There is an expression common among grain dealers, fishmongers and the various NBA deep thinkers who have, at one time or another, traded away Adrian Dantley. The expression is "giving good weight." At 6'5" and 210 pounds, Dantley has always given good weight. According to NBA dribble-speak, he is either the best small power forward in the league or the game's preeminent big small forward; wherever he has gone he has always performed better than the player he was traded for.
Dantley has played only three full seasons in the pros, and in that time he has been Rookie of the Year for the Buffalo Braves, and been traded; been the second-leading scorer in the league for the Indiana Pacers, and been traded; been the second-leading scorer and rebounder (to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) for the Los Angeles Lakers, and been traded. Last week Dantley was giving plenty of good weight to his new team—the Utah Jazz. His scoring average was 29.4, third best in the league behind San Antonio's George Gervin (31.8) and San Diego's Lloyd Free (31.2). "I'm just a piece of meat," says the much-traveled Dantley, "but I know I'm a good piece of meat."
If Dantley is puzzled by his forced march around the NBA, he isn't the only one. "He's a great player and we worked hard to get him," says Utah General Manager Frank Layden. "Three other teams made serious mistakes about him."
All Dantley did in his rookie season was average 20.3 points a game for a bad Buffalo team, thereby establishing himself, at least in the shrewd judgment of team owner John (Why?) Brown, as trade fodder. Brown was in such a lather to get Forward Billy Knight from Indiana that he gave up both Dantley and Mike Bantom for him. The Pacers, meanwhile, decided they weren't going to get enough help from the draft. They needed a big center, so when Los Angeles offered seven-foot James Edwards, Earl Tatum and cash for Dantley and Dave Robisch, Dantley was gone again.
"A lot of times people get traded because they don't produce or they don't get along with management," Dantley says, "but I've played better than anyone I've been traded for, and I get along with everyone all right. So now people come to me and ask me what's wrong, why am I always getting traded? They can see I'm playing well, so they think I must have a bad attitude."
Oddly, if there was a problem with Dantley's attitude in Los Angeles, it was that he didn't seem to have an attitude, or at least didn't have one sufficient to keep the Lakers from being a bore to watch. When Jack McKinney took over as head coach at Los Angeles, he ordered out for a big forward—the Lakers' other forward was Jamaal Wilkes, who is 6'6½" and 190 pounds—and the Jazz obliged him with Spencer Haywood, one for one.
On the whole, Wilkes has never been either the scorer or rebounder Dantley is, so eyebrows were raised when Wilkes was kept and Dantley was let go. "I don't think anybody in the league thinks Wilkes is a better player than Dantley," says Utah Coach Tom Nissalke. "I think they made a real mistake with A.D."
Dantley has been troubled by these dislocations, and why not? He is 23, skillful at what he does, and yet the way Dantley sees it he has been fired from every job he's had. "It's been tough," he says. "No ballplayer wants to get traded, because it hurts your pride, makes you feel like you aren't wanted, like you didn't do the job you were asked to do. One thing I can say is that I've adjusted real well to every team I've played for. I've played just about every role they've got."
Dantley has always been high-strung, and being bounced around from one new home to another hasn't contributed to his composure. When he is nervous his left shoulder twitches violently, and kids on playgrounds all over Salt Lake City have begun to imitate the Dantley Twitch. Often he is exhausted going into a game because he is unable to get to sleep much before 5 a.m. after having played the night before.
His insomnia has not been lessened by his travels. "Sometimes I think these owners just trade for the sake of trading," he says. "Each of those guys I've played for has told me, 'You're going to be here, buy a house, you're going to end your career here.' I've heard that so many times it's ridiculous. They say, 'Trust me, trust me.' But I don't trust anybody anymore. I hate to get close to people now, and I feel bad that I've never had a home, but I think I'm at the point where if I got traded again, it wouldn't bother me. I just go out and play my game and don't bother anybody."
When Dantley was shipped to Utah in September he had been in Los Angeles for a season and a half, but some of his Buffalo mail was still catching up. When he was told that he was being traded to Utah, the prospect didn't thrill him. "It really didn't hit me until about three or four days later when I got to Salt Lake," he says. "Then it hurt. I was alone in my hotel room, and all of a sudden I had tears coming out of my eyes."
Unhappily for the Lakers, points were coming out of Dantley's fingers the second time L.A. and Utah played this season. Hitting 21 of 27 shots against an assortment of small forwards, big forwards and huge centers, Dantley scored 50 points—the second highest this season—in a 122-118 loss to L.A. "When I play against the teams that have traded me," Dantley says, "I take it kind of personal."
"There's no one player in the league who has shown me yet he can handle Dantley," says Nissalke. "He shows how meaningless this big-forward, small-forward stuff is. A.D.'s just so strong and so tenacious you can't stop him inside."
When Portland played the Jazz recently, Coach Jack Ramsay first put 6'9" Maurice Lucas on Dantley, then 6'8" Kermit Washington, next 6'8" Abdul Jeelani and finally, when the game went into overtime, 6'9" Jim Brewer. Dantley scored 10 of Utah's 11 points in the extra period and finished with a total of 34. Jeelani later described defending against Dantley as "a nightmare."
"A.D. may have the best body control inside of any player his size," says Seattle Forward Paul Silas. "Everybody else on their team plays a perimeter game, so Dantley not only scores a lot of points, he scores important points. Without him they wouldn't have any inside game. Without him they wouldn't have won the games they've won."
A fairly good outside shooter when he was a doughy 235-pounder at Notre Dame, Dantley has a sleeker look in the pros and he is quicker, but it's his great strength mat makes him so formidable in the heavy traffic underneath the basket. "He gets as good inside position as anybody," says Denver Forward George Johnson, "and once he gets the ball he's nearly impossible to stop because he's such a bull. It's like trying to stop Walter Payton."
Dantley disputes some of this, particularly the notion that he relishes being guarded by aircraft-carrier-sized players like Maurice Lucas. "I'm no power forward," he says. "It burns me up to hear people say I am. If I was 190 pounds you wouldn't hear that bull, but because I'm the strongest guy on the team, people expect me to be a power forward. I adjust my game to the opponents I play against. How much I can do depends on how Adrian Dantley's body feels; sometimes the body will, sometimes the body won't. One way or the other, I know those big forwards are going to give me a whooping if I go inside."
If his body can sustain the pounding he puts it through night after night, Dantley will continue to be the cornerstone of Layden's rebuilding plans for the Jazz. Since the benching of 31-year-old Pete Maravich nearly three weeks ago, Dantley has become an even more important cog in the Jazz' fortunes, and lately those fortunes have been good. Utah lost 19 of its first 21 games this season but then turned around and won six of nine. After that horrendous start, the Jazz appear to be on the threshold of respectability, and, having had 26 players in uniform since arriving in Salt Lake City, are happy to be there.
"We're like an expansion franchise," says Layden, "only worse. I'm going to get rid of the losers. We'll just keep changing until we get guys who can win. Adrian is that kind of player. The ironic thing is that Dantley is probably the guy most responsible for the demise of Pete. If we didn't have Dantley, we'd need Pete's points and drawing power. Having Dantley made Pete expendable."
For his part, Dantley is adjusting to his new role in his new town on his latest team. All he will say about Salt Lake City is that, "It's not L.A.," and then his shoulder begins to twitch. "It's nice to be in a winning situation," he says, "but usually you find out who the tough guys are in losing situations."
In the manner of all good wheeler-dealers, Layden can't help gloating over the steal he got in Dantley. "I think his market value right now is much greater than it was three months ago," Layden says. "We could get a lot more than Spencer Haywood for him now. But, of course, Adrian's not going anywhere. Right after he got to Salt Lake City a rumor went around that we were thinking of trading him, so I went to Adrian and told him there's no way we'd trade him. We want to build around him. We want Adrian Dantley to finish his career here."