GIMME A RING AFTER 12 YEARS, DANTLEY HUNGRY FOR CHAMPIONSHIP

The burning question of this NBA final, to me anyhow, is no longer who will win or when will they win but if they win — the Pistons, that is — how will Adrian Dantley celebrate?

“I’ll do something crazy,” he told me a few days ago. And since then, these pictures keep running through my brain. Something crazy? Adrian Dantley? Like what? Will he kiss a fan? Will he moon the TV camera? Will he pull off his sneakers and run barefoot through the Silverdome?

Who knows? I long ago learned there is more to this 32-year- old hardbody than meets the eye. Can I tell you the first time I met him? He had just been traded to Detroit. It was a Friday afternoon. I had tickets to a concert that night. “I think you should fly to Washington (where Dantley lives) and do an interview,” my boss suggested.

I hesitated. Not wanting to miss the concert, I said I’d call, but if Dantley resisted, we’d forget it. “OK,” said my boss. And I’m figuring great, no athlete wants somebody flying in on a Friday night for an in-depth interview. Especially when he calls on Friday afternoon. Especially when it’s Adrian Dantley. The guy from Utah? The lone-wolf? The troublemaker? I’m safe. He probably doesn’t even answer his phone.

“Hello, is Adrian there?”

“This is him.”

“Um, Adrian, I’m with the Free Press in Detroit. I know this is short notice. I, uh, was wondering if we could do an interview if I flew in there tonight. If you can’t, it’s no big–

“What time’s your flight? I’ll pick you up.”

A lot of us have been wrong about Dantley ever since.

He is, to these Detroit Pistons, what Han Solo was to the Star Wars crew; a grumpy mercenary with the heart of a hero. “I love the money,” he freely admits. And yet there are moments when it’s more than that: It wasn’t money in Game 6 against the Celtics, when, at the final victorious buzzer, he gave Isiah Thomas a bear hug. It wasn’t money Tuesday night, when he played sweat-soaked defense and scored 34 points against LA. It wasn’t money when he dived for that loose ball last year in Boston Garden and wound up in a hospital bed.

And it isn’t money now. I think old No. 45 really wants this championship
— which Detroit will further pursue today in Game 3 against the Lakers. Wants it? Is that strong enough? “More than anybody knows,” says his buddy, Joe Dumars. After 12 years of banging bodies and twisting to the basket and spinning the ball methodically as he stands at the foul line, this final chase to glory has become a hornet in Dantley’s stomach. A ring. Gimme a ring. I think he’s even surprised at how much it suddenly means.

“In Utah, there were times when I never thought I’d see a chance,” he admits, sitting by the pool in an LA hotel. “They had talent there, but they were too laid back. They never said, ‘We gotta win 55 games! We gotta win the conference! We gotta get to the finals!’ They say that in Detroit. Nice and clear. That’s what I like.”

Clear? Dantley would settle for Morse code. This is not a man who needs a microphone. He does not need a stage. I honestly believe his voice is so deep because he has to dig so far down to find it. He treats celebration like Ernest and Julio Gallo: He will serve no spotlight before its time.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t dream about it.

Dennis Rodman talks with a waving fist. Isiah Thomas talks with his smile. Adrian Dantley talks with his face. That look, that glare, that frozen lip lock. Those who know him can read the expressions as if cartoon bubbles hung over his head.

There is the scowl (“Yo, man, get away from me”), the sneer (Yo, man, you got to be kidding”), the drop of the jaw (“Yo, man, you must be crazy”) and the famous pursed-lips-with-a-tilt- of-the-head (“Yo man, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not gonna let you know what I’m thinking”).

Silence is not Adrian Dantley’s problem. It is his weapon. It is his edge on the world, his security blanket. “It takes strength to keep your mouth shut,” he says, lowering his voice, as if sharing a secret. “See, anybody can run off at the mouth, but then they always have to come back and say,
‘Gol-leee, man, I shouldn’t have said that. It sounded bad.’ “

Dantley would rather not say now, and not say later. But the face. That speaks volumes. “I look in the mirror,” he admits, “and I wonder, ‘Do I really have a puzzled look? Do I really have a look like I never get excited?’ “

“And?” I ask.

“What can I do? That’s my expression. When I was a kid, my mother used to try and cheer me up because I looked puzzled all the time. But I was a happy baby. My boy is like that. People say, ‘Look, he’s got the same face as A.D. when he wants to be left alone.’ But he’s a happy baby, too.

“It’s just my expression. I know some people don’t like it. My wife doesn’t

like it. She says, ‘It’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you look when you’re saying it.’ “

“What do you say to that?” I ask.

He shrugs.

“I say, ‘Sounds like a personal problem to me.’ “

In other words, your problem. You fix it.

Why not? He always had to. Dantley grew up lower middle class in Washington, D.C., his parents divorced when he was 3. He was raised by his mother, aunt and grandmother — which quickly taught him to be the man of the house. He does not mourn not having a father (“How could it hurt me? I never experienced the good part”) and yet he was, he admits, on his own much of the time.

“I used to see parents come to watch us play in the recreational leagues. They’d pick up their kids in the car and drive down to McDonald’s. I might have missed that when I was 11 or 12 years old.”

He pauses, then leans back.

“But, hey. . . . I don’t worry. Can’t do nothing about it. After those games, A.D. just walked on home by himself.”

Walking by himself. Carrying a basketball. It’s not clear whether privacy took to Dantley or Dantley took to privacy, but somewhere along the line, they began to wear each other’s clothes. Even as a kid, he says, there was a room in the house where he went when he didn’t want to be bothered. Today, that room is in his own house, a room covered with photos of basketball players. When he enters, he is off-limits, to wife, to kids, to interruption. “I just sit there and think,” he says, “about life, about my accomplishments, am I satisfied with what I’ve done? I love my family. But I don’t have any problem being alone.”

Did you know this about Dantley? He is scared of snakes and alligators; he is scared of fast drivers; he gets nervous flying, and closes his eyes when a storm rocks the plane.

His biggest fear? Being poor. “Once you’ve been there, you don’t want to go back,” he says. “We were OK when I got older. But I remember eating syrup sandwiches as a kid.”

Which may explain his favorite form of celebration today: pigging out. A week ago, after the Pistons captured the Eastern Conference by finally crushing the dreaded Celtics, Dantley — a man now committed to healthy foods, healthy body — sat in front of the TV and devoured a large pizza, two bags of Doritos and a half-dozen Mrs. Fields cookies. By himself. Had a hell of a time, he says.

Which only suggests that, for all the scowls, Dantley may not be the brooding drag many people imagine. It is true, he glared at a PA man who introduced him as “ADRIAN ‘THE TEEAA- CHER’ DANTLEY!” (“I don’t go for that bleep,” he says.) It is true, he scares off many reporters without saying a word. It is true, between Dantley and Dumars, you have enough noise to fill a morgue.

But it also true that Dantley periodically lines his teammates up in front of the mirror and says, “All right, take your shirts off. Let’s compare muscles.” It is also true, according to Dumars, that Dantley has been seen . .
. dancing.

Dancing?

“Hey, you’re not gonna get to see that side of me,” he confesses, “until you get into my ‘family.’ But if you’re in the family, you’re gonna see me do things that maybe John Salley might do on a regular basis. Like talk trash.”

“When do you talk trash?” I ask.

“When it won’t come back to haunt me.”

Smart answer. And in the long run, I think it has brought him closer to his teammates. Yes, when he first arrived, there was a standoffish approach. But let’s be honest. There’s a lot of bull in the NBA. A lot of false boasting. Dantley may be quiet, but he’s honest, he thinks you stunk, he’ll say, “Man, you stunk.”

In time, you appreciate that. I hear the Pistons talk about Dantley now the way you talk about a drill sergeant whom you’ve finally come to accept, and maybe begrudgingly like. “He’s a pro,” they will tell you. That’s high praise. From a pro.

So as A.D. approaches his rainbow’s end, there is no madness to method. Only method. I always got a kick out of his playing for the Jazz, because he is about as jazzy as bridge. “The Teacher” (a team nickname, not for public consumption) does not like to be caught off guard. He is a planner, an architect, socks mended, shirts folded. On the court it seems as if he is free-lancing, winging it, smelling an opening and creating an improvised drive.

In truth, that is the result of hours of study. Learning an opponent’s weaknesses, how to lull him to sleep, when to make that poison move. And Dantley may be at the peak of his game. He doesn’t score as often as he did in Utah. But he’s not supposed to. His drives to the basket are still ripping
(although the referees now make him prove every foul, with blood, if you please). And he has refined his outside shot. And his passing. And his defense.

His defense?

Well. As we said at the start, people have been wrong about Dantley before. Personally, I have enjoyed watching his emotion seep to the surface lately. Salley has been filming the Pistons’ adventures during these championships, and it is worth noting that Dantley, in all of his scenes, never once looks into the camera. He knows it’s there. He is ignoring it. But every now and then, you see a sideways glance, and the corners of a smile.

There are a lot of good reasons to root for Detroit in the NBA final. Isiah Thomas most certainly deserves the glory, and so does Bill Laimbeer, and Chuck Daly, for goodness’ sake, give the man a break.

And yet I find myself pulling most of all for Dantley. I’m not sure why. I think because he surrendered a piece of his armor here and found a piece of himself. He’s part of something in Detroit, instead of being the kid who walks home carrying the basketball.

Besides, there’s the celebration thing. I mean, this really has me curious. What happens if they win? Will he do the moonwalk? Will he get on the PA system and sing opera? Will he grab the mike from Brent Musburger and yell,
“HEY MOM! LOOK AT ME!”

You know what? I bet he doesn’t know what to do. I bet he shakes and raises his fists and then just kind of stands there with that drop-jaw look on his face. Which is OK. More than OK. For a man who loves the money, hides the laughter and can hardly wait until the next bag of Doritos, a wave and a gape are fine. Just fine.

MEET A.D.
* POSITION: Forward
* HT.: 6-5 WT.: 210
* COLLEGE: Notre Dame
* BORN: Feb. 28, 1956, Washington, D.C.
* DRAFTED: 1976 — first round, sixth overall, by Buffalo (hardship case).
* ACQUIRED BY PISTONS: From Utah along with two second-round draft choices
(1987, 1990) in exchange for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson, Aug. 21, 1986.
* CAREER MARKS: Played 12 seasons; six-time All-Star.
* NICKNAME: A.D.
* FAMILY: Wife Dinitri, son Cameron. CUTLINE: Adrian Dantley, who has played 12 years in the NBA, including a stint in Utah, says he will do something crazy if the Pistons win the NBA championship:
“In Utah, there were times when I never thought I’d see a chance.”

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