ADRIAN DANTLEY : The Quiet, Misunderstood Scoring Machine
‘A lot of people don’t know me. Well, it’s not my business to make sure they know me. This is my personality, and people or coaches or whoever are just going to have to adjust to it. You’re not going to change me. I won’t be somebody I don’t really want to be. For that reason, I guess I am misunderstood.’--ADRIAN DANTLEY
Watch Adrian Dantley for very long and you will see him score a lot of points. That is guaranteed. He will also shoot a lot of free throws, that is also guaranteed. Now study Adrian Dantley when he shoots a free throw. He uses the very same motion that he employed at DeMatha High School when he was the top prep player in the country.
At one time, you could read Dantley’s lips when he stood at the free-throw line, although he has changed as he has grown older and only speaks these words to himself now:
Backspin . Over the rim . Follow through .
The funny thing is, he thinks the same thing every time. It’s almost as if Dantley has to remind himself exactly how to shoot the ball once it is drawn into his hands like a magnet. That really is funny, as though Adrian Dantley could possibly forget about scoring, forget what it is that he does best, what he has done for so long and what it all has meant to him.
Such as being named NBA rookie of the year, then being traded three times in his first four years.
Such as leading the league in scoring twice, then hearing other coaches say a team can never win as long as he’s on it.
Such as spending nine years on courts in the NBA thinking it was correct to show no emotion, then finding out some people say he has had it all wrong and should have been smiling the whole time.
This is what the ability to score points has meant to Adrian Dantley, who is at once the most prolific small forward in the NBA and also quite possibly the most misunderstood of all players, no matter what size. Dantley may be misunderstood by many because he is known only for his scoring, and part of that is his fault. Dantley could be a popular player with fans, but he is not because his personality won’t allow it.
His face is a study of concentration. He does not smile on the court and rarely says much to the other players. Instead, Dantley concentrates on his shooting. He is not thinking personality. He is thinking . . .
Backspin . Over the rim . Follow through .
He thinks like a scorer. After all, it is what he has always been.
“A lot of people don’t know me,” Dantley said. “Well, it’s not my business to make sure they know me. This is my personality, and people or coaches or whoever are just going to have to adjust to it. You’re not going to change me. I won’t be somebody I don’t really want to be. For that reason, I guess I am misunderstood.
“I can’t go out there and give a fake smile like other ballplayers might do,” he said. “Some people might get tired of that anyway. They’d say ‘Aw, look at that phony.’ When I do something, it’s legitimate.”
You could never argue that Dantley, as a player, was ever anything else. He grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., the same area that produced Elgin Baylor, his idol, and Austin Carr. Dantley’s team at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., won 57 of 59 games during his career.
At Notre Dame, Dantley was a two-time all-American and played on the 1976 U.S. Olympic gold-medal basketball team. In the gold-medal game, he scored 32 points in 30 minutes. Not surprisingly, he was a first-round draft choice of the Buffalo Braves and was named rookie of the year.
Nine seasons, three trades and one major injury later, Dantley is now 29 years old, and for the first time, he seems to have at last found the peace and comfort that scoring has brought him. He has already experienced all the unrest and trouble that scoring can also bring.
Dantley, in his seventh season with the Utah Jazz, has a $2.85-million contract that covers this season and the next two. But he paid the price for his security, risking his reputation by staging a holdout that lasted six games into last season.
The last time Dantley won a scoring title was in 1983-84 when he averaged 30.6 points a game. This season, Dantley is right around that mark and battling Alex English of Denver for the scoring crown. If Dantley wins again, it will be a triumph for his style of play, for a method of scoring from someone who stands only 6-5 and scores most of his points near the basket as though he were a center.
But will it be a triumph for Dantley, the player, or just his style of play?
Cotton Fitzsimmons, for one, has said no team can ever win with Dantley. The Lakers traded Dantley to Utah for Spencer Haywood before the 1979-80 season. Current Laker General Manager Jerry West doesn’t think much of the Dantley-Haywood deal.
“I wasn’t for that move at all,” said West, who was the Laker coach when Dantley played for the Lakers for part of 1978 and all of the 1978-79 season. “At the time, I didn’t have much say around here because we were bringing in a new coach (Jack McKinney). But I admire Dantley. Here’s a guy who, wherever he has been, has always been able to score.”
And how does he do it? How is a player as small as Dantley able to score with such consistency in an area where only the tall survive? Jazz Coach Frank Layden gives a lot of credit to Morgan Wooten, who was Dantley’s coach at DeMatha.
“Morgan knew what he was doing with Dantley,” Layden said. “What’s happened is that Adrian may be the greatest scorer ever to play in the NBA. That’s quite a statement, I know. But we’re talking now about a long period of time, all right? This is his 10th year in the NBA. He’s a scoring machine. And it isn’t 50 points one night and 15 another. It’s 30 every night. He doesn’t slip.
“He is so great at getting his position near the basket,” said Layden. “Then he uses his drop steps, holds his man off, pump fakes, all the things we talk about but seldom are used. There’s nobody who plays the pivot better than him, whether you’re 7 foot or not. His footwork and his pump fakes and his ability to get position are a clinic . . . a masterpiece.”
Boston Celtic Coach K. C. Jones said he is amazed at Dantley’s ability to out-duel taller defenders on their own turf and beat them at their own game.
“He always seems to know where that crack in the wall is,” Jones said. “If I put Kevin McHale or Bill Walton on him, he just yawns and says ‘Oh, well, another little guy on me.’ ”
It is interesting that there are more people lining up to praise Dantley now than the bury him. For the longest time, it wasn’t always like that. There have always been challenges for Dantley to meet, roadblocks put in his way by others. These hurdles have made Dantley a great player, but they may also have gone a long way toward shaping his personality into a private person who trusts few.
“In high school, they said Adrian was too fat, and all he did was win,” said David Falk, who is Dantley’s agent at ProServ. “In college, he was too slow and (yet) he was an All-American twice and played in the Olympics. They said he would never make it in the pros because he was too short and (yet) he was a first-round draft pick and rookie of the year. At every level of play he’s always been too something, slow, short or fat, to succeed. Well, he’s succeeded on every level, not by stature and not by weight, unless you want to count the weight of his heart.”
Adrian Dantley was an only child. His parents separated when he was 3 and later divorced. His mother, Virginia, and his aunt, Mariel, raised him along with a cousin. There was also a grandfather on his mother’s side who spent time with Dantley, but he still had to grow up without a father.
Young Adrian learned how to hide his emotions.
Virginia Dantley said Adrian’s emotions have always been kept out of sight.
“Even when Adrian was a child, you couldn’t figure him out. You couldn’t get him to smile even them. I still ask him: ‘How is everything?’ Because with him, you can never tell. I remember when we took baby pictures of Adrian when he was 6 months old. We couldn’t get him to smile then either.”
Dantley said his mother is right.
“I kept things inside me a lot,” he said. “I didn’t have a male image like a father around. It was tough not having a father figure around.”
Perhaps the closest thing to a father figure that emerged in Dantley’s early life was Wooten, the DeMatha coach. Wooten was also Dantley’s history teacher.
In the ninth grade, Dantley scored a 99 on a history test when nobody else had scored higher than 80. Wooten was convinced Dantley had cheated, so in front of the class, he asked Dantley difficult questions to expose him. But Dantley knew all the answers.
“Mr. Dantley, let me see you after class,” Wooten said.
When they were alone, Dantley asked Wooten if he thought he had cheated.
“Adrian’s eyes were really flashing,” Wooten said, remembering the story. “I told him, ‘I’m not going to lie to you. Today you taught me something as a teacher. I should never have done that. I should have guessed that you could apply the same discipline to a book that you could to a basketball. I should never have underestimated you.’ ”
Wooten said he learned a lesson from Dantley, but so have many others.
In three years for Coach Digger Phelps at Notre Dame, Dantley averaged 26 points a game even though he weighed 225 pounds, which was actually 10 pounds less than his weight at DeMatha. He decided to leave school for the NBA after his junior year, but not until he helped the United States win basketball’s gold medal in the Olympics at Montreal.
Along the way, Dantley impressed a lot of people, including then-Marquette Coach Al McGuire.
“He’s like a great fighter,” McGuire said. “You can’t get to him mentally. He keeps coming at you. I think that’s his greatest asset.”
As soon as Dantley got into the NBA, he didn’t keep coming. He kept on going. First it was from Buffalo to Indiana after one season. It didn’t matter that Dantley had been chosen the NBA’s rookie of the year, club owner John Y. Brown, who once owned the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, wanted to bring in Billy Knight. Goodby A.D.
Then it was less than one season in Indiana. Coach and General Manager Bob Leonard wanted a center more than a small forward, and James Edwards was available from the Lakers. Goodby A.D.
In Los Angeles, Dantley finished his second season with a scoring average of 21.5 and although he dropped to 17.2 the next season, the Lakers finished 45-37 and were in the playoffs under West. It was Dantley’s last season in Los Angeles. The Lakers traded him to the Jazz for Haywood.
“It wasn’t so much like I was playing bad, which I wasn’t, but there was no way you could start two small forwards at the same time, me and Jamaal (Wilkes),” Dantley said. “At that time, I was inside and there were some problems with Kareem and myself in the same place. But they needed a power forward and they gave up on me. You wouldn’t see that today. Most teams wouldn’t give up on a young player like that.”
At the time of the trade, Haywood was 30 years old. Dantley was only 23. When Layden met him in Dantley’s hotel room in Salt Lake, Dantley was in tears.
“The guy was like in shock,” Layden said.
The trauma of being traded three times so early in his career changed forever the way Dantley looked at his profession, to say nothing of what it did to his personality. If it was turned inward before, it was nearly invisible for a while.
“Basically, I don’t trust anyone,” Dantley said. “As time has gone on, I’ve felt more comfortable here, but I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel secure again. Every team I’ve played on, the owner has assured me, ‘Hey, you’ll be here a long time.’ Every year I made the best of the situation and the trades didn’t affect my performance. But every year, I’d get traded.”
That hasn’t happened in seven years, but Dantley remembers what it felt like the last time.
“When I got to Utah, I thought I had dropped off the end of the world,” Dantley said. When you talk about salaries, the only thing keeping Utah from falling off the map is Indiana. The Pacers have the lowest payroll in the NBA, $2.81 million. The Jazz has the second-lowest payroll, $2.84 million. Take away Dantley’s $950,000 and the 11 other players are making a combined $1.9 million.
Actually, it figures. If Dantley scores a third of his team’s points, he should probably make a third of the team’s salary.
“Before, it was so difficult to go out and play hard every night because they had so many roster changes, it was unbelievable,” he said. “There wasn’t any stability on the team at all.”
Dantley’s first season in Utah, the Jazz finished 24-58. By 1983-84, they had improved all the way to 45-37 and won the Midwest Division. Dantley won the scoring title. Last season, they fell back to 41-41, but they advanced to the Western Conference playoff semifinals before losing to Denver. Dantley averaged 26.6.
But no matter how much Dantley scored, he could not avoid the most serious confrontation of his basketball career. That would be his celebrated contract holdout last season, an action that didn’t seem to fit Dantley’s personality. As it turned out, nobody had yet recognized what that personality really was.
Opposites must attract. Otherwise, there would be no explanation for the working relationship between Dantley and Layden. Dantley is private and Layden is public. Dantley is quiet and Layden is not. Dantley rarely has much to say and Layden rarely stops talking. About the only similarity between the two is in sentence structure. Dantley’s sentences are one-liners, as in brief. Layden’s sentences are one-liners, as in funny.
Never were the differences more pronounced than at the beginning of last season when Dantley was a contract holdout. The relationship stopped working. Layden quickly removed Dantley as team captain.
There were sides of both Layden and Dantley that had never before been revealed. Layden, the funny-man, got downright serious. Dantley, the consummate player, sat out. Even Layden’s one-liners suddenly had a sting of bitterness to them.
“I don’t like being held hostage,” said Layden as Dantley stayed home in Washington even though he had a year left on his contract. “What Dantley doesn’t realize is that if I was President Carter, I would have bombed Iran to get the hostages out.”
There was nothing humorous in Dantley’s messy contract squabble with Layden and the Jazz, one which narrowly avoided leaving lasting wounds in both of the parties. The problem began, according to each side, when the Jazz approached Dantley before the season with the idea of extending his contract. After that, everything is not so clear.
Dantley’s contract for last season, which would have been the final year of his agreement, called for a salary of $462,000, or about $120,000 more than the NBA average. Neither Dantley nor Falk, his agent, believed that figure to be on a par with what a two-time NBA scoring champion should earn.
Falk and Dantley had another figure in mind: $8.4 million over seven years. When it become apparent such a contract would not be forthcoming, Dantley did not report to the Jazz training camp. Instead, he waited at home in Washington while Layden and Falk continued to negotiate without success. In the meantime, Dantley’s fines continued to mount: $500 for each exhibition game he missed, $150 for each missed practice and $6,000 for each missed regular season game.
Layden continued a hard line toward Dantley, many times saying things in the press that he intended to get back to his star player.
“I was trying to shake him up,” Layden explained. “I always feel that when a player is holding out, he’s nervous, so put the pressure on and he’ll feel it. I tried to attack his vulnerability. I knew Dantley was at home sweating.”
Layden said he didn’t blame Dantley for the holdout as much as he blamed Falk. But Falk said Dantley was ProServ’s only contract holdout in 16 years.
“I don’t think we hypnotized Adrian into that situation,” Falk said. “The final decision rests with the client. We don’t have an us-against-the-world mentality with management. It was a very difficult situation all the way around. Frank was obviously wearing two hats, but the whole situation was miscast. The issue was not a contract renegotiation.”
So what was the real issue for which Dantley held out? It was the fact that Layden worked two jobs with the Jazz, as general manager as well as coach, which meant to Dantley that he would play his last year before becoming a free agent with the general manager-coach controlling his minutes and thereby controlling his market value.
Not until then-Jazz owner Sam Battistone entered the negotiations that Dantley’s contract was finally settled. The compromise was a three-year extension, all guaranteed, at $950,000 a season, $150,000 of each season’s salary to be deferred. Dantley also had to pay the fines that had piled up during his absence, which amounted to $44,000.
“In the long run, neither side won,” Layden said. “I think both sides got a little thick about it.”
Dantley got more than a little rich because of it, and that enabled him to fulfill an old wish.
“One of my goals, when I was young, was to be a millionaire,” he said. “Not a millionaire with assets, we’re talking liquid millionaire. I’m there. So that makes me feel pretty good.”
As for his deteriorating relationship with Layden, Dantley said there has been no further erosion. Business is business, he said, and that is something he learned a long time ago when he was traded three times.
“Our relationship isn’t torn,” Dantley said. “The things he said about me then, it didn’t bother me because I know that’s the business and nothing personal. It’s the same thing that happened to Mark Eaton and is happening to Darrell Griffith now. Frank’s the GM, too. When you are the GM and the coach, that’s the way it’s going to be sometimes.”
Layden finds it interesting that people ask him how he gets along with Dantley. Layden feels the question should be asked the other way around.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but the thing is, Dantley works for me ,” Layden said. “He has to make me happy. A lot of players think the coach works for them. Look, I got all the friends I need. I would like Dantley as a friend. I would like to think he is because a lot of water has gone under the bridge. But if it doesn’t work out that way, that’s fine. Life will go on.”
Just before Christmas, Dantley gave Layden a gift. It was a pipe. If it was a peace pipe, it could represent where their relationship stands at his stage in its six-year history. There is a story behind the gift. When the Jazz had played Boston before Christmas, a reporter asked Layden if he felt sorry for Dantley having to defend taller players such as Kevin McHale and Bill Walton.
“Hell, don’t feel sorry for Dantley,” Layden said. “Feel sorry for the guy who carries a lunch pail.”
When Dantley gave Layden the pipe, it was in a lunch pail.
At least Dantley hasn’t lost his sense of humor. Some wonder if he actually ever had one. Is this what being a scorer does to people?
“I don’t really think of myself as a loner,” Dantley said.
“People misinterpret my face. I’m leery of people. I’m always trying to figure them out, decide where they’re coming from. I guess I tend to stare right at them instead of smiling. I don’t trust too many people. There’s a lot of holding back in me.”
But there’s less holding back in him than before. People are noticing it. Layden said that Dantley seems to be coming out of his shell a little more, that Dantley appears to be enjoying himself for perhaps the first time.
On Dec. 17, 1982 in San Antonio, Dantley’s superstar status was placed in jeopardy. The scouting reports on the Spurs suggested that you could strip the ball away from Artis Gilmore on the rebound. When Dantley tried that, Gilmore caught Dantley’s right wrist with his arm and in one, large downward motion, ripped up its ligaments.
Dantley was done for the season. He missed the last 60 games, but returned the next season to win Comeback Player of the Year. Dantley was determined to come back. He worked out five to six hours each day for his rehabilitation.
Both Layden and Dantley knew the injury to his wrist could have ended his career. Dr. Kirk Watson, a specialist from Hartford, Conn., performed a new kind of procedure to correct the damage, a tri-scaphoid fusion of three bones in Dantley’s right wrist.
Dantley doesn’t have much flexibility or strength in his wrist, the one he uses to shoot with, so he shoots mainly with his arm now. When he found out his ligaments were shot, Dantley was needled by some of his teammates.
“They told me I was probably shooting too much,” he said.
Dantley laughed when he told the story. Maybe he actually is opening up more now. Look at all the good things going for him. His weight is down to about 208, his investments are sound, he’s making a lot of money, and people aren’t criticizing him for being a one-dimensional player much anymore.
Walton is a supporter of Dantley’s in the face of critics.
“He is a great, great player,” Walton said. “All great scorers are commonly criticized in their day that scoring is all they can do. It may be true of some people, but not of him. Better than all the guys who play the game, he has an excellent sense of feeling the double-team and either passing or getting the shot off. At his size, that is truly, truly amazing.”
But the question remains: Is Dantley some brooding tragic figure, alone building ice castles to the memory of his achievements which no one else cares about? Until he shows us the answer, it’s anybody’s guess.
“What people think of me, I have no control over,” he said. “I’ve been in the league a long time, so I must be doing something right. All great scorers are criticized, I know that. I know what I can do. The coaches and the players know what I can do. Yeah, so I’m here in Utah. I can’t control that either. If I was going to Washington, that would be great, but I’m not going to Washington. Utah’s not going to give me up.
“I could have a bad attitude and just go through the motions like Bernard King did, and they had to trade him, but that’s not me.
“People could believe a lot of things about me. Like when Pete Maravich was on the Jazz and told me, ‘Man, they told me you was a bad guy, but once you got here, I told people it was not true at all.’ That’s because I’m quiet and don’t say anything.”
So what’s the score with Adrian Dantley? Is it the number of points he collects, night after night, in his quiet manner? Perhaps it is something else. Maybe the real Adrian Dantley is not so much about scoring as it is determination, consistency and grace under pressure.
Maybe it’s not wise to equate the weight of his points with the volume of his words.
“I am not Superman,” Dantley said.
He never has been either. He certainly can’t fly and he can’t really jump much either.
All he can do is score a lot of points, oh, about 30 a game. This is both Dantley’s legacy and his cross. Something to remember when he’s shooting those free throws.
Backspin . Over the rim . Follow through .
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