The only thing I ever really wanted and couldn't get was a name that would stimulate crowds. Like 'Wilt' or 'Elgin' or 'Pistol.' Not that I mind 'Adrian.' It's been a long time since anyone thought I was a girl. One thing about it, though—people see a basketball player with a name like Adrian Dantley, they know there must be something special about him."
Thus Adrian Dantley, 21-year-old, 6'5" forward of the Buffalo Braves, the best bet for NBA Rookie of the Year, having knocked aside the other candidates like so many bowling pins, much the way he does people who try to stop him from getting the ball into the basket. It has not been a season of superstar rookies but of unusually capable ones, and while such players as Scott May, John Lucas, Ron Lee, Lonnie Shelton, Mitch Kupchak, Quinn Buckner and Robert Parish will someday be NBA All-Stars, Dantley has already arrived: he averages 36 minutes a game and 19.4 points, hits 51% from the field, 82% from the line, rebounds with the best and is strong enough to squeeze the air right out of a basketball.
On top of that he retains the kind of confidence and drive that have pushed him past his physical bounds and confounded critics ever since he first waddled onto the floor at De Matha High School in suburban Washington, D.C. as a 6'2", 220-pound freshman dubbed "Baby Fats." Then, as a pudgy 231-pound freshman at Notre Dame, he opened the game that snapped UCLA's record 88-game winning streak with a hell-bent drive to the basket that bloodied Bill Walton's nose. He went hardship after his junior year and two All-America seasons at Notre Dame and was chosen sixth in last June's NBA draft. "I know I would have been the first player picked if I was 6'7"," he says. "They were looking at the inches rather than the player."
Dantley prefaced his NBA debut with a sensational performance in the Montreal Olympics, averaging nearly 20 points and leading the U.S. to the gold medal, scoring 30 points in the championship game against the Yugoslavians. "I never worked harder for anything in my life than the Olympics," he says. "Like always, people were saying that I wasn't a player. That I was too fat, too slow, too short. That I got easy points at Notre Dame. So I went on a diet, conditioned my body. One day I was walking in the Olympic Village and I passed a couple of players from other countries. One said, 'That's Dantley. He strong. He strong.' Man, I threw out my chest and I thought, 'Yeah, I am strong.' "
Arriving in Buffalo, he was met by still more doubters. Fans there were incensed that the popular Jim McMillian had been sold to make room for Dantley. "They were saying, 'Let's see you replace McMillian, rookie,' " says Dantley. "But as soon as I got 15 points and 19 rebounds in my first game I stopped hearing about McMillian."
He has not stopped scoring points or scattering bodies since. His basic move, the backward bulldozer—he gets the ball on the right wing and backs his way in to the basket—works nearly as effectively against pros as it did against collegians. But he is trimmer and quicker now, and scores a lot facing the basket or streaking like a runaway truck on the break.
"His best skill is in his reaction to defensive pressure," says Braves Coach Joe Mullaney. Dantley decides what he wants to do and maneuvers his way through small openings with his quick steps. He makes his move—a fake spin or pump—and explodes upward for the shot like a Polaris missile. His arms extend from his 43-inch chest like steel rods protecting the ball, and his legs are spread so wide that when he comes down he cannot be moved, even by the likes of George McGinnis and Wes Unseld. Dantley plays the game more horizontally than vertically, staking out territory he intends to take and defend. When a shot by a teammate goes up, he has a knack for being in the exact spot the rebound will come down. Says Lakers Coach Jerry West, "I don't understand why he wasn't the No. 1 pick in the draft."
Dantley has had to work hard to get the respect he thinks he deserves. "First time against Detroit, I came out for the tap and Bob Lanier just starts staring at me, looking me up and down. I didn't know where to look, he's so big. Then he says, 'Well, well, Adrian Dantley, my maaaaiiin man. Don't be planning on coming into my territory tonight.' I only went for 10. But the next time we played them I got 23. I have trouble with Rick Barry. He's so smart. Last time I played against him I got 24. But it was hard. E.C. Coleman of the Jazz is the toughest defensive forward there is. I put a move on him and he said, 'No, no, Adrian. That move's not going to work,' and he blocked my shot. I said, 'O.K., next time I'll make it work.' So the next time down I gave him a pump and he fouled me. I said, 'See, I told you it would work.' "
Then there are the officials, who want to let the rookie know who's in charge, especially a rookie like Dantley who depends on free throws for well over a third of his scoring. He has been to the line more than any other regular small forward. But if a superstar like Barry or Julius Erving took the pounding Dantley takes, the officials would blow the peas out of their whistles. Says Dantley: "One time against Philly I asked George McGinnis, 'Hey, George, did you just foul me?' He said, 'Yeah, you know I fouled you, but no rookie ain't going to get no calls.' "
As Buffalo has deteriorated as a team, life on the court has been getting tougher and tougher for Dantley. The Braves got rid of Moses Malone, whom they owned for a week in October, and sent Bob McAdoo to the Knicks in December, so Dantley has found entire defenses collapsing on him, with little help coming from the other big men: John Shumate, George Johnson, Don Adams, John Gianelli and Gus Gerard. The only other scorer is Guard Randy Smith (19.7), who is mostly interested in getting out of Buffalo. Guard Ernie DiGregorio, running the club again after two years in limbo, has had to change his game for four different coaches in two seasons, and it shows.
As a result of much of this, Dantley is shouldering more of a load than a rookie should. "In college I was always playing against box-and-ones, and I hated them," he says. "Now I'm getting double-teamed all the time. I'll beat my man and go smoking to the hoop, there'll be another man waiting and I'll get called for a charge." Coming off a string of 10 straight over-20-point games, last week Dantley found himself in a stifling sandwich defense set up by the New York Nets that held him to eight points.
"Can you imagine Kevin Loughery setting up his whole defense to stop a rookie?" Dantley asked, incredulous but flattered. Everyone else in the Braves' " locker room made excuses for Dantley's poor game, including the trainer, who suggested that maybe it was because Dantley split his pants before warming up. "Hey, I can have a bad game," Dantley said. "Don't everybody go asking 'What's wrong with Adrian?' I only just turned 21 yesterday."
"He is the real, true small forward," says Loughery of Dantley. "He can hang in the air, fake, hesitate, change his shot and score. I've never seen anyone his size that strong. He's going to be a big star in this league. His only weak points are that he doesn't pass very well, doesn't pull up to shoot the jumper enough and he hasn't learned how to play defense on the bigger men."
Dantley himself admits to another failing: "I have the worst eating habits in the NBA." Living alone in the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville, he hates to cook and usually eats out—"McDonald's, Ponderosa, pizza joints. Junk"—and has to struggle to keep his weight around 215. "Some nights my body feels terrible from all the junk I eat." His neighbors, the DiGregorios, don't help any by bringing him huge dishes of lasagne and spaghetti. "Mrs. DiGregorio's a great cook," says Dantley, who didn't know that her name is Susan. ("I respect my elders," he says. "I just call her Mrs. DiGregorio.")
He spends most evenings alone, reading or watching television, and he talks frequently on the phone with his Aunt Rosie and mother, Virginia, in Washington. He promised both he would complete his degree in economics at Notre Dame this summer. (He is no slouch as a student; if he had skipped the Olympics, he would have been graduated in three years.) Two weeks ago, before he went to Landover, Md. to play against the Bullets on national television, Aunt Rosie called him and said, "Now don't you come out here and stink the place up, Adrian. You better have a good game." Dantley scored 33, and the Washington reporters asked the rookie how he could get much better. "That's tough," he said. "But I guess I'd be better if I ate my mama's cooking all the time."
NINE MORE GOOD ONES
JOHN LUCAS, GUARD, HOUSTON
Why would a team use the No. 1 pick in the whole NBA draft for a part-time tennis player when it already owns a midget baton twirler? "There was never a question in my mind," says Coach Tom Nissalke, whose rapid-firing Rockets—Calvin (Tiny Twirler) Murphy, Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Newlin—badly needed direction up and down the floor. Lucas, a Maryland graduate, has already become one of the league's top playmakers, and the Rockets are headed for the playoffs. "Lucas will make mistakes," says Nissalke. "But he won't make them twice."
MITCH KUPCHAK, CENTER-FORWARD; LARRY WRIGHT, GUARD, WASHINGTON
With two rookies among their first eight players, the Bullets are rebuilding, right? Wrong. Rebuilt. Kupchak, the Olympian out of the University of North Carolina, is the first capable relief Wes Unseld has ever had. Playing 17 minutes a game and giving both Unseld and Elvin Hayes breathers, he averages nine points and 5.4 rebounds, shoots 56% and leads the Bullets in diving on the floor. Coach Dick Motta calls Kupchak "a 6'9" Jerry Sloan." Wright, a peppery penetrator from Grambling, passed his rookie test early: against Boston last November, he came in to score 23 points, including six for six from the foul line in the final 28 seconds, to win the game. When the Bullets were floundering in mid-January, he became a starter and the team won 12 of 16. Says General Manager Bob Ferry, "The relentless enthusiasm of Mitch and Larry is the reason we're winning."
RON LEE, GUARD, PHOENIX
Lee got his education at the only accredited Kamikaze school in America, the University of Oregon. After four years under Coach Dick Harter's dive-or-die system, Lee did not move into the NBA, he barreled into it. In training camp he drove his teammates crazy with his hustle, and they nicknamed him "Taz" for "Tasmanian Devil." He started 25 games, averaging 13 points and four assists while shooting 48% and routinely crashing into the loge for loose balls until Coach John MacLeod went back to using him off the bench. Says Guard Paul Westphal, "Ronnie must not realize the enormity of what he's doing."
SCOTT MAY, FORWARD, CHICAGO
Even before he led Indiana to the NCAA championship in 1976, May was an odds-on bet to bring the NBA to its knees in his rookie season. But early in training camp the No. 2 pick in the draft was felled by a case of mononucleosis and he did not return to full strength until February. He is now averaging 14 points a game, while the Bulls are battling for a playoff berth. "He's another Chet Walker," says Indiana Pacer Coach Slick Leonard. Says May, "It's all coming back."
ROBERT PARISH, CENTER, GOLDEN STATE
"Dantley may be the best rookie now," says Nets Coach Kevin Loughery, "but if you're talking about potential, it's Robert Parish." The 7-foot Parish has a big future and no past—because the NCAA does not recognize the existence of his college, Centenary. No matter. "He can shoot," says Coach Al Attles, "and when you find that talent in a center you can wait for improvement in other departments." Parish plays behind Clifford Ray, and while sitting on the bench he puts hot water bottles on his feet to warm up his congenitally cold ankles.
QUINN BUCKNER, GUARD, MILWAUKEE
"Buckner is funny," says one NBA scout. "He doesn't shoot well, isn't real quick, but every team he's ever run has been a champion." What he is, is smart, a good defender and a good passer. "He fills a void in the toughest position to fill," says Coach Don Nelson, "the guy who will sacrifice night in and night out. You can build around a player like that." Buckner captained Indiana's 1976 NCAA champions and the Olympic team. Fans immediately dubbed him "the new Oscar Robertson."
RICHARD WASHINGTON, FORWARD, KANSAS CITY
As the No. 3 pick from UCLA in the draft, Washington instantly became a big man in Kansas City. By mid-December he was starting and averaging nine points and 14.6 rebounds when the season began to seem like one long sociology lecture. "I know there were 82 games, but I didn't know there were practices every day," said Washington. He began to run down. In a game against Boston, he says, "I was getting tired and I thought I'd hitch a ride on Sidney Wicks' jersey. Then I heard my name. It was Wicks saying, 'Richard, you do that again and I'll hit you.' "
EARL TATUM, SWINGMAN, LOS ANGELES
Al McGuire, Tatum's coach at Marquette, used to call him "the black Jerry West." So when he arrived in L.A. he naturally had to go one-on-one with the white Jerry West. Afterward, Coach West gave him the ultimate accolade: "He's a player." Under West's tutelage, Tatum, who has mostly played forward, is learning the guard position to take advantage of his size. He has done all right up front; in one quarter of one game he burned Dr. J for 19 points. "I could do that stuff all the time," he said, "but the coach would bench me if I got out of control."