One thing you could always say about Adrian Dantley: he knew his arena.
He knew that at 6-foot-5 he wasn't going to go over people, so he developed his footwork until it was among the best in the game. He knew he was on a bad team when he began playing for the Utah Jazz, so he took more shots than anyone else.But nowadays, Dantley finds himself in a relatively strange situation. He's in a different arena. After 15 years in the NBA, Dantley landed a job as an assistant basketball coach at Towson State in Maryland last year. He's teaching young players how to execute the drop-step and how to spin around the defender. In his spare time he thinks about how to get back into the NBA, this time as a coach.
"It's fun coaching colleges, but I think I'd probably like to be in the NBA, and I don't know if I could get there," he said last week in a telephone conversation. "You've just got to know somebody. I like the colleges, but I'm not as comfortable in the colleges as I was in the pros."
In his playing days, nobody was more comfortable with the pro game than Dantley. He never met a rim he didn't like. A.D. didn't stand for Adrian Dantley, it stood for Already Drained. In 15 seasons he averaged 24 points a game; four times he averaged over 30 points. He won NBA scoring titles in 1981 and 1984.
Dantley's career wasn't entirely smooth. He never got a championship ring, and was cheated of the opportunity when he was traded from Detroit to Dallas in 1989 for Mark Aguirre. That year the Bad Boys from Detroit won the first of consecutive titles.
It was widely reported that Isiah Thomas called the shots on the Aguirre-Dantley trade, and he later defended the deal, saying that taking Aguirre over Dantley was "a no-brainer."
The bad feelings in Detroit were nothing, however, compared to his stay with the Jazz. After leading the league in scoring in 1983-84, making the All-Star team and being named second-team All-NBA, Dantley held out to start the 1984-85 season in a contract dispute with the Jazz. He played just 55 games that year.
Dantley's holdout is part of Jazz lore. There was the name-calling between Dantley and then-coach Frank Layden. There were the 30 dimes or pieces of silver Layden fined Dantley for being a "Judas." And finally there was the trade after the 1985-86 season that sent Dantley to Detroit in exchange for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson.
Not one of the better moves in Jazz history, but it did get Dantley out of Utah, which mollified everyone involved.
But at age 38, Dantley says the angry years are long gone. Layden has said if he had it to do over, he wouldn't have been so hard on Dantley. "First of all, I'd have given A.D. the money in June, rather than (start talking) in October," said Layden. He added that he should have kept the matter between himself and Dantley, and not gone public.
Dantley, too, has mellowed. He's coaching college players and is experiencing the other side of the game. He came to Salt Lake early this summer to attend a retirement party for longtime broadcast secretary Helen Daynes and mingled easily with those representing his old team, including Layden.
"That's history now," said Dantley, referring to the trouble with Layden over a decade ago. "It doesn't bother me. Maybe I would have done some things differently. You always learn from controversy and I learned from that, and Frank said he learned from it."
Indeed, Dantley says the most memorable part of the 1983-84 season in Utah wasn't his winning the scoring title; it was Layden's being named coach of the All-Star team.
"I was happy he got to be the coach," Dantley said.
Now Dantley has his own players to coach and his own personalities to blend. He works long hours and keeps his eyes open for players who might be a little too short for the position, but have great footwork.
"We lost a lot of seniors last year," said Dantley, lapsing into his official coachspeak. "Last year we won the division, so we've got to rebuild."
Meanwhile, Dantley says he'll keep his eyes open for any job openings in the NBA. Which isn't a bad idea. He knows the rhythms and pace of the pro game. He knows the nuances and tricks. And now he knows what it feels to be a coach. Said Dantley, "I just think the pro game is my arena."
And if anyone knows his arena, it's A.D.