: He learned too late that Mohammed had 60 guests at the
game, including his mother, who had flown from Ghana to see her
son play for the first time....
The Timberwolves may not be looking forward to 2001. Of their
first 31 games this season, 16 were against teams in the woeful
Eastern Conference--meaning 37 of their final 51 dates will be
against Western foes.
On the Cavaliers without center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who's
sidelined indefinitely with a broken left foot:
"When they had Ilgauskas, you had to double-team him, and that
opened up shots for guys like Lamond Murray and Trajan Langdon.
Now that he's not there, you go in saying, 'We don't have to
double anybody.' Their hope is that they can develop [7'1"
rookie] Chris Mihm, because a front line with Clarence
Weatherspoon and Tractor Traylor isn't going to worry anybody. At
the same time, they're playing in the East, so they have a chance
to hang in there and grab the seventh or eighth playoff spot."