Farewell to the Teacher. Farewell to that body, hard and strong, and that face, which always seemed halfway between amusement and anger. Adrian Dantley came in with a bad reputation, and, ironically, he leaves in exchange for one. Known as selfish, moody and a ball-hog when he arrived in Detroit, he proved critics wrong, leading the Pistons to their best season ever, playing a role, muscling against giants, spinning and whirling and desiring his way to the hoop. He even sent himself to the hospital once diving for a basketball. Diving? Adrian Dantley? And now, suddenly, he has been traded to Dallas for a guy named Mark Aguirre, who has a reputation for being . . . selfish, moody and a ball-hog.
There will be those who say this is a smart trade in the long run but foolish in the short. There will be those who say it will never work. There will be those who say the Pistons just secured themselves an NBA championship.
And nobody — to borrow some baseball vernacular — knows nuthin’. What really went on behind the scenes during Dantley’s 2 1/2 years here was rarely printed. It was mumbled. It was whispered. Like an uneasy marriage, Dantley Does Detroit was encouraging in the good times and stormy in the bad, so no one would give it the kiss of death until the very end. By Tuesday night, the end had come: Dantley knew he was gone. He told several teammates, “they’re just waiting until the last minute.”
And he was right. Why would the Pistons make this trade? Why would they cut loose last year’s playoff star, their mentor to developing players, a guy who had proven his talents against everyone in the league? Why? Here’s why. Because Dantley’s years were advancing and his skills were not. Because his attitude was quiet at best, aloof at worst. Because Aguirre, nearly four years younger, was available. And because the Pistons seem convinced that other people’s problems — i.e., William Bedford, Darryl Dawkins, even Dantley himself — can be rehabilitated in the waters of Camp Isiah.
And yes, let us not forget Isiah Thomas in this picture. If this trade proves anything, it is that the Pistons are Isiah’s team — a sentence Dantley himself used to utter with regularity. That does not mean Thomas orchestrated this trade (despite what Dantley thinks). It does mean that Isiah stays and everybody else learns to work around him. Dantley was never much of a dance partner; Aguirre, abhorred by many of his Dallas teammates, was quoted after first learning of the deal as saying “Great. It’ll be great to join Isiah.”
Interesting choice of words.
There are 10 other guys here, remember? Analysis later But let us leave the analysis of the new guy for days to come. There will be time for that. Aguirre is certainly capable of brilliant basketball — when he wants to play. James Donaldson, his Mavericks teammate, said, “I’ll look forward to having a new guy here who is willing to play hard every night.”
Hard? You never had to worry about hard with Dantley. Hard was the only game he knew to play. At his height (6-foot-5) and his position (small forward), what choice did he have? Guts. Confidence. He had them. And when push comes to shove, that is what other players look for.
“Bleep!” said John Salley, when informed of the news Wednesday morning.
“How could they trade The Teacher? He was my mentor. A lot of the guys felt that way. I like Mark. He’s OK. But AD did a lot for us.”
Never more than in last year’s playoffs. He seemed invaluable then, everyone was singing his praises — including coach Chuck Daly and general manager Jack McCloskey, the very men who traded him. How could that be? Well. Nothing binds a team like the whiff of a championship. It’s like Christmas morning. Who fights then? The fact is, the Pistons — like most NBA teams — are a bickering bunch, with several distinct and opposing personalities. In the tedium of the long regular season, that stuff will rise like bile.
So this year, the Pistons hit some rough spots, they fell behind Cleveland — and personalities clashed. Dantley’s game sagged. Coaches blamed his age; Dantley blamed the coaches. Trade rumors started, guys took sides, and you might as well pour hemlock in the water bucket when that happens.
Here is the way Dantley saw it: “It’s Isiah’s team. He calls the shots. That guy (Aguirre) is his friend and he wants to play with his friend. If Chuck has to make a call, who do you think he’s gonna side with?
“I didn’t have any problem with Isiah. But Chuck wasn’t playing me for a while. He sat me down one game for the whole second quarter, then I sit through halftime, and then he puts me in the third quarter and when I can’t get going, he starts yelling at me. I said, ‘How do you expect me to just heat up after I’ve been sitting so long?’ “
Because of such differences, Dantley (who relayed those comments in a recent conversation) said he went through a period with Daly where they barely spoke. He felt as if the coach was trying to get him to change his personality. “Shoot, I’ve been quiet my whole life,” Dantley said. “That’s just the way I am.”
Dantley’s trust in Daly was already thin, because he saw Isiah and Daly as a tandem; what the former wanted, the latter delivered. And because Dantley never completely believed Isiah was willing to share this team, well, you get the picture . . .
That, of course, is one man’s opinion.
Here is the way management saw it: Dantley had probably peaked. His best years were behind him. His moves were being anticipated by opposing teams and referees alike. He was getting double-teamed every night, and besides, Dennis Rodman had matured into such a force, that sitting him on the bench had become a mortal sin.
And then there were the personality conflicts. Daly will say of Dantley,
“We got along fine,” but they didn’t. Daly found AD selfish and greedy and infatuated with money. And Dantley was almost laughable in his private criticism of Bill Laimbeer, a player he does not respect at all. So when Aguirre’s name came up, and his personality was questioned, no doubt management said: “Hey, how much worse can it be that what we’ve got now? The guy’s younger. His talent is there. He already likes Isiah. Why not?”
The trade was made.
Farewell to the Teacher. A risk A shame. Not the trade itself, which could work out fine, who knows? But that the whole thing has to be shrouded in bad feelings. Dantley, visibly upset, his last chance at that precious championship ring probably gone, told reporters Wednesday morning in LA: “This has nothing to do with basketball.”
“Does it have to do with personalities?” he was asked.
“No comment,” he said.
Was it a smart trade? Maybe not. Was it risky? Of course. Was it inevitable? More than likely. And now comes the tough part. Making Aguirre fit. You’re asking a lot of a coach to blend a new soloist into a jazz quintet
— right in the middle of the show. The Pistons have taken a great risk with that fragile package called chemistry.
We will see. For now, a memory pause, because the average fan does not know — nor care — about locker room feuds. For 2 1/2 seasons, Detroit saw a marvelous effort from a marvelous talent, a small guy playing in the redwood trees. There was a time when Adrian Dantley rolled his shoulders and mumbled,
“I want that ring.” Then went out and gave us the playoffs of his life. There was a time when he took an elbow in the jaw (from Mark Aguirre, of all people) and had to have his mouth stitched back together. There was a time when they stopped the game to give him the basketball for scoring his 20,000th point in the league. And there was a time when he celebrated a valiant effort in the NBA Finals with his best friend, Joe Dumars; they treated their health-crazed bodies to deep-dish apple cobbler. “With ice cream” he liked to tell you.
He spun, he twisted, he taught and now he’s gone. Very few people really knew Adrian Dantley. Very few will. Basketball, he always said, was played
“for the money, anyway. Always has been. Always will be. They can send you anywhere they want.”
Farewell to the Teacher.
They just did.
DANTLEY AND AGUIRRE: MEASURING UP
MARK AGUIRRE ADRIAN DANTLEY Position: Forward Forward Ht./wt: 6-6/235 lbs. 6-5/210 lbs. Age: 29 32
College: DePaul ’82 Notre Dame ’77 Drafted: First overall, ’81 Sixth overall, ’76 Salary: $738,367 $1.25 million Contract: Expires in 1997 Expires in 1991 NBA Eighth season, 13th season with Buffalo, experience: all with Dallas Indiana, L.A. Lakers,
Season Career Games: 44 566 Points: 953 (21.7) 13,930 (24.6) Rebounds: 235 (5.3) 3,244 (5.7) Assists: 189 (4.3) 2,163 (3.8)
Season Career Games: 42 869 Points: 772 (18.4) 21,830 (25.1) Rebounds: 164 (3.9) 5,117 (5.9) Assists: 93 (2.2) 2,663 (3.1) CUTLINE Mark Aguirre, right, guards Adrian Dantley in a December 1987 game at the Silverdome. Detroit acquired Aguirre from Dallas on Wednesday.