Dantley Not About to Be Branded a Maverick

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Miniskirts and diners have come and gone and then reappeared once again, and here's Adrian Dantley still practicing his post-up moves for a trip to the free-throw line.

When he began his solitary offseason workouts 16 years ago, the incessant drilling was necessary for an undersized high-school basketball player trying to prove himself at the major-college level.

Today--as he is quick to tell you--Dantley doesn't need to prove anything to anybody.

A professional for 13 years, the once-pudgy kid from DeMatha High in Prince George's County, Md., has scored 22,458 points, 10th on the all-time NBA list and third among active players. There have been all-star games of course, but recently the man once vilified as one of the most selfish players in the league has been praised for his leadership abilities and come within seconds of a championship ring.

The years have brought other changes too, some of which Dantley, 33, still is trying to understand. For example how, somewhere in the past, it became okay for players to buddy up to coaches and owners, and how players began helping set team policy and lineups. At least that's what Dantley believes has happened.

"When I came into the league, if a guy did that the other players would have thought he was talking about them and they would've given him hell," he said recently. "I've always been the number one or two guy on whatever team I've played for, but I've never done that. I didn't even do that in high school and (DeMatha Coach) Morgan Wootten was like a father figure to me.

"Let me tell you one thing: As much as I might dislike a certain person, I wouldn't go behind closed doors. I wouldn't disrupt things on the team. I'd go up to the person and say, 'I dislike you but when we're on the court I'll play with you.' "

As he speaks Dantley is wearing Dallas Mavericks shorts. A towel bearing the logo of the Detroit Pistons is less than two feet away. It is obvious what he is referring to. Last February, hours before the NBA trading deadline but weeks after the speculation began, Dantley was sent from the Pistons to the Mavericks in exchange for Mark Aguirre.

To this day Detroit Coach Chuck Daly will tell you his team, for years on the verge of joining the Boston Celtics and the Lakers among the league's nobility, wasn't really ready to do so until Dantley climbed aboard.

Automatically the leading scorer, Dantley also was a smash in the locker room, where he nurtured a shy guard named Joe Dumars and taught some of the game's finer points to John Salley and Dennis Rodman.

Sometimes the lessons were harsh. The Pistons had been almost literally knocked out of the 1986-87 playoffs when Dantley and reserve guard Vinnie Johnson collided in the lane at Boston Garden in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics. Detroit lost a taut contest as Johnson was rendered ineffective and Dantley was hurt badly enough he spent the night in a hospital.

The following year the teams were back in the pit. Detroit was attempting to win on the parquet floor for the first time in 21 games and minutes before the contest Salley, a non-stop talker, was pontificating on the state of his world.

"Why don't you shut up and get ready to play basketball," Dantley said quietly. Salley did. The Pistons won.

"There is no question that A.D. brought us to another level. He's the most professional player I've ever known in the NBA," said Daly. "But if you ask me if I wanted the trade made, I'll tell you that I thought it was in our best interests."

"Best interests," Dantley says, is a nebulous term. One couldn't argue with the results: Detroit shut off its opponents in last season's playoffs, limiting them to 92.9 points per game en route to the championship. But Dantley's replacement, Aguirre, averaged just 12.6 points in postseason play.

As Dantley looks at it, the fact that Aguirre, a career 24.1 scorer per game, is four years younger than him wasn't as important as the fact that Aguirre is a close friend of Pistons guard Isiah Thomas. And that Dantley and Thomas weren't close friends.

During last season's championship sweep over the Lakers, Dantley was interviewed on CBS television. Although he wouldn't say the name, Dantley did everything but point the finger at Thomas, an eight-year veteran who started the Pistons' rise to power, as the man who engineered his trade out of Detroit.

"I did it in a class way," Dantley said when asked why he didn't mention Thomas by name. Indeed at the start of an interview he doesn't refer to Thomas by name, but rather as "a certain player." Soon, however, as the memories rise to the surface, so does the anger, and there's no need for anonymity.

"Everyone knows what happened, but the bottom line is, if I would've been buddy-buddy with Isiah--if I would've been going, 'Hey Zeke, let's go to dinner; hey Zeke, let's go to a movie'--I'd be there right now. I'll get along with people, but I've got to be myself," Dantley said. "If a person can't control you they get rid of you. If you're quiet it bothers them. If you tell someone they're wrong they get worried.

"I can remember when we'd look at films. Two guys would make the same mistake. The first guy would be Isiah--nothing. The second guy gets hollered at. I'm going, 'Is this a team? Are people that sensitive that you can't say nothing to him?' We'd have buses that were supposed to leave at 9:30; 9:30 would come and we'd all be on it except for one person. The coaches would say, 'We can't leave Isiah.' That's not right. I would say if the bus was supposed to leave at 9:30, let's go.

"There are some guys in the league who can do that, can make trades. The guy could be an ass, but he has that power and the other players are afraid to speak out about it because the guy can get them cut."

Thomas, as he has done since Dantley first made his comments to CBS, declined to exchange barbs.

According to Daly, this is how trades are made by the Pistons: General Manager Jack McCloskey takes an idea to the coach and his assistants. "We talk about it and bat it around. My contract says that I have input, but Jack McCloskey makes the final decisions--period."

In Dantley's version of how the trade involving him came about, Thomas went directly to team owner William Davidson, who then went to the coach and the general manager and told them to make the deal.

"I never gave them problems, was never out running around in the clubs, never did drugs. . . . You know how I knew (Thomas prompted the trade)? No one would look me in the eye," Dantley said. "Chuck came in and looked at the floor and talked about how it was the hardest thing a coach had to do and McCloskey was hesitant. If you made the decisions on trades and you decided to do something, you'd be able to walk up to the player and say, 'This is what we're going to do--that's it.' They couldn't do that with me."

At the end of the season, the Pistons voted to give Dantley a half share out of the $691,875 pool the players split after winning the championship. There will be no ring, however. "It wouldn't be the real thing anyway," he said. "If I wasn't actually on the championship team I didn't deserve one anyway."

A ring would mean returning to the Pistons' home court at the Palace and facing Thomas and Daly and everyone else in the organization. That nearly happened this summer, when Dumars got married in his native Louisiana. Most of the team members were there, and so were Daly and McCloskey. A last-minute emergency kept Dantley away.

"That would've been interesting, but we'll never know what would've happened," Dantley said. "I probably would've just looked at 'em all."

"I never gave it thought," Daly said. "It probably would have been a good idea for him to be there. He needs to get this behind him. He understands the business side of the game better than any other player, but he's carrying this trade around on his sleeve."

The point is intriguing, if only because of the implication that Dantley, the great stone face who has been traded five times and played on six teams during his career, has actually been affected by this last move. That, if given a guitar, he'd strum, "They done me wrong."

Forget it.

"I would never do that. I can't get my voice to raise up that high," he said with a laugh. "Like they say, life is unfair. People won't feel sorry for someone who makes $1.3 million. I don't want their sympathy anyway."

It took Dantley more than a week to report to Dallas after the trade was made. There are two ways to look at the delay: The prideful performer was stung and needed time to regroup, or the astute businessman was trying to make the best possible financial deal for himself.

"I don't want someone to give me anything, I'll earn it, but it is a business," he said of his attempt to gain a contract extension from the Mavericks. "They've got six number one draft picks over the next two years. I'm not worried about rookies, but if they want me I say prove it to me (with an extension). Don't use me up for two years and then get rid of me. If they don't give me one that tells me something."

There are moments when Dantley thinks he'd rather play out the last two years of his contract and see what the free agent market would bear. Those thoughts probably don't come as often as his career-long wish to play in his native Washington.

With Bernard King and John Williams manning the forward spots for the Bullets, he concedes that it isn't likely to happen, but who knows what the future will bring? Dantley certainly plans on being a part of it in some capacity.

"Maybe I'll play four more years and then go to Europe. Do you see what they're giving guys to play there?" he asked. "Then maybe I'll come back to the NBA."

That would make him almost 40 years old, and if that seems hard to envision, it might be even tougher to see Dantley making the transition to role-playing reserve.

"I take care of myself. I'm not a bad guy. I'll be in the NBA. . . . I'll be here," he said. "And I'm not too proud to come off the bench. There was a time when that might have been the case, but the role has changed. You look at guys like Vinnie Johnson and Ricky Pierce and you don't say, 'Ah, he's a bench player.' You go, 'Damn, that guy can play.'

"It's all about respect. Do you respect a guy or don't you?"

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