When Adrian Dantley was a ninth-grader at De Matha High School, he had Morgan Wootten not only as his basketball coach, but as his history teacher. Wootten always liked to strike fear with an impossible first exam -- an attention-getter. That year, the highest first-test grade was 80. Except for Dantley. He scored 99.
"I was sure he'd cheated," recalls Wootten.
To teach a lesson, Wootten decided to humiliate Dantley. Wootten began firing tough questions at Dantley, ignoring the class. But Dantley threw the answers right back. He had anticipated Wootten's teaching strategy and planned his own attention-getter. He had overstudied.
"Mr. Dantley, let me see you after class," said Wootten.
When the coach and the 235-pound man-child were alone, Dantley rumbled, "You thought I was cheating, didn't you?"
"Adrian's eyes were really flashing," says Wootten. "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.'
"And," says Wootten, finishing his parable, "people have been underestimating Adrian ever since, and he's kept right on teaching them."
The time has come to realize that Dantley, so long a bit of a basketball ugly duckling, may be the most fundamentally sound and consistently satisfying player since Oscar Robertson.
Dantley is not the best player of his time, nor the most valuable, neither is he the most spectacular or the most intuitively creative. Far from it. But Dantley may be the best-schooled, most subtle, most determined, most fiercely motivated and, in some ways, most admirable of the NBA's superstars.
Tuesday night, Dantley will bring his movable clinic to the Capital Centre for his only hometown appearance of a season in which he is leading the NBA in both scoring (31.8) and minutes played (42.7). If his Utah Jazz teammates and his Bullet hosts pay close attention, they may learn something about how their game ought to be played.
At every stage of his development, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Dantley has been damned with faint praise. He has been called too short, too fat, too slow. He has been told that he couldn't shoot, couldn't jump, couldn't run well enough to be a truly great player. When he was traded three times in the NBA, it was the same pattern -- even the people who owned Dantley failed to appreciate him fully.
Even academically. When Dantley went hardship after three years at Notre Dame, it was assumed he was just another jock without a degree. Few noticed that Dantley, then making $250,000 a year in the pros, went back for two arduous summers at Notre Dame to finish his degree in economics.
At every level -- from high school all-America to two-time college all-America to all-time leading U.S. Olympic scorer to NBA rookie of the year to NBA all-star -- it's been predicted that Dantley could not possibly improve any more.
"I hear all the little things. They always get back to me somehow," he says with relish. "It's always the same things. 'How does Dantley get away with that stuff?' I always joke with guys who've doubted me. After I score on them, I get behind them at the other end of the court, change my voice, and say, 'I wouldn't let no 6-foot-4 fat boy come inside and pile-drive on me like that.' Then they turn around and see it's me."
Don't look now, but Dantley has done it again. At 24, in his fifth pro season, statistics say that Dantley is now the most efficient offensive machine in the history of pro basketball. No other pro has ever built a 30-point-average season while taking so few shots per game (20.5), or so few shots per 48 minutes (23.0).
Only Robertson ever came close to such economy. The likes of Pete Maravich, George Gervin and Rick Barry have, in their primes, had to take six to 10 more shots per game to produce the same average. Even the Big O never quite matched Dantley's current combination of a spectacular field-goal percentage (.582), a knack for drawing fouls (10 free throws a game), and a feathery free-throw touch (.827).
"Dantley is a great basketball player," says Celtic President Red Auerbach. "And he's a complete player with no major weaknesses. . . He can do some of everything, and he'll do whatever a coach wants. . . He could even play some guard and be a swing man like (Frank) Ramsey or (John) Havlicek, but with more power. . . He understands the whole game and plays for love of it. Those kinda guys seem to think better. . . He's underrated because who gets to see Utah play? But basketball people know he's great. I've been trying to get him for years."
Jazz General Manager Frank Layden says, "I'd put A.D. on my all-time Fundamentals Team with Robertson, Havlicek, Elgin Baylor, and. . . Well, I don't know who else. They's have been great in any era and could play any style. This league is full of dodos who can run, jump and shoot, but have never figured out how to play basketball.
"Coaches go nuts watching Adrian play," says Layden, who stole Dantley from the Lakers before last season even up for Spencer Haywood. "It's like all our lectures and drills have come to life. Jab step, rocker step, drop step, head fakes, ball fakes. Give and go, pick and roll, he's always hooking guys, fighting for position, drawing sucker fouls, jumping in the passing lanes, anticipating filling a lane on the fast break. And he gets better every year. Not many in this league do. Adrian accepts criticism; he's not offended. We've been trying to find his flaw. He even calls my wife 'Mrs. Layden.'"
Dantley's true singularity is his blend of technical sophistication, self-confidence, plus an addiction to weight-training advances and raw competitive ferocity. He is both brainy and beastly.
In Salt Lake City, co-owner Sam Battistone gleefully imitates Dantley's fierce mannerisms -- the Dantley twitch (left shoulder), the sarcastic leer at players he has just beaten, the infuriating way he waves to his teammates, begging for the ball, pointing his finger at his defender as though saying, "Look at this dead meat I've found."
Even Jazz players when they see Dantley coming, imitate the sound of his distinctive pounding dribble, going "Boom, boom, boom."
"We love him," says Layden. "He's our piranha. He'll eat you alive."
So delighted were the Jazz after last season, when Dantley averaged 28 points (third in the NBA) and shot .576 from the floor, that they voluntarily tore up his old contract and raised him to the $500,000-a-year range for five seasons.
"I always thought that Adrian would be the finest player Washington ever produced," says Wootten. "I knew it the Christmas morning that a fat, spoiled ninth-grader came to my front door and asked me for the key to the gym. He didn't have the most talent. He had the most desire. t
"His whole game burns. I've never seen anybody attack a defense like Adrian. He goes to the hole so suddenly. His first step explodes. He pounds that dribble like a gun going off. Those violent ball fakes of his seem to freeze a whole defense. He almost uses the ball like a weapon. His rookie year in the NBA, a pro said to me, 'That Dantley beat my body to death the other night. And he did it when he had the ball.'
"That's when I knew he'd be all right. Adrian's the best small forward in football. . . Oops -- Is that what they call a Freudian slip?"
"I'm just a competitor," says Dantley. "You'll never see me lie down. It's not in me to rest on my laurels.When I first came in the league, there were a couple of nights when I said, 'Gee, I'm on the same court with Clyde Frazier.'
"But now," he says calmly, "I just go out there to kill."
Dantley does not want to be a cuddly personality. "I want to be a great basketball player," he says. "Sometimes, that makes me seem selfish. I don't let anything interfere with preparing for a game. If I lose, my whole personality changes. I'm so ornery even I don't want to be around me.
"I think you have to make yourself happy before you can make other people happy. So, sometimes, I just think, 'Well, I just have to be selfish.'"
Dantley's most fundamental quality may be that he has a mind of hs own. It takes him a long time to make basic decisions, but once he does, he's unwavering.
"People often misinterpret my face," said Dantley. "I'm very leery of people. I'm always trying to figure them out, decide where they're coming from. I guess I tend to stare right ata them, instead of smiling. I don't trust too many people. There's a lot of holding back in me."
Dantley's mother, Virginia, says, "Even when Adrian was a child, you couldn't figure him out. You couldn't get him to smile even then. I still ask him, 'How is everything?' because with him, you can never tell."
In the long run, that hold back, that instinctive resistance to every wind that blows, has served him well.
"When I was growing up, I ran around with those ghetto dudes who were supposed to be 'bad,'" he says. "But I never understood them. They'd do whatever the group did. I wanted a mix of everythng. I wanted to get along with black people and white people, rich and poor. I wanted to know how to act in the street, but I wanted an education, too."
If one trait runs through dantley, it is psychological savvy about others. For instance, in big games, he tries to get his first shot blocked. "An old high school trick," he says. "The last thing the coach tells them is 'Don't go for Dantley's fakes. Don't try to block his shot, because you can't. When they reject my first one, that adrenaline and ego get together. Then, they're mine. I can't believe the fouls I draw. They keep falling for that same old stuff."
At the '76 Olympics, teammates couldn't find Dantley; he was constantly in the Eastern European dorms, picking their brains for weight-training tricks. "I always want to be one step ahead," he says. "Other players rest their bodies in the offseason. I build mine. I work harder in the summer than I do in season. Other guys come to camp overweight. I come in under . . . 203 this year. Last summer, I bought myself a Fitron machine. Next year, I'm going to get a Cybex. I'm not going to explain exactly what they are."
Every time Dantley grunted on his Fitron, pushing himself to the edge of blacking out on lazy summer days when his peers were at the beach, he chanted names. "I'd call out the forwards in the league. "This is for you, McGinnis . . . Chones . . . Doc . . . Bird . . .'"
In high school, Dantley weighed a baby-fat 235, in college 225, and as a pro, only 205. Yet he still plays, primarily, an inside power game. How can it be? "Because Dantley listens," says Auerbach. "When he got out of college I told him, 'You've got to lose 25 pounds to play pro. Quickness is your game. Don't mistake weight for strength.' Next time I saw him, the weight was gone."
Typically, Dantley tries not to let other players see his real work habits. "I've never been a good practice player. . .don't know why," he says. "I can kill myself if I'm alone. But when somebody is telling me what to do . . ."
In every part of his game, Dantley helps his opponents sell him short. "I run funny," says Dantley. So, shuffling down court, he looks flat-footed. That disguises what he admits is his greatest gift -- the first step. Often, he lulls a defense, then blasts through three players for an unmolested layup.
"I dribble the ball high," he says, "so they'll go for the steal." Then, he leaves his man in the lurch. How many times has Dantley been "stripped" on his dribble this year? Just a rough guess, please.
"Once . .. by Garfield Heard . .. I underestimated him," says Dantley.
Also, Dantley seldom dunks. "Some people think I can't." When he does throw one down, he wants the full shock value, both for friend and foe. When he sees young players jamming in warmups, he pats the top of his thighs affectionately. "You gotta save the legs," he says. "Only so many jumps in 'em. So many guys build their games on the skill (jumping) that's going to go first. I think I can play 15 years," he says, "because I never could run or jump. What have I got to lose? I'll be like Don Nelson . . . pump-faking when I'm an old man."
Dantley's insights and intuitions, his sponge-like ability to assimilate the ideas of older, wiser heads, go well beyond fakes and fouls.
Of coaches, he says: "You've got to make him like you. Every coach I've ever had has come to me and said, 'I appreciate your unselfishness, but don't misunderstand me. Please, shoot more.'"
Of owners, he says, "If someone is at the top, he can control you. That's fact. For instance, you can't make a team negotiate your contract. But, maybe, you can make them want to negotiate because they want you happy. That's what Dandridge didn't understand. You don't give orders to the boss."
Of his two years of summer school at Notre Dame, he says, "I didn't need that degree and never will. My money's on the hardwood. I did it to make my mother proud. And I did it so there's nothing for people to talk about when I walk by. Also, when I tell kids to get an education, maybe they'll believe me."
For a man of such fierce self-management, one subject annoys him most : the trades -- from Buffalo to Indiana to Los Angeles to Utah.
If he's so good, why did he get handed around? There's no answer. Partly it was the underestimation syndrome. Partly it was his market value and the needs of the teams that had him. It was never a personality clash, though it galls Dantley to know that "traded frequently" usually means "troublemaker."
"I don't like to talk about my trades. They weren't because I was a bad person," says Dantley, almost plaintively. "I know I'm a nice person. . . Every one of those teams has been decent enough to admit they made a mistake." e
Now, Dantley says, "It worked for the best. People can see my talent who never knew it existed. I'm getting to do everything I've learned. Our guys (his Jazz teammates) put up with me waving my arms and asking for the ball."
"I don't know where we'd be without him," says Coach Tom Nissalke. "I don't think our offense would work too well with Spencer Haywood, seeing as how he's in Italy now . . . Actually, Adrian is scoring a hard 32, not an easy 32. We're a young team and, believe it or not, sometimes we forget that he's on our side. We can go a quarter at a time without getting him into the defense."
Dantley has made a mature peace with playing in the sub-.500 anonymity of Utah where he is the NBA's seldom-seen superstar. Because he is a clean-liver, Dantley doesn't mind the straight-laced Mormon ethos of Salt Lake City, although last year, in his initial homesickness for big-city life, he moaned to veteran Ron Boone, "Man, how do you live out here? Nothin's happening."
Mostly, he misses his Washington-area fiancee, a University of Virginia law school graduate named Dinitri, as well as the other women in his life -- his mother and several aunts.
Living in America's most nearly all-white city, Dantley says, "I haven't had a single racial problem. These people are very sincere. Or, if they're not, they've got Adrian Dantley fooled . . . I call Salt Lake City 'Peyton Place' because everybody has got an eye on everybody else. But they're also concerned about each other.
"I've learned that, in the NBA, something will always be wrong," says Dantley. "You can't have a big city, great weather, a winning team, a good coach, lots of ink, teammates you like, a good owner, a big contract, and on and on. You can't always be complaining, thinking about what's bad and not what's good. All together, I like Salt Lake City a lot."
These are Dantley's glory days. He's basking. After a 51-point game this month, he questioned the man who had covered him. "I know what it's like trying to guard Doc (Julius Erving)," said Dantley. "What's it like to cover me?"
"Man, it's a nightmare," was the answer.
Dantley gives his half-smile, half-leer. The hunger that marks him is in his flashing eye. "I liked that," he says.