His voice, as always, is as deep as red earth.
“Yo,” he says.
“Yo,” I say.
“I ain’t got no sour grapes.”
“So why are you calling?”
“To see if you’re watching these playoffs.”
“I’m watching. I see every game.”
“What do you think?”
“They’re gonna win it all.”
“Even without you.”
“They would’ve won it with me, and they’ll win it without me.”
“You rooting for them?”
“Yeah. I am.”
“I ain’t got no sour grapes, you know.”
“I know.” Somewhere out there, this afternoon, when the Pistons jump it up against the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference championship, Adrian Dantley will put his legs on the coffee table, hit the volume on the remote control and watch the dream that goes on without him. One year ago, he was the soul of this basketball team. The Pistons were barreling into the NBA semifinals against Boston and no one lusted for victory more than Dantley. “This time,” he seemed to say, with every scowling, twisting move past Kevin McHale and Larry Bird, “is our time. Our time!”
Today, it is once again our time, but not his. Dantley, traded in February, now works for Dallas — which missed the playoffs altogether. Mark Aguirre fills Dantley’s spot on the Pistons. That’s the NBA. Players get traded, it happens all the time. But so significant was his brief time in this
city, that if you walk the streets of Detroit today, you can still hear a tide of nostalgia for the man they call A.D., a collective sigh that says
“wish he were here.”
Adrian Dantley doesn’t wish. He copes. He is 33 years old, banished, suddenly, to his living room for the playoffs. He has never won a championship. He is not getting any younger. But, if there is any pain, he will not admit it. This is a man, remember, whose eyebrows speak louder than words, whose rock- hard body and icy glare tell you all you need to know out on the court. Once he spun and twisted and twirled to the hoop for Detroit. Can it really be just three months ago?
Asked now if he sees a difference when he watches the Pistons on TV, he says: “No, they run the same plays.” Asked if he imagines himself in the lineup, he says: “No, I never think that way.” Asked if he feels he lost his best — if not only — chance at an NBA championship ring the day Detroit traded him, he pauses: “A lot of great players never won a championship.” Leave it at that.
Oh, there are still the rough edges. The belief that Isiah Thomas somehow engineered his departure. When people stop to say what a shame it is that Dantley was traded, he gives them a sneer and a standard line: “Life is about politics and power.” You figure it out.
And then there is the matter of what was said between him and Thomas in March at the Palace — when Dallas came to town and they shook hands for the first time as opponents.
“No comment,” says Dantley, who did all the talking that night. He forces a laugh. “You can read it in my book.”
Suffice it to say, he did not whisper, “Hey, Isiah. Good to see you. How’s the family?” But personal feuds aside, Dantley, believe it or not, is a Pistons booster. He says he wants them to win it all. He still has a number of friends on this team — Dantley and Joe Dumars were, as most people know, the best of buddies, and he still talks with Rick Mahorn.
Surprising? Perhaps, because the tendency is to see an ex- team the way you might see an ex-girlfriend who dumped you. Besides, wouldn’t you think Dantley would feel . . . empty? Here was a guy who found himself during the last two years. Long hailed in Utah as a scoring machine but a lone-wolf mercenary, he was re-created in Detroit, he became a symbol of hard, quiet labor, a superstar of silence — “The Teacher,” they called him.
His popularity grew. His selfishness waned. He is forever framed in Detroit minds not only for scoring points but for diving after that loose ball in Game 7 against Boston two years ago, colliding with Vinnie Johnson, suffering a concussion, missing the final minutes because he was in an ambulance headed for the hospital. Unselfish. Hardworking.
“I was treated real well in Detroit,” he admits, and he tries to say it without sounding as if he misses it. But who wouldn’t? One year ago, “Get A.D. His Ring” was a minor anthem among Pistons boosters. Like the Motor City itself, he had waited forever for a slice of championship pie.
Now he is no longer at the table. He never took a place in Dallas. He just stayed in hotels. When the Mavericks’ season ended, Dantley went home to Washington. He had his traditional postseason eating binge — two glorious weeks — in which he allows himself everything he denies himself during the season. “Ice cream, doughnuts, pizza, hamburgers. I had it all,” he says.
“Any cobbler?” I ask.
“Cobbler, yeah,” he says, laughing at the irony. “I had some of that, too.”
It was last year, after the Pistons fell three points short of an NBA title in the final game against the Los Angeles Lakers, that he and Dumars celebrated their year-long effort with some cobbler and ice cream. It was small consolation, but it was their way. Good try. Nice effort. We’ll get ’em next year.
No next year.
“I might come up there,” he says suddenly, over the phone. “I might come and see a game if they make the Finals.”
“Really? You wouldn’t feel uncomfortable at the Palace?”
“Nah. Why would I feel uncomfortable?”
“Would you let people know you were coming?”
“I’d let Joe know. I’d be staying at his house.”
“Would you go into the locker room?”
“I don’t know. . . . Maybe I wouldn’t come up. Maybe I’ll just stay home and watch it on TV.” Adrian Dantley is still tied into the Pistons’ performance this year. Because he was with them part of the season, he is entitled to some sort of playoff share. The money, when compared with Dantley’s salary, is more symbolic than significant. A better question might be how much he deserves to get. Tradition suggests a half-share. Simple math. You’re here for half the season, you get a half-share. But there are no rules. The players decide. They could vote money to the Dalai Lama if they wanted.
Which begs the question: Might the Pistons vote a full share for the man they called The Teacher? Might they honor the work ethic he brought to the team, the inspiration he provided for younger players such as John Salley and Dennis Rodman and Dumars? You could make the argument that the Pistons would not be where they are today if not for Dantley. Then again, it’s hard to argue with the success they’ve had since they traded him for Aguirre on Feb. 15.
The money would not be large. Should the Pistons win it all, they would each be entitled to around $57,000. A full share for Dantley would cost them between $4,000-5,000 per man. Bill Laimbeer and Mahorn have paid far more than that in NBA fines this year for fighting. Privately, several Pistons have said they would vote Dantley a full share, he meant that much to the team.
“It won’t happen,” Dantley says, ever the realist. “I’ll get whatever I’m supposed to get. Half-share. That’s it.” Today the talk is Michael Jordan, the Bulls, the Pistons’ final obstacle before a possible rematch with the Lakers. Oddsmakers clearly favor Detroit. The Pistons are hot, they haven’t lost in a month. Mahorn and Laimbeer are getting richer off their Bad Boys poster, Salley and Chuck Daly are neck and neck in commercial endorsements, there is a new song out about Thomas.
And somewhere over in Washington, the feet go up, the remote clicks, and the TV set switches on. “It’s a business,” says Dantley, sighing.
“Does not being in Detroit for a championship ever frustrate you?” I ask.
“The only time I get frustrated,” he says, “is when people keep asking me if I’m frustrated not being with the Pistons.”
During the Milwaukee series at the Palace, I glanced around the frenzied, sellout crowd. There were signs for every current player on the Pistons roster. “RODMAN’S ROOST.” “DUMARS’ DOMAIN.” Even the bench warmers had their names on someone’s poster board.
And off in the corner I saw a smaller sign, alone, like a voice in thick woods. Here is what it read: “A.D. phone home.”
It was a sad little message, I thought, like finding a love letter from an old flame. Three months? Has it really been only three months since Adrian Dantley?
“Yo, make sure you tell people you called me,” he says before hanging up.
“I ain’t got no sour grapes.”
A.D., phone home? He is home.
That may be the hardest part.
Mitch Albom’s sports talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” airs tonight from 9 to 11 on WLLZ (98.7-FM). Guests include James Edwards and Dick Allen. CUTLINE Adrian Dantley still isn’t saying what he said to Isiah Thomas during this March encounter at the Palace, but he says: “I might come and see a game if they make the Finals.” Or “maybe I’ll just stay home and watch it on TV.”