Adrian Dantley is one of five members of the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame class of 2023 who will be honored at 6 p.m. this evening at the 62nd induction banquet at Martin’s West Baltimore. The others are gymnast Domique Dawes, football player Jermaine Lewis, tennis player Harold Solomon and thoroughbred horse Northern Dancer. Broadcaster Scott Garceau will receive the lifetime achievement award and Chris Weller the Coaches Legacy Award.
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley was underestimated at every step of his athletic journey.
Even though he was an All-American and the top-ranked recruit in the country while playing for the legendary Morgan Wooten at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, many doubted that his skill set would translate to the college level when he arrived at Notre Dame in 1973.
Considered too small at 6-foot-5 to play power forward, he proved his critics wrong.
Dantley earned consensus first-team All-America honors in his sophomore and junior seasons with the Fighting Irish. He punctuated his amateur career as the leading scorer on the gold medal-winning 1976 U.S. Olympic team in Montreal.
And yet the critics surfaced yet again when he left Notre Dame after his junior season to enter the NBA draft. He wasn’t fast or explosive, they said. He was too small.
None of that proved true.
He wasn’t the biggest, fastest or most athletic, but he had an intelligent approach to the game and to finding advantageous shooting angles. His game was equal parts finesse and strength, with a fundamentally sound skill set.
He finished his NBA career with 23,177 points, ninth on the career scoring list when he retired. His 54% field-goal percentage was one of the highest ever recorded by a noncenter, and he averaged 30-plus points per game for four straight seasons.
The Baltimore Banner caught up with Dantley in advance of his induction into the Maryland State Athletic Hall of Fame to talk about his life, love of basketball, connections to Baltimore and the journey that took a poor kid from Washington, D.C., to the pinnacle of the sport.
Let’s start with a young Adrian Dantley, your dreams and visions as a kid growing up in difficult circumstances.
Basketball was always at the epicenter of my world. I started playing when I was 5 years old. My mother couldn’t afford a basketball at that time, so I’d shoot around with a tennis ball. As a little kid, all I did and all I wanted to do was play ball.
Who were some of the neighborhood guys you looked up, that you wanted to emulate?
When I was in junior high school, the guy in my neighborhood was James Brown. Most people know him as a longtime football commentator on television with the show “NFL Today.“ But when I was a kid he was one of the top five players in the country and he was a hell of a shooting guard at Harvard. I lived right down the street from him. He played his high school ball at DeMatha, and that’s the reason I went to DeMatha. He was the role model. I wanted to be just like him.
I didn’t watch a lot of basketball on TV, but the other guy from D.C. that I heard about and wanted to emulate was the great Elgin Baylor.
What propelled you forward at that early age? What was that mindset that allowed you to accomplish what you eventually did?
My whole life is about perseverance. Everybody has always doubted me. I’ve been against all odds ever since I was in kindergarten. In terms of basketball, everyone said, “Dantley, he’s good in high school, but he won’t be able to do that at the next level. He’s got that big rear end and those big thighs.” They said the same thing when I was in college. I might not have been the biggest or fastest guy, but I was going to outthink you and I was going to outwork you.
By the time you arrived at DeMatha, your game was more advanced than most kids in high school. How did that come about?
I always played against kids that were older than me on the playgrounds. I didn’t play rec ball until I was about 12 years old. There were three guys I’d play one-on-one against, and I always beat them. Eventually they got tired of that and jumped me. I took an ass whipping. It wasn’t nothing I could do at that time. I didn’t have no brothers, and I didn’t have a father around. But that told me that I must be good if they had to resort to that because they couldn’t beat me.
But I always kept coming back. Ten, 11 years old, I’d go to any playground within walking distance, sometimes playing against grown men.
Funny thing is that, when I saw those guys when I was in high school and about 18 years old, those same three guys were still just hanging around the playground. They ran up on me all excited, “Hey, Adrian, how you doing, baby? You’re an All-American now. You remember us?”
I said, “I remember all three of ya’ll. Y’all used to kick my ass all the time.” They said, “Aw, no, that wasn’t us.”
You will forever have a connection to Baltimore. People around here still talk in glowing terms about that sold-out game in 1973 at the Civic Center when your DeMatha squad went up against the great Skip Wise and his Dunbar crew.
That game is considered to be a critical one in city basketball history because that’s when the level of ball being played in Baltimore was recognized to be on par with any other city in America. Prior to that, Baltimore was an afterthought to D.C., Philadelphia and New York.
Every time I step foot in Baltimore I think of Skip Wise. And when I’m in the city and people see me, they always bring up that game. That was the only game we lost that year. Prior to that game I’d never heard of Dunbar. When we got over there, it was standing room only and that was quite an experience.
They had three guys guarding me the entire game, one in the front, one behind me and another guy on the side of me. Skip Wise was the best high school player I ever played against. He was incredible, scored 44 points that game. He should have been a great pro but, due to his life circumstances, he didn’t get there. But he was a magical talent.
What was behind the decision to attend Notre Dame?
When I was being heavily recruited, I was initially going to North Carolina. Dean Smith and my high school coach, Morgan Wooten, were good friends. Maryland was in the mix, as was UCLA. North Carolina State was in there as well, and David Thompson kept telling me to come there, but I told him, “David, if I come here you’re gonna do all the scoring and I won’t get no shots!”
When I thought more about North Carolina, I didn’t want to be in the corner of a four-corner offense. Initially, I wasn’t really interested in Notre Dame, but they had a D.C. connection with guys like the great Austin Carr. They were on TV regularly, and the guy that played my position there was graduating. I’d have a chance to step in right away, start and get a lot of minutes.
How was the transition to college ball, and when did you find your groove at Notre Dame?
I had a great year as a freshman, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds playing alongside John Shumate, who was an All-American. But I caught my groove after my freshman year. I always went to summer school because I wanted to stay ahead academically. That summer is when I really took off. All I did was go to class and then spend hours in the gym by myself. That sophomore year I averaged 30 a game. And it just wasn’t scoring in the paint; it was on the perimeter as well.
Talk about the decision to leave Notre Dame early and enter the NBA draft.
I wanted to leave after my sophomore year, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. When I was a sophomore and junior, this girl used to always come up talking to me, walking me to class, asking me questions. From that I learned that, even if I didn’t know who she was, to be nice to people. At the end of my junior year, when I was about to graduate, she said, “Hey, by the way, my dad is the general manager of the Buffalo Braves and he’s going to draft you.” I had no idea.
Did you struggle early on as an NBA rookie?
My first two exhibition games, I scored two and four points. The third game, against the Bullets, I scored 25, and I just took off from there.
The skeptics said you wouldn’t succeed as a pro. What was the determining factor in proving them wrong?
Guys had more talent than me, but one thing that they didn’t have over me was work ethic. I was always in great shape, and my will would wear them down.
You were rookie of the year before being traded to Indiana. After 23 games there, they sent you to the Lakers, where you played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes, the year before Magic Johnson arrived. Prior to Magic’s rookie year, when the Lakers won the championship, you were traded to Utah.
Yeah, I had a weird career in that sense. My rookie year in Buffalo, we had me, Moses Malone and Bob McAdoo. When one of the owners went away on a trip, the other owner traded Moses Malone during training camp to the Houston Rockets. About 27 games into the season, they traded Bob McAdoo. Just imagine a frontcourt with me, Moses Malone and Bob McAdoo.
Most people remember you from your time with Utah and Detroit. In Utah you put up some prolific scoring numbers. One of my favorite quotes about you was from your head coach in Utah, Frank Layden, who said, “He’ll eat you alive. He will score in a raging storm at sea.”
And you helped Detroit reach the 1988 NBA Finals, where you lost to the Lakers. And, unfortunately, you were traded after that season and missed out on the Pistons back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90.
Yeah, in Utah, I averaged 30 points per game for four years in a row. I was there for eight years, and for the first time in my NBA career I felt as if I’d found a home. When I got to the Pistons, they were young. Things started to blossom, and we made it to the finals. They weren’t ready when I got there, but the guys matured and we were on the precipice.
You walked away from the game as one of the best scorers in the history of the NBA. Did you struggle when your career ended?
No, I didn’t struggle. I knew that I wasn’t going to play forever. I played pro ball for 14 years. It wasn’t a problem for me leaving the game. One thing I made sure of was that I wasn’t going to be like the other ballplayers who went broke shortly after retiring. I was always thinking 30, 40 years out. I used to read about Joe Louis and all of these icons that were destitute after earning so much money. I was determined that that was not going to be me. But I wasn’t sad when I left the game of basketball.
In addition to the Skip Wise connection, you have other things that keep you tethered to Baltimore. Your first coaching job was as an assistant at Towson University and, later, when you were an assistant with the Denver Nuggets, you coached a young Carmelo Anthony.
My freshman English teacher at DeMatha eventually became the head coach at Towson, and he kept bugging me to join his staff. He convinced me to give coaching a try because initially I didn’t want to do it. I’m glad I did it because I met some great people and have some really good friends to this day in the Baltimore area.
And those Baltimore folks have long memories, because when I’d meet people, the first thing they’d say to me was, “Hey, man, you lost to Dunbar.” Every time I go to Baltimore all I hear about is Skip Wise and Dunbar.
You’re still involved in the game as a referee in Maryland, and you also work as a school crossing guard in Montgomery County. Break that down.
Yeah, I ref high school games, rec ball, 70-and-over leagues. It helps me stay in shape and stay around this game that I love. I’m about to head over to my job as a crossing guard shortly. I enjoy seeing the elementary school kids, seeing the hardworking mothers taking their kids to school.
I was in the weight room one day working out, and the guys were teasing me that I’d never work another job. I told them that I needed something to keep me busy. I was complaining about paying $16,000 for health insurance. This guy said he had the perfect job for me and told me, “Be a crossing guard; they’ll pay your benefits.” I said I was going to apply, and they didn’t believe me. They said it was beneath me.
I went home, applied for the job, and here I am still going strong 10 years later.