There were hundreds of thousands of basketball players in the American high school graduating class of 1973. Adrian Dantley was the best. Of the several dozen players talented enough to continue competing at the highest collegiate level this season, Adrian Dantley is still the best. Why became obvious in the final moments of the NCAA Midwest regionals last year.
Notre Dame was in a game no player relishes: a consolation affair in Las Cruces, N.M., against Cincinnati because both teams had lost two nights before. In addition to disappointment, Dantley was hurting from the accumulated elbows and shoves that were part of the price for averaging 30 points per game and making All-America as a sophomore.
As the final seconds ticked away—and with Cincinnati ahead by so many points even the Gipper and the ghost of Rockne could not reverse the outcome—a large Wildcat drove for what seemed a routine lay-up.
But Adrian Dantley would not allow it. He very easily could have remained away from the action and let the inevitable pass more quickly. He did not. Instinctively, he moved his 225-pound frame into the Wildcat’s path, let him crack his knees full-force into his chest and drive him hard onto the floor. For two free throws.
Taking a charge is what the maneuver is called—and most coaches have enough trouble getting the rawest reserve to do it let alone a player of Dantley’s potential, whose career could easily be ended by falling the wrong way on his knees.
It is difficult to imagine one player influencing a team as much as Dantley did the Irish last season, or performing as well during as taxing a schedule as one can imagine.
In addition to his scoring and rebounding, Dantley brought the ball upcourt in man of the critical moments, including that delicious upset of UCLA. And so many of his points came on filling the lane on a fast break and taking the charges and inside punishment that resulted in scads of free throws.
Dantley is back at Notre Dame again, for more glory and also more charges, when he just as easily could have grabbed at least $1 million a few months ago and turned pro. He said no.
“I want to do more things in life than basketball,” he said. “So many players don’t make it in pro ball and can’t accept it. When I sent it (the letter taking his name off the NBA’s hardship list) I cried. I cried. I just felt so proud of myself that tears ran out of my eyes.”
Among the items more important than being a 20-year-old millionaire are the Olympics, a chance to break Austin Carr’s scoring records at Notre Dame and become college basketball’s player of the year. His accomplishments a year ago clearly make these goals realistic.
“People keep saying, ‘What do you have to prove? If you don’t average 30 again, your value will go down.’ But the pro people know what I can do. I think the money will still be there” (Most pro scouts said Dantley would have been chosen very high in the first round last year.)
“I know I could bust a knee and kill it all, but that’s a chance I’ll have to take. If I don’t jive around the court, I don’t think I’ll get hurt. Most players get hurt when they’re not giving 100 per cent.”
Academically and athletically, nearly all of what Dantley achieves comes as much from work as natural talent. He is 18 credits ahead of his class because he went to summer school the last two years. He passed up exhibitions against the Russians the first summer and the Pan-American games the second.
Dantley said he applied to the NBA draft for “personal reasons” he chooses to keep within his family, and that he rarely had a moment when someone was not offering advice or starting a rumor.
“Recruiting doesn’t compare to that,” he said, referring to more than 20 lawyers anxious to represent him for a price—some of whom began pestering him at 5 a.m. the day after he applied for the draft.
Through both decisions—which college to attend and whether to turn pro—Dantley’s mother, Virginia, chose to make her feelings known without being dominant. She obviously was pleased with Adrian’s choices both times.
“I don’t interfere,” she once said during recruiting, “because he seems to be making the right choices.” She desperately wants Adrian to get his degree from Notre Dame.
For Dantley, the grip of sports has been mysteriously tight, beginning with his tossing sponge balls through the transom at his home at age five. He had a brief affair with football before developing a passion for basketball.
That devotion was so deep that one day he said of his pending collegiate social life: “I need social life, but I want to be happy. If I’m averaging 15 points a game as a freshman, I’ll be satisfied. Social life don’t mean that much because I love basketball.”
He chose Notre Dame in part because of satisfied Washington-area players such as Carr, Bob Whitmore, Sid Catlett and Collis Jones, and also because “Notre Dame is the only place where the people didn’t knock the other schools and the coach didn’t bug me.”
It was the same immediately after he startled some by dangling his name on the hardship list, Dantley said.
“Coach Phelps didn’t harass me,” he said, “and neither did Father Joyce. They said to do what was best for me. But the people who really know Adrian Dantley must have know I wasn’t going to leave school.”
Gradually, Dantley is coming to terms with being a public person, to having post office workers know immediately the significance of the letter he gave them one day last May simply by the name on the return-address portion.
His experiences off the court at Notre Dame, as an economics major planning to concentrate on communications in the near future, have been quite helpful considering his voluntary reading habits in the past have not gone much beyond the sports page.
“I even read the Wall Street Journal,” he said. “I never thought I’d read the Wall Street Journal.”
And now and then he dreams. Especially on those nights when he sits high in the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., and watches his favorite team, the Washington Bullets, play
“I can play there,” he says to himself. “I can play with the big boys.” The big boys know that, too.