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Finally 4 Dantley: Coveted honor comes tonight

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When Jazz owner Larry H. Miller delivered the arguably much-overdue news, what passed through Adrian Dantley's mind was time.

The time that has come and gone since Dantley last played in Utah, and in the NBA.

The time that finally would be his.

The time it took for Miller to come to his senses, let bygones be bygones and bestow an accolade — retirement of Dantley's No. 4 Jazz jersey, which will happen at halftime of tonight's game at EnergySolutions Arena — that so many of the now 51-year-old's contemporaries feel should have come long, long ago.

"I really didn't think that much of it," Dantley said, "because it had been so long.

"It was so long," he added, "it was like a numb feeling."

Now, though, the man who breathed life into a franchise on a respirator will be recognized for a career whose ample good times are interspersed with just enough controversy that it took Miller more than a decade-and-a-half to make the much-awaited call.

It's sweet that it came, indeed, for Dantley, though one can't help but sense the bitterness that's built over all these years.

It emerges as the scoring sensation discusses the delay and gets to the root of what those he once played against question with decided befuddlement.

"You're kind of wondering what took so long," Basketball Hall of Famer Clyde "The Glide" Drexler said shortly after word of Miller's decision spread back in February.

"I mean, he certainly was the type of player that you could shine a light on and say, 'This is how you're supposed to play, this is how you're supposed to act,"' fellow Hall of Famer Earl "The Pearl" Monroe added. "And he's been nothing but a model citizen. So, I can't imagine why it's taken this long."

But Dantley knows.

Oh, he knows.

And, no, it's not because of the time former Jazz coach and general manager Frank Layden fined him a Biblically symbolic 30 pieces of silver for alleged Judas-like behavior.

That incident, in review:

In the final 14 seconds of a 1986 game at Phoenix, during Dantley's last of seven seasons with the Jazz, a young Karl Malone missed 3-of-4 free throws in an eventual two-point Utah win. Layden blasted Malone, who would join John Stockton in succeeding Dantley as a franchise icon, from the sideline, prompting Malone, as lore has it, to shout back that he wasn't "a mule or dog." Dantley stood up for Malone in the locker room, action Layden considered traitorous. Layden wound up fining Malone two pennies (because he got in his two cents' worth) and Dantley $3 (or 30 dimes, the equivalent of 30 pieces of silver, which according to the Christian Bible is the amount of a bribe given to the apostle Judas to betray Jesus).

Twenty-plus years later, some see the bizarre event as one of the most comical in Jazz history — but not Dantley, whom Layden sent home to Salt Lake City from Phoenix at the time. "It's not funny to me," he said.

Yet that's not it.

Nor, Dantley suggests, is it because of a tale Miller — who has said he waited, in part, to get Stockton's and Malone's numbers retired first — has publicly told as recently as February.

It has Dantley supposedly telling Malone not to dive onto the floor or into the stands for loose balls because he might get hurt and/or it might make Dantley look bad.

"That's not true at all," Dantley said. "I never told a player what to do at all as far (as) diving for a loose ball. Hey, I dove for a loose ball on the Boston Celtics — almost got killed, unconscious. So, I never told him (Malone) that. Even if I did tell him that, is that very big? I mean, if that's the only thing I did bad, I feel pretty good. But I never told him that."

What it is, Dantley believes, is his prolonged 1984 holdout — something virtually unheard of at the time for even NBA players, and one which ended only after he received a three-year contract extension.

"The only thing the Utah Jazz can say about me, about what I did, was 'held out,"' he said. "That was it. Other than that, I had no problems."

In another breath, Dantley hastens to ponder a point: "How many times did Karl Malone hold out?" he asks. "No problems with him. ... With me it was a problem."

The difference, longtime Jazz loyalists will say, is that Malone never did actually hold out.

He may have whined and moaned about money matters and other issues of perceived disrespect with some degree of regularity until finally hitting the jackpot with a generous late-career deal, but Malone — whose own number was retired shortly after his NBA career ended, long before that of Dantley, as was the case as well with fellow NBA Finals teammates Stockton and Jeff Hornacek — never failed to honor a contract.

Dantley, though, did — and he seems quite cognizant of the fallout that fact caused.

"You know, that's what started everything," he said, referencing a relationship with Layden that, though repaired now, soured at the time. "Had I not held out, I might have ended my career there.

"Who knows?"

Perhaps no one knows for sure.

What Dantley does recognize, though, is that buried beneath the silver, and beyond the loose balls, a holdout notwithstanding, his days with the Jazz weren't all bad.

There was, he lights up in recalling, a Midwest Division championship that came in 1984 and followed losing seasons during his first four years in Utah.

"I think the highlight," Dantley said, "was when we won the division. Frank (Layden) was the All-Star coach; we turned the franchise around."

There are the stats and accolades — a 29.6 points-per-game scoring average from 1979-86 in Utah, four consecutive 30-plus-point seasons from '80-81 through '83-84, NBA Comeback Player of the Year award in '84, six All-Star Game appearances as a member of the Jazz — that Dantley firmly feels make his number worthy of hanging alongside those of Stockton, Malone, Hornacek, Mark Eaton, Darrell Griffith, Pete Maravich and an honorary one for Layden.

"When guys get their number retired, it's because they played well on that team," he said. "That's what it should be — because they played well while they was with that team.

"You got some guys who don't play well, and they might be good guys, or whatever it might be, they might get theirs retired. But the reason why you (should) get your number retired is because you played well for that franchise — that's what I think."

There also is a decided perception the Jazz, who arrived from New Orleans amid fiscal and market-choice uncertainty in 1979, were saved by a trade sending Spencer Haywood to the Los Angeles Lakers bringing Dantley to Salt Lake City.

"All I can say is I enjoyed being in Utah," said Dantley, drafted out of Notre Dame by the Buffalo Braves — and now an assistant coach with the tonight's Jazz opponent, the Denver Nuggets.

"When I come to Utah (now), some of the guys on my team, they always joke, 'How could you live in Utah?' It was the best place for me. You know, I wasn't into a social life, going out, hanging out — so it was a great place for me. It was great for my career. Same with Buffalo. When I went to Buffalo, I wasn't worrying about anything snow or anything like that. All I was worried about was playing. I played so many minutes I didn't have any energy to go out after the game."

Standing against a hallway wall at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Dantley seems to have little energy left to beat up himself, or anyone else, over the fact his last NBA game came in 1991 — six Hall of Fame bids as a finalist, seven teams, 15 seasons, more than 1,000 combined regular-season and playoff games, and 23,177 points ago — and yet only now, for the first time in his pro career, he's having his number retired.

"Kind of knew it was gonna happen," Dantley says, sneaking in a quick sigh. "Just didn't know when it was gonna happen.

"I'm glad it's happening."

He is not alone.

"Sometimes it takes people a little longer to do the right thing," said Drexler, one of the many Hall of Famers who played against Dantley. "As long as they do it, that's the key."

"He's still here and alive to enjoy that accomplishment, and I think that really is the key," Hall of Famer George Gervin added. "I mean, sometimes we compliment guys after they're gone, where they don't get to enjoy. So as long as A.D. is healthy and around to enjoy it, then I think that is good."

"The bottom line is 'they did it,"' Hall of Famer Rick Barry said. "As they say, 'better late than never.' The best things in life are worth waiting for. And I think as you get things later in life, you appreciate them a lot more."

And Dantley, others who know him well assure, truly does appreciate this honor.

"He's excited about it, and you can tell by the tone in his voice," said current Jazz television commentator Ron Boone, a teammate of Dantley's both with the Los Angeles Lakers and for two seasons in Utah. "I think it's something he really wanted."

"A.D.'s a quiet guy," Denver Nuggets coach George Karl added, "but I really think he's at a stage in his life that whatever went on (with) Utah and the separation — I think now he's ready to thank the people and respect that a big part of his greatness was in the Utah Jazz uniform."

E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com