Anyone wanting to get a line on Adrian Dantley the basketball star need only look at his career statistics: 23,177 points, ninth on the NBA career scoring list at time of retirement; a .540 field-goal percentage, one of the highest ever recorded by an NBA non-center; and 30-plus points per game for four straight seasons. He was a smart, fundamentally sound player who relied on both strength and finesse.
Anyone wanting to understand Dantley the man should hear an often-told story from his youth that was recounted in the Dallas Morning News. While in ninth grade, Dantley got a 99 on a history test; no other student scored above 80. His teacher, Morgan Wooten, who was also Dantley’s basketball coach, suspected that young Adrian had cheated. So he stood Dantley up and made him answer questions in front of the class. Dantley got them all right, stunning Wooten. “I never should have underestimated you,” he later said to Dantley.
For all that was known of Dantley the dead-eye shooter and high-intensity competitor, Dantley the man confused and often confounded coaches, players, and fans during a stellar, if highly unusual, NBA career. His motives were often misunderstood and his intentions misread.
On the court, the athletic Dantley was as smooth an outside shooter as could be, a force on the inside with an explosive first step, and a master of psychology. Sometimes he intentionally allowed his first shot of the game to be blocked, and then, for the rest of the night, he used his patented head fake to burn his defender. Dantley also lured opponents into unsuccessful steal attempts by dribbling the ball very high. Off the court, Dantley chose his words carefully. He spoke with conviction and honesty, sometimes at the expense of diplomacy.
Dantley’s many basketball accomplishments include a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics, the NBA Rookie of the Year Award, and two NBA scoring titles. He played for seven different teams during his 15-year playing career, with his longest stint spent in a Utah Jazz uniform. Regrettably, his teams never won an NBA championship.
Dantley’s playing style and personality may be traced to his early childhood in Washington, D.C. After his parents divorced when he was 3 years old, Dantley lived with his mother, an aunt and a cousin. At such a tender age and with no father figure in the house, Adrian turned inward, rarely letting on how he felt inside.
“Even when Adrian was a child, you couldn’t figure him out. You couldn’t get him to smile even then,” his mother, Virginia, told writer Thomas Bonk. “I still ask him, ‘How is everything?’ Because with him, you can never tell.” At age 12 Dantley quietly devoted himself to basketball.
Throughout his life, Dantley surprised people, especially his critics. “At every level, I wasn’t supposed to do what I did,” he said late in his career in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. “But I did.”
As a 6-4, 245-pound freshman at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, his prodigious posterior earned him the nickname “Baby Huey.” Nearly everyone thought Dantley was too fat and too short to excel at basketball. He proved them wrong, leading national powerhouse DeMatha to a combined 57-2 record and earning high school All-America honors. He practiced obsessively, even on Christmas Day, when he would pick up the gym key from coach Wooten’s house.
Dantley was only 10 pounds lighter and an inch taller when he enrolled at Notre Dame in 1973, so once again he was pegged for mediocrity. But he averaged 25.8 points in his first three collegiate seasons, earning All-America honors twice. He left after his junior year to enter the NBA Draft.
Years later, in an article in the Washington Post, Dantley looked back on the way people had doubted him throughout his life. “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 6-4 fat boy come inside and pile-drive on me like that.’ Then they turn around and see it’s me.”
Dantley joined the Braves for the 1976-77 season and became an instant star, averaging 20.3 points on .520 field-goal shooting. At season’s end, he was named NBA Rookie of the Year.
His hopes for settling in with Buffalo were dashed, however, when the Braves traded him with Mike Bantom to the Indiana Pacers after the season for Billy Knight. The season prior to the trade, Knight had a 26.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg averages but it was thought that Buffalo owner John Brown, who had owned the American Basketball Association’s Kentucky Colonels, wanted more players from the now-defunct ABA on the Braves’ roster.
Dantley didn’t stay in the Hoosier State long — after 23 games he was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers with Dave Robisch for center James Edwards and Earl Tatum. Dantley finished the 1977-78 season with the Lakers (who at the time boasted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a young Jamaal Wilkes) and averaged 21.5 points. He remained with Los Angeles for the entire 1978-79 campaign and contributed 17.3 points per game. Displaying an uncanny knack for drawing fouls, Dantley led the NBA in free throws made that year with 541 (in 680 attempts). He topped the league in that category four more times during his career.
With two small forwards on the team, however, either Dantley or Wilkes had to go, so Dantley was traded to the Utah Jazz before the 1979-80 season for power forward Spencer Haywood. Dantley spent seven seasons in Utah, where he became the league’s deadliest scorer. When the Jazz moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake City in 1979, fans there didn’t know quite what to expect. What they saw was “A. D.” in his prime. In 1979-80, Dantley averaged 28.0 points with a .576 field-goal percentage, a stunning level of accuracy for a non-center. That year, in his first of six trips to the NBA All-Star Game, Dantley led the West squad with 23 points. Meanwhile, he watched as his former team, the Lakers, rode a rookie named Magic Johnson to the 1980 NBA championship.
During his next six seasons in Utah, Dantley’s consistency was as remarkable as his scoring. From 1980-81 through 1985-86 he averaged between 26.6 and 30.7 points, including four straight seasons over 30. He collected NBA scoring titles in 1980-81 and 1983-84, and he set a record in 1983-84 for requiring the fewest field-goal attempts (18.2 per game) to average at least 30 points. His knack for getting fouled certainly helped, as Dantley canned 813 free throws that same season (more than 10 per game) and tied Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA record by hitting 28 foul shots against the Houston Rockets. Dantley finished that game with 46 points. (Chamberlain had finished his game with 100 points.)
During his first four years in Utah, however, the Jazz failed to make the playoffs. Dantley wasn’t a winner, many critics charged, and he was selfish, neither playing defense nor running the court. Justified or not, the criticism reflected the frustration of having the league’s best offensive weapon playing on a subpar team.
The team’s fate changed during Frank Layden’s second full season as head coach and general manager. In 1983-84, Utah posted a 15-game improvement over the previous year and claimed its first Midwest Division championship. Dantley, who had missed 60 games in 1982-83 because of a wrist injury, was named Comeback Player of the Year. Suddenly it was a team of stars: Dantley led the league in scoring, Rickey Green in steals, Mark Eaton in blocked shots, and Darrell Griffith in three-point shooting. And Layden led the league in one-liners. Describing Dantley to the Salt Lake Tribune, Layden said: “We love him. He’s our piranha. He’ll eat you alive. He would score in a raging storm at sea.”
In the first round of the 1984 NBA Playoffs the Jazz bested another team with a high-powered offense, the Denver Nuggets. The more versatile Jazz won in five games, then lost in the next round to the Phoenix Suns.
The Jazz made the playoffs in each of the next two years, and Dantley kept doing the things he did best. By the 1985-86 campaign, however, his relationship with Layden had cooled off. Salt Lake City wasn’t big enough for the two of them, so Dantley was traded — for the fourth time — to the Detroit Pistons for Kent Benson and Kelly Tripucka.
The trade led to unprecedented team success for Dantley — and then more frustration. During two full seasons in Detroit, Dantley averaged better than 20 points and he helped the Pistons reach the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988. In Game 1 of the series Dantley scored 34 points on 14-of-16 shooting from the field. But the Pistons ultimately fell to the Lakers in seven games.
It was the closest Dantley ever came to the NBA’s promised land. The following year he was traded to Dallas at midseason for Mark Aguirre. Ironically, three months later the Pistons became NBA champs, and the championship ring that Dantley wanted so badly had eluded him for the second time. But at age 33 he went on playing, completing the 1988-89 season with Dallas and averaging 19.2 points for the year.
The following February, Dantley suffered the second major injury of his career — a broken right fibula, which sidelined him for the year. He became a free agent after the 1989-90 season and shopped himself around. But it wasn’t until the following April — with 10 games left in the 1990-91 campaign — that he found a job with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Dantley, now 35 years old, left the NBA after the season as the ninth-leading scorer in NBA history with 23,177 points. He also left the league ranked fifth on the NBA’s all-time list for free throws made (6,832) and his career scoring average (24.3 ppg) ranks among the best ever.
The next summer Dantley moved to Italy, where he played for Breeze Milan, averaging 26.7 points with a .593 field-goal percentage. A year later he became an assistant coach at Towson State University in Maryland.
Dantley was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2008.