Issel in limbo after taking leave of absence

Monday, December 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) _ It has been the most turbulent two weeks in Denver Nuggets' history, and it might not be over yet.

Rather than return to the bench after a four-game suspension for a profane and ethnically insensitive outburst at a fan, coach Dan Issel took an indefinite leave of absence that left many to wonder if he will ever be back.

``I hope he does come back,'' acting coach Mike Evans said, ``but I want what is best for him.''

No timetable was set for Issel's return, though general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said Saturday night he believed Issel would need only a day or two to make a decision.

Vandeweghe said Issel requested ``some additional time to consider his future in terms of coaching the Nuggets. He wants to make sure his return to the sidelines is in his best interest and the best interest of the organization.''

The Nuggets were scheduled to be off Sunday and Monday, then practice on Christmas before their home game against Minnesota on Wednesday.

If Issel plans to resign, he may have requested the additional time to work out a settlement with the team. Vandeweghe would not comment, saying instead, ``Everybody in this organization hopes that Dan Issel will be associated with the Nuggets basically forever.''

Issel, who also serves as the team president, earns $2.5 million this year. His contract runs another season.

The trouble began two weeks ago. After a game in Cleveland on Dec. 8, Nuggets guard Nick Van Exel went public with his demand to be traded, saying he was tired of losing and that the team had made no strides to improve in his four seasons here. Van Exel also vaguely criticized the Denver coaching staff.

Three nights later, Issel made an insensitive ethnic remark to a fan after a game against Charlotte. Responding to a taunt from the fan, Issel yelled back, ``Go drink another beer, you Mexican ... ,'' adding an expletive.

The next day, the team suspended Issel for four games without pay, costing him more than $112,000.

Then, with Issel scheduled to return to the bench for a home game against Golden State on Saturday night, Vandeweghe announced just 40 minutes before tipoff that Issel had requested and was granted a paid leave of absence.

Vandeweghe said Issel hinted at delaying his return on Friday, but didn't inform him that he wanted a leave of absence until late Saturday afternoon.

Nuggets players, expecting Issel to be back on the bench, were informed of the change of plans during their pregame meal.

Golden State coach Brian Winters, whose team would go on to beat the Nuggets 105-101 Saturday night, said he ``didn't know until I walked out on the court. I had expected Dan to coach, and he wasn't here.

``They've had so much turmoil around here that I wasn't sure what I was going to get. You just don't know how much that's going to affect their team.''

After the game, the Nuggets were divided about whether Issel's decision affected their play.

``It was a little letdown,'' forward Raef LaFrentz said. ``We were excited to see Dan come back. Now I don't know when he's coming back. ... It hasn't ended yet, so we will just have to ride it out and play basketball.''

Van Exel was noncommittal.

``I don't know if it affected us tonight,'' he said, ``but situations happen and we are professionals and we still have to come out and perform. I really don't know if everybody was bothered by it.''

Forward George McCloud was surprised by the decision given Issel's mood at practice two days earlier.

``I had no idea at all,'' McCloud said. ``He was upbeat, he seemed to be motivated to put (the suspension) behind him.

``For whatever reason in the last day or so, I don't know if he had a change of mind or if he needs a couple of extra days to just weigh everything. I'm sure he will let us know before we get back from Christmas.''

So what happened in those two days?

Issel, profoundly dejected and embarrassed by the incident, had apparently made peace with the Hispanic community with a series of apologies. Most Hispanic leaders said they forgave him.

Although Issel insisted ``that is not the person I am,'' the public perception lingered of a coach who made a racial slur in a heated moment.