WASHINGTON — Adrian Dantley took a hard right, steering his Mercedes through the streets of his old neighborhood. It is a hurting section of the District of Columbia, where wooden chairs sit on porches, and the corner store is spray-painted and looks closed. Dantley studied the place, as if for the first time.
“Used to get in a lot of fights right here,” he said, pointing to the corner of Sherman and Columbia.
“That schoolyard? Used to hang around there a lot . . . “
“This here street, see that alley? Kids would jump you there. They’d say
‘Gimme 50 cents.’ I’d say, ‘Uh-uh.’ They’d say, ‘You better give up that 50 cents.’ I said, ‘I ain’t gonna.’ They’d push me. We’d fight. But I wasn’t gonna give it to them.”
He turned the wheel with one hand. “Sometimes I see those guys now,” he said, “and I say, ‘Remember when you used to shake me for money?’ And they go,
‘Aw, noo, man. It wasn’t me.’ And I say, ‘Yes it was.’ . . . I never forget. Uh-uh. I never forget.”
He chuckled and drove on. Things have been turned upside down for Dantley
— he is suddenly a Detroit Piston, after seven years in Utah — and a ride through the old streets seems to remind him how to begin again, like putting all your checkers back on their squares.
“Where do the Pistons hold their training camp?” he suddenly asked.
“In Windsor, Canada,” came the answer.
“Is that, like, close enough to where the houses are so you can go home after practice?”
“Yeah, should be.”
“So I could practice and get home and unpack things and still get back for next day’s practice?”
“Good. All right. That’s good.”
Begin again. Yes, Detroit, guess who’s coming for winter? Adrian Dantley. But which Adrian Dantley? The 6-foot-5 point machine, two-time NBA scoring champion, who can post-up almost anyone and still pop it in? Or the brooding, self-possessed small forward who was suspended by his coach last season for “disciplinary reasons,” that, truth be told, had more to do with silence than with words.
“I can’t handle his mood swings,” Utah coach Frank Layden said recently,
“Or his agents.”
It was no secret that Layden — who doubles as Utah’s general manager — wanted to trade Dantley, but found it tough to move his $950,000-a-year salary. The Pistons had a similar problem with forward Kelly Tripucka, who made $971,000. Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey had liked Dantley since 1978, when both were with the Los Angeles Lakers, McCloskey as an assistant coach. Layden was determined to make a move. . . .
It was a trade that excited neither player. Since getting the news, Tripucka has played hermit on the Jersey shore. “He wants to be alone” his wife said over the telephone, “He was very upset with the way it was handled; the Pistons didn’t even speak to him, they left a message with his brother.”
Meanwhile, Dantley, though admittedly at odds with Layden, had grown comfortable in Utah. He turned 30 last February. His wife had established a law practice in Salt Lake City. They are awaiting the birth of their first child.
He was in a nearby weight room Thursday night when an acquaintance spotted him.
“Did you hear about the trade?” the guy asked.
“Who got traded this time?” Dantley said.
“You got traded,” the guy said. “To Detroit. You and a couple second-round draft choices for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson.”
“Naw. You’re kidding me.”
Begin again. See this house?” Dantley said, pointing to a tidy two-story in a much nicer section of town. “I bought it for my grandmother. She was the first person I bought a house for, because she really brought me up.”
Another few blocks. Another house. “See this one?” he said, pointing to a sprawling, white brick home, “I bought that for my mother. She lives there.”
Another few blocks. Another house. “For my aunt,” he said.
He drove on. Then he turned to his visitor. “I’m not bragging about this stuff,” he said. “I’m showing you because you probably heard bad things about me.”
Adrian Dantley is a curious man in a curious position. He is grim and reserved when playing, yet sees himself as a leader and is not afraid to make unsolicited suggestions to teammates. He is near the top of the NBA scoring list season after season — his career average is 26.5 points a game — but he is joining his fifth team in 11 seasons.
Every season he gets older, he seems to get younger. Coming out of Notre Dame he was a pudgy, round-faced rookie. Now he is lean and well-muscled and
— save for periodic back spasms — in excellent condition. On this particular afternoon he will go to a gym with “my sparring partners” and engage in a series of full-court one-on-one games. He gets a fresh opponent every five points. With no rest in between.
So he works out hard, and takes his playing seriously, yet this stigma follows him — “my rap,” he calls it — of being withdrawn, aloof, surly, the kind of guy who is compelled to remind people he is not appreciated. His contract holdout in 1984 — he missed training camp and the first six games of the season — was a major scandal in the Utah sporting scene. And although he did get a new contract out of it — “the owner went over Frank’s head,” Dantley says — the incident stuck to him like his shadow.
“The bottom line is I would still be in Utah right now if I hadn’t held out,” he said. “Frank never forgave me for that. He had to show who was boss. People hold out everywhere else. But not there.
“I wasn’t unhappy there. I liked it in Utah fine. I didn’t want to leave. I got along with the other players. I could deal with management . . . “
He paused, and shook his head at what was becoming more and more clear. That was not the problem, him dealing with management.
They couldn’t deal with him. Somewhere along the line you get the sense that Adrian Dantley was left alone, left to do for himself, and he learned how to do it just fine, thank you. Except the price he pays now is that when people want to get close to him, want to share his thoughts, his down moments, they cannot. “I basically don’t trust anybody,” Dantley admitted.
Nor can he fake it. Layden, who, according to Dantley, likes to run his team with a chummy, familial atmosphere, couldn’t understand why his star player, for example, would walk into the hotel restaurant and take a table separate from the coach, even after being invited to sit down.
“I don’t know what would happen if I ever hugged A.D.,” Layden once said.
“What would happen?” Dantley answered, while driving his car. “I’d say,
‘Get away from me.’ I mean, I wouldn’t make a big fuss, but it would be phony, that hug. Insincere. I don’t like that. I can tell just by looking at a person when he’s insincere.”
Dantley grew up an only child, and his parents were divorced when he was three years old. He rarely saw his father. The fights he got into on the corner of Sherman and Columbia were kept to himself.
“Who would you go to when you had a problem as a kid?” he was asked.
“I wouldn’t go to anyone,” he said.
“What about now?” he was asked. “Is there anyone you completely trust with your deepest secrets, your well-being? Anybody like that?”
He thought about it for a second.
“No,” he said softly.
He stared out the windshield, his arm resting atop the steering wheel. It was quiet for a few seconds.
“Do you think there’s something wrong with that?” he suddenly asked.
The visitor shrugged.
“I don’t know why I’m that way. It’s the only way I ever remember being . .
“You know, I see my father now sometimes. It’s kinda like, he came around when I became popular. And now, it’s like, ‘Why don’t you come around the neighborhood?’ I say, ‘Why don’t I come around the neighborhood?’ You didn’t want me around there when I was younger.”
There was no sadness in his voice, no edge of regret. There was only what is. There is no one. Dantley will be hustled to Detroit for a press conference this week. He will likely be contacted by some of his new teammates — most notably Isiah Thomas, the Pistons’ star guard. Dantley had the biggest spotlight in Utah.
“Doesn’t bother me at all,” he said when asked about co- existence with Thomas. “I’m not like that. I never care if some other player gets more attention.”
He is still not certain why Detroit made the trade for him, especially after hearing some of the criticisms of Tripucka — too small, no defense — criticisms he has heard of himself.
“Did Tripucka have problems there?” he asked.
“Some,” came the answer.
“But what? They weren’t happy with his attitude — was that it? See, I won’t have any attitude problems. I’ll come to work. It’s like I tell my friends, I gotta be ready to play in Detroit. They say, ‘What do you mean? Look at all you’ve done in the league.’ I say, ‘That’s not my way. I’ve got to prove myself.’ “
He steered the car toward home. What is, is. He is a Detroit Piston now. He will figure out where the arenas are and where he should look for a place to live. That’s what a disciplined person does, and Dantley cherishes discipline as much as he does privacy. So much so that he limits himself to a regular
“allowance” of his own money. He adheres to strict conditioning programs. He diets regularly. “I’m on 1,500 calories a day right now,” he said. Even his key chain reads, “Think Thin.”
“I’m not a problem person,” he said, looking out on his hometown. “I’m quiet and a lot of times, people don’t understand quiet. They think it means you’re aloof. But it’s not that. we won’t have any problems in Detroit. We won’t. It’ll be good.”
Yes, he tells himself. Things will be put in order, and Adrian Dantley will get on with what he does best, playing basketball — under new colors, in a new part of the country — trusting his instincts, his perception, and himself. Only himself. As he did in his old neighborhood. As he has done ever since.
A.D.: From D.C. to Detroit
* PERSONAL: Adrian Delano Dantley. . . . Born Feb. 28, 1956, in Washington, D.C. . . . 6-5, 210.
* COLLEGE: Averaged 25.8 points in three seasons at Notre Dame. . . . Led U.S. to gold medal in 1976 Olympics. . . . Returned to Notre Dame to get B.A. in economics.
* PRO: Selected by Buffalo in first round (sixth overall) in 1976 . . . rookie of the year (1977) . . . won scoring title (1981, 1984) . . . comeback player of the year (1984).
* TRANSACTIONS: Traded by Buffalo with Mike Bantom to Indiana for Billy Knight, Sept. 1, 1977. . . . Traded by Indiana with Dave Robisch to LA Lakers for James Edwards, Earl Tatum and cash, Dec. 13, 1977. . . . Traded by LA Lakers to Utah for Spencer Haywood, Sept. 13, 1979. . . . Traded by Utah with two second-round draft picks to Detroit for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson, Aug. 21, 1986.