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Dantley’s Due 

Why it’s time the Utah Jazz and NBA Hall of Fame give Adrian Dantley his due.

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The expectation between Jazz fans and their team has reached Pavlovian dimensions. Every year for a generation, when the calendar said “May,” an annual Rite of Spring commenced for fans and the Utah sports media: Seeing the Jazz fiercely compete in a home-and-away playoff series. It was as automatic as the change of seasons itself.

It became a reliable, effortless and unconscious fact of life. Jazz fans enjoyed a kind of narcotic state of bliss.

Night after night, for 18 years, the same two players, John Stockton and Karl Malone, on the same team ran the same play—the pick ‘n’ roll—to perfection. Stockton and Malone provided Jazz fans with the longest-running show in modern sports history. That’s longer than Starsky and Hutch, Sonny and Cher or McNeil and Lehrer. Perhaps only Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon had a longer run together.

If Stockton and Malone didn’t provide enough repetition, Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan stands as the NBA all-time leader in consecutive games coached with one franchise—1,263 and counting. Not only is Sloan serving the longest active tenure with one team in the NBA, he is the longest tenured coach with the same franchise in all professional sports. Jazz fans are not merely conditioned to seeing Sloan on the sideline every night; they are quite accustomed to seeing Sloan win. Since taking over for the enormously popular Frank Layden in 1989, Sloan has guided the club to 16 consecutive winning seasons (including ten 50-win seasons) and 15 straight trips to the NBA Playoffs (1989-2003) featuring two NBA Finals appearances (1997 and 1998) and five Midwest Division titles. For the past three decades, only Orrin Hatch has been more of a sure winner in Utah than the Jazz.

Last year, for the first time in 20 years, the Jazz failed to make the NBA postseason. This year, not only did the Jazz not make the playoffs, but Utah’s only major professional sports franchise experienced its first losing season since 1983.

When the final whistle blew on the Jazz’s last regular season game in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, they had lost more than 56 games this year. There was no “Win or Go Home” NBA on TNT hype buzzing around this Jazz team. They’ll just go home.

Pretty grim, isn’t it?

Yet there was still a moment this year for Jazz fans to taste the glory of the team’s past in the difficult midst of its poor present. This year—for the second consecutive year—former Utah Jazz star Adrian Dantley was nominated for induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. And for the second consecutive year, he was passed over. Jazz fans should’ve gotten behind Adrian Dantley. They still can.

On paper, Dantley has far better statistical credentials than many inductees currently in the Hall of Fame. Still this year, like last year, one glaring nonstatistical factor worked against him: The Utah Jazz—a team for which he played more than any other (seven seasons) and where he had his finest years—refuses to give him the local honor of retiring his No. 4 jersey.

It’s high time to lift the Delta Center ban on Adrian Dantley. Now—as the franchise looks to rebuild its future—it would be especially wise to make some deposits into the karma bank. The Jazz must make peace with its past and honor Dantley. Raise his jersey to the rafters. It’s the right thing to do, even if it hurts to do it.

Dantley’s Saga

Today the Utah Jazz has a proud winning tradition. But it wasn’t always that way.

The first nine years of Jazz history can be summed up in one world: misery. During the team’s first five years in New Orleans (1975-79), the aptly named Jazz usually finished in the division cellar. Louisiana legend Pete Maravich was the franchise star but little else was bright about the team. The Jazz were a perennial NBA doormat.

In 1980, Dantley was traded to the Jazz from the Lakers and the Jazz moved from New Orleans to Utah. Dantley was saddled with the burden of coming to a new city and lifting the league’s worst team toward respectability. He did his best, and did the Jazz proud, becoming the franchise’s first All-Star in his first year, winning the All-Star game MVP. In his first four seasons with the Jazz he averaged more than 30 points per game, capturing the league scoring title in 1981. But the Jazz did not improve. Other NBA teams loved to play the Jazz, but nobody liked playing against Dantley, whose bruising style and unstoppable offensive repertoire established him as the league’s dominant scorer in the early ‘80s.

By 1984 Frank Layden was coaching the Jazz for his second full season. Led by Dantley’s fourth straight 30-plus points per game season and his second league scoring title, the Jazz won the Midwest Division and reached the playoffs for the first time in team history. In previous losing seasons, the rap on Dantley was that despite his tremendous individual scoring ability, his teammates did not excel around him. That season, the Jazz became the first team ever to have four separate players win NBA league individual titles: Dantley for scoring, Mark Eaton for blocks, Rickey Green for steals and Darrell Griffith for three-point field shooting accuracy. Frank Layden was named NBA Coach of the Year. So much for the bad rap.

The Jazz would not miss the playoffs for the next 20 seasons. Their first playoff season could not have happened without Adrian Dantley, and Dantley wanted to underscore that point.

Just prior to the beginning of the following 1984-85 season, Dantley staged a holdout. He wanted a better contract. Layden, who doubled as coach and general manager, fined Dantley a symbolic 30 pieces of silver, alluding humorously to the biblical betrayal by Judas. But it wasn’t just Layden who felt most betrayed. So did the entire Jazz community—the organization, its fans and the media.

Even before the holdout, Dantley never got on well with the press. He was a man of few words, for sure, but in light of his holdout, the media eagerly characterized the laconic superstar an arrogant malcontent. They called him “selfish,” “bitter” and at times “mean.” The more they criticized him in the media, the more closed and ornery Dantley became. The underlying truth is that Dantley was a classic introvert, intensely serious about his basketball craft.

Today, contract holdouts are commonplace. One might even view Dantley as a pioneer for players’ contract rights. Nobody in Utah or the Jazz organization saw it that way then.

Dantley eventually returned to the Jazz lineup early in the 1984-85 season. His rift with management did not have nearly as much impact on the team as the seismic change to the entire Jazz organization that was soon to follow. Near the end of that season on April 11, 1985, Larry H. Miller became a co-owner of the Utah Jazz, purchasing a half interest in the team for $8 million. Just over a year later on June 16, 1986, in order to prevent the sale and subsequent move of the Utah Jazz to Minnesota, Miller bought the remaining 50 percent interest from Sam Battistone for $14 million.

Jazz fans and local media seized upon the contrast. Miller was a hardworking, self-made millionaire who saved Utah’s only major professional sports team from leaving town. He was lionized. Dantley was a grumpy superstar who appeared ungrateful to the team that nurtured his stardom. He was demonized.

At the end of the 1986 season, Layden—with Miller’s blessing—traded Dantley to Detroit. Dantley went on to play six more seasons with three different teams. In his 15-year NBA career, he registered four consecutive 30-plus points per game seasons, garnered two scoring titles (1981, 1984), earned six All-Star honors and received NBA Comeback Player of the Year (‘84). All of these achievements happened while he played with the Jazz.

“I don’t know if [getting into the Hall is] based on endearing yourself to the press,” said Mark Eaton, a Dantley teammate in Utah from 1982 to ’86. “He fell a little short there. But in terms of his basketball contributions, I don’t think people can deny him. He’s had scoring titles and everything else. He is certainly deserving to be in the Hall of Fame.”

Last I checked, the Basketball Hall of Fame was about “basketball,” not congeniality. He may not get invited to your dinner party, but you definitely wanted Dantley shooting a basketball for you. Dantley shot a blistering 54 percent from the field in the NBA. That’s unheard of for a non-center. In 1991, he retired as the NBA’s ninth leading scorer. With more than 23,000 points, Dantley is the highest scoring player not in the Hall in the Fame.

“I’ve always been a huge admirer of Adrian Dantley,” said University of Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, who received induction this year from the Hall of Fame Committee that snubbed Dantley. “To me, he’s one of the greatest. At 6 feet 5 inches, he could score in the paint anytime he wanted. And people forget he was national high school player of the year [they also forget he won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1976]. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. And he will be.”

Yet, he’s not. Despite his awesome record of achievement, on April 5 this year, Dantley was yet again passed over by the Basketball Hall of Fame. But it’s hard to make a convincing argument to the Hall’s voting committee when the team with whom you did your best work disavows you.

“About half [Dantley’s] time was spent in Utah,” Jazz owner Larry Miller explained. “He played with six other teams. His total numbers, if all those numbers were here, I think they’re worthy of jersey retirement. But the fact is, he spread them out over seven teams in the league, so it’s a different thing. I think they’re Hall of Fame numbers. … There’s an argument that we ought to retire his jersey. It’s not a dead issue. I have no ax to grind with him at all, but it’s not something that’s been on the radar screen.”

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Dantley’s Hall of Fame candidacy, and it’s not an altogether logically coherent explanation for Dantley’s conspicuous absence from the Delta Center rafters. Since becoming the Jazz owner, Miller has had a lot of ex-Jazz players on his radar, retiring the following jerseys: Pete Maravich, Darrell Griffith, Mark Eaton, Jeff Hornacek, John Stockton and Frank Layden. It’s a safe bet that Karl Malone’s will go up shortly after his retirement. Does Miller really base whether to retire a jersey on a player’s years of service with the Jazz? If so, Jeff Hornacek, at seven years, was there just as long as Dantley. What about scoring production? Quite simply, Dantley has the franchise’s highest scoring average at 29.6—higher than Malone (25.5) or Maravich (25.2). How can you not honor the best scorer in club history? It’s got to be the 1984 holdout—Dantley’s public affront to all of Utah, his shameless ingratitude. The only problem with holding that against him is that Karl Malone held out five times in his career with the Jazz. I doubt Larry Miller will have any trouble raising Malone’s jersey to the roof. It can only be one thing: Larry Miller still holds a 22-year-old grudge against Adrian Dantley.

In his Own Words

Just days before he was again denied Hall of Fame induction on April 5, I spoke with Dantley, now a coach with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. Directly but with humor, I asked him about the merits of his case for induction, his entire basketball career and whether Jazz owner Larry Miller will ever forgive him. I thought it would be good for Utah to hear directly from the man himself.

In 15 NBA seasons you led the league in scoring twice, averaging over 30 points in four straight seasons. You were inarguably one of most dominant players of your era. Why aren’t you in the Hall of Fame?

AD: (Laughing) I don’t know. I guess whoever votes each year think I shouldn’t be in.

Your nickname is your initials “A.D.” which also stands for “Anno Domini” which in Latin means “In the year of the Lord.” As faith-based groups in the United States become increasingly prominent how might this religious connotation help your bid for Hall?

AD: Well, I think it will help—maybe. I hope it does.

The Hall might also want to consider that you were a standout college player at Notre Dame. As a freshman you played a key role when the No. 2 ranked Irish upset No. 1 ranked UCLA, besting Bill Walton, Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes and David Meyers and stopping UCLA’s 88-game win streak (1974). What was the confidence-building exercise Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps had you guys do at the end of every practice to mentally prepare for that game?

AD: After practice, we’d raise someone up to the rim and cut down the nets. We did that for like seven days in a row.

Did you cut the nets after the actual game?

AD: Yes, John Shumate and I did it.

You made your mark in high school too. As a 6-feet 4-inch, 245-pound freshman playing for the legendary Morgan Wooten at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., your significant posterior earned you the nickname “Baby Huey.” Did it hurt your feeling that people judged you by your body?

AD: No, it didn’t hurt my feelings, because I wasn’t that heavy; that was just a joke back in those days. I always said, “If I’m Baby Huey, then why don’t you stop me?”

Another person famous for having a lot of junk in the trunk is Jennifer Lopez. It never hurt her career.

AD: No it did not!

What if, as a kind of public-relations move, we made a buddy movie starring J-Lo and A.D. called Big Ass Cops?

AD: Back then, I’d say “yeah.” But now, I don’t have that big end like when I played. Still, I would be honored.

So many people today are dissatisfied with their body types. What do think about plastic surgery or “body correction” being all the rage these days?

AD: I think if it makes you happy, I’m all for it.

If you could surgically correct one NBA player who would it be?

AD: [laughs] The perfect NBA body? Well, I would definitely give Ben Wallace Reggie Miller’s jump shot. You know, they say he’s [Wallace] not an offensive player but he’s become a better offensive player the last two years under Larry Brown.

At 6-feet 5-inches, you effectively posted up against much taller guys like Kevin McHale and Kurt Rambis. Sometimes smaller is better. As an assistant coach with the Nuggets right now, do you think that Earl Boykins is more effective because he is 5-feet 5-inches?

AD: He’s definitely more effective at 5-feet 5-inches as opposed to if he were 6-feet 5-inches because he has to work harder. And, bigger players have a tendency to be lazier than shorter players. He knows he has to work because the odds are against him. When you’re playing against a small guy and you’re a big guy, the small guy is always gonna get your attention.

Why’s that?

AD: Because he’s like a little gnat.

When someone once asked NBA coach Dick Motta what would it take to stop you he said, “Get a gun.” You mentally defeated opponents with such an array of moves: midrange jumpers, multiple pivots, and dozens of fakes. Is it true that you intentionally allowed your first shot of the game to be blocked to set up your head fake for the rest of the night?

AD: In high school, college and the NBA I would always let a guy block my shot just so the guy would think he could do it easily. I might not draw a foul until the end of the game when we needed it or might draw a foul throughout the course of the game to get a guy in foul trouble. But the majority of games I let a guy block my shot.

There was method to your madness. You displayed an uncanny knack for drawing fouls, leading the league in free-throw attempts five times in your career. In the 1983-84 season you averaged over 10 foul shots made per game and tied Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA record by hitting 28 foul shots in a single game. Who in today’s NBA practices the art of drawing the foul like you used to?

AD: Well, I don’t know if he practices it but Allen Iverson goes to the free-throw line an enormous amount of time for a guy his size. Earl Boykins goes to the line a lot. He is second on Denver in going to the line and making free throws.

Do you think drawing the foul is a lost art?

AD: Well, I think a lot of players don’t want to draw contact because they might get hurt. You’re gonna get bruised and you’re gonna get banged to get to the free- throw line 10 to 15 times a game. But it’s one of the most important parts of your offensive game.

Do you think more NBA players could use their physicality to get more points?

AD: They could, but they don’t. Because if you ask most players they would rather have two unbelievable dunks in the game than go to the foul line 10 times.

You were a remarkably efficient offensive player. You set a record in 1983-84 for requiring the fewest field-goal attempts (18.2 per game) to average at least 30 points. Your career .540 shooting percentage is outstanding for a non-center. Low shooting percentages in today’s NBA have forced some teams to subscribe to Dean Oliver’s statistical treatise, “Basketball on Paper,” which gives high ratings to the players who maximize their scoring opportunities. Shouldn’t the Hall of Fame consider your “Basketball on Paper” rating?

AD: Yes they should. I look at [the Hall of Fame] and sometimes I don’t think the people that vote even know certain players. But yes, I think it should be considered how efficient you were as a basketball player as opposed to a volume shooter.

The Hall likes champions. You came so close with Detroit in 1988 losing to the Lakers in seven. The next year the Pistons traded you to Dallas and then won the title. Ten years earlier in 1979, the Lakers traded you to Utah, and then won the title the following season with rookie Magic Johnson. Looking back, that’s gotta be frustrating.

AD: The L.A. thing wasn’t frustrating. That was a situation where you started two small forwards, Jamaal Wilkes and me. They decided to go with Jamaal. That didn’t bother me. Detroit, you might say, was frustrating because I led those guys when they were young. But that’s part of the business. It happened so long ago I really don’t think about it that much unless somebody like you brings it up.

It might help your Hall of Fame bid if the Utah Jazz finally retired your jersey. Jerseys honoring Pete Maravich, Darrell Griffith, Mark Eaton, Jeff Hornacek, John Stockton, Frank Layden and soon Karl Malone all hang from the Delta Center rafters but Jazz owner Larry H. Miller has refused to raise your No. 4. What’s up with that?

AD: It’s his decision. It’s his team. The only way you get your number retired is if the owner decides to do it. But he chose not to retire my number, so there’s nothing I can do about it.

If it has anything to do with your contract holdout in 1984, even your then-Coach/GM Frank Layden fined you a symbolic 30 pieces of silver and you eventually resumed playing. And, though the Jazz traded you in the summer of ‘86 after Karl Malone arrived, Layden has since said he is sorry for making the trade. But with Larry Miller, where’s the forgiveness?

AD: Well, that’s what it was about—the holdout. But Karl Malone held out about five or six times. So, what’s up with that?

Perhaps what Elton John once wrote of himself is true of the Jazz owner: Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

AD: Yeah, well, maybe one day.

Let it Go

C’mon, he’s not so bad, is he? OK, so maybe he is a bit grumpy. And yes, he may need to lighten up some. But haven’t we all had problem children in our families? Maybe we didn’t like them but we loved them, right? Like it or not, Dantley is family.

Just two weeks after the Hall rebuffed Dantley he showed up in person, stood between Merlin Olsen and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and watched Larry Miller hoist John Stockton’s No. 12 to the top of the Delta Center. That couldn’t have been easy for him. But that’s what you do for family—you show up. It’s time for Utah to show up for Adrian Dantley.

MEMO to Larry Miller: “Let it go.” Stop making Dantley feel homeless in the only place he can legitimately call his NBA home. Forgive him for his faults. Being a miserable old sod isn’t an unpardonable sin. He didn’t gamble, he didn’t take steroids, he didn’t do drugs, he had no sex scandals. He was just disagreeable. If you really can’t get over it, then just do it for the sake of the franchise. Be the bigger man and do right by Jazz history, which is bigger than you and Dantley.

MEMO to Jazz fans: You can try to fill the absence this spring by renting more DVDs, spending more time with the family or learning how to change the oil. But if you really want to do something connected to the Jazz during playoff time, then start campaigning now for Adrian Dantley’s jersey to be retired.

By honoring the Jazz’s past you honor its present. As the philosopher Bernard Meltzer tells us: “When you forgive, you in no way change the past—but you sure do change the future.” You might even start another 20-year playoff run. And that would be something to cheer about, in the spring, as usual.

Editor’s Note: Dave Hollander writes the weekly interview column Old School for SI.com, the Sports Illustrated Website. His book, 52 Weeks, a collection of his interviews with famous sports figures and personal stories about his experiences in sports comes out this fall from The Lyons Press. E-mail: dave@arlene-grocery.com.

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Dave Hollander

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