However murky are the circumstances of his departure, Dantley’s arrival in Detroit undeniably boosted the team from mediocrity to the cusp of greatness. He came over in ’86 from the Jazz and immediately gave the Pistons the one thing they lacked: a true low-post threat. His presence took the heat off of outside-shooting center Bill Laimbeer as well as guards Thomas, Dumars and Vinnie Johnson.
Dantley often took the team on his shoulders and willed them to victory. Still, in ’87, the Pistons lost to the Celtics in an incredibly hard-fought Eastern Finals. The next year, they finally vanquished the hated Celtics and made it to the Finals against Magic’s Lakers. In Game One, Dantley scored 34 points on 14-of-16 shooting from the field, looking like he would let nothing stand in the way of his coveted ring. Yet, despite a competitive, very well-played series, the Pistons fell in seven heart-breaking games.
They vowed to return the next season to avenge their defeat and indeed they did. Unfortunately for Dantley, he was in Dallas by then, traded for Aguirre. Thus it was Isiah’s childhood friend who got to drink champagne while AD watched on TV. Basically, Dantley worked his ass off for Aguirre’s ring.
After briefly refusing to report, Dantley got back to business with the Mavs, but a year later a broken fibula put him on the shelf for a season, before he endured the arduous rehab process and returned to finish his NBA career with the Bucks. He then spent a year in Italy, averaging 26.7 ppg, before returning home to be closer to his family. He is now a full-time dad and a volunteer at DC-area charities. “My dad wasn’t around when I was a kid and I just want to enjoy seeing my three kids grow up,” Dantley says. “My oldest son plays ball and he has some skills. I’m just waiting to see if he grows into having the real desire.”
AD himself began displaying his trademark tenacity in high school, playing for legendary coach Morgan Wooten at suburban DC’s basketball power, DeMatha High, leading them to a 57-2 record and earning All-American honors. He was an obsessive gym rat-even picking up the keys from Wooten to practice on Christmas Day. But perhaps the quintessential story from Dantley’s high school days occurred not on the court, but in ninth grade history class, where Wooten was also his teacher. Dantley got a 99 on a test, on which no one else had scored better than an 80. Wooten suspected foul play, so he gave his budding star an oral quiz in front of the whole class. He answered every question correctly.
“Coach Wooten said, ‘I’m sorry, Adrian. I’ll never doubt you again,’” Dantley recalls with a laugh. “But I got used to it. I thrived on proving people wrong. I was only 6-5 and at every level people said, ‘Well, he can’t do that here against taller opponents.’ They said that when I went to college and again when I entered the NBA. The only reason those whispers ever went around is because of my height. I didn’t have the quintessential body, but one thing I had that you can’t underestimate is a lot of heart. And I studied the game.
“Besides,” he adds with a laugh, “half of those bigger guys who were supposed to kill me weren’t too bright and that made my job a little bit easier.”
So, realizing that he couldn’t add inches to his frame, Dantley decided to add points to his hoops IQ, became a master of psychology and began using his lack of height to his advantage. Sometimes he even let his defender block his first shot to fill him with overconfidence and set him up for the variety of pumps and fakes that were to come.
“Sometimes I would let a guy get a block, but it all depends on who you’re playing against,” Dantley says. “That goes back to knowing the game. If you know your opponent, you know who will go for what. If I knew a guy was going to try and block my shots every time, I might let them have the first one, then the next time they would go for the fake for sure and I’d get him into foul trouble. And the real advantage I had going with the pump fake is I could shoot, so if they went for it I got the foul and if they didn’t I would just shoot and usually score. You can’t commit to it being a fake, and you can’t travel, which I see guys do all the time today. They try to pump fake, but shuffle their feet.”
Another advantage that Dantley had over most of his opponents was conditioning. He followed a strict workout regimen and carefully monitored his diet long before the words “personal trainer” were on the lips of every athlete in America.
“I always tried to be in better shape than anyone else,” says Dantley, who weighed 245 pounds as a high school freshman. “I changed my diet and spent a lot of time in the weight room. It all started when I went to Red Auerbach’s camp in high school. He did me a great service by telling me that to be effective, I had to play at 210. I made that goal and was right there for most of my career.”
Dantley had already begun to lose weight and add muscle when he enrolled at Notre Dame in ’73, though he was still expected to be little more than mediocre. Instead, he was a two-time All-American, averaging 25.8 points in three years before going pro. He also helped the Fighting Irish snap UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in ’74. By the time he left school in ’76, he was a lean, mean hooping machine. All the time in the gym had also helped him develop his left hand to the point that he could drive either way with equal success. He helped the U.S. win a gold medal in the Olympics, averaging 19.3 ppg, including going for 32 in 30 minutes in the gold medal game against Yugoslavia.
He was drafted by the Buffalo Braves, where he teamed with Moses Malone and Bob McAdoo for about five minutes before the team’s owner dumped Malone in a cost-saving move, thus breaking up what could have been an all-time great front line. Dantley set the tone for his career by shooting 52 percent, going for 20.3 ppg and being named Rookie of the Year.
He says now that the key to his success lies beyond the first step, beyond the conditioning, the pump fakes and the undying will. It’s really painfully simple, he explains: “I took the shot that I wanted to take, not what the defense gave me. That’s the key to the whole thing. When you’re playing defense, you need to make them take the shot you want and on offense, it’s the opposite. It’s that simple.”
One last thing to remember: Dantley thrived during a golden era for small forwards. Night after night, he faced the likes of Larry Bird, Walter Davis, James Worthy, Alex English and Dominique Wilkins.
“Every night you came to the arena, you knew it was no picnic,” Dantley says. “I played good defense, but even if someone were going off on me, it wouldn’t throw me off my offensive game, because I knew that they would also have to guard me at the other end. You just have to keep going at them. And that’s what I did.”