Mark Aguirre and Adrian Dantley have long been variations on the same theme, men of immense talent, immense ego and, it's said, the immense capacity, to shear years off a coach's life. On Feb. 15 they exchanged uniforms in the biggest deal of the season, involving as it did two high-impact players, two high-profile teams, one angry mother and one old, old friendship.
Aguirre, 29, switched from the Dallas Mavericks to the Detroit Pistons, leaving behind a sad owner, who considered himself Aguirre's surrogate father, but a happy bunch of former teammates, who all but broke out the hats and horns to celebrate his departure. Had Aguirre's flight out of Dallas—it departed two hours after he received the news—been canceled, one has the feeling that the Mavs would have chipped in for a charter. In Detroit, Aguirre joined his boyhood buddy from Chicago, Isiah Thomas, whom many observers credited, or discredited, with engineering the deal.
Dantley, meanwhile, moved more deliberately, as is his style on the court and off, to his sixth NBA home. (Before the Pistons, he had played for the Buffalo Braves, the Indiana Pacers, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz.) Dantley learned about the trade while Detroit was on a road trip in Los Angeles and flew not to Dallas to join his new teammates but to his off-season home in Silver Spring, Md. He stayed there for the next week, trying to persuade Dallas owner Donald Carter to add another season to the two years that remain, after this one, on his $1.2 million-a-year contract, and also to get over the devastation of being traded for Aguirre, whom, according to sources on both clubs, Dantley doesn't respect.
The Mavs hung tough, and eventually AD and his agent, David Falk, came to their senses. Dantley flew to Dallas last Thursday night, poorer by $45,731.70, the sum he forfeited for missing three games, and without that contract extension. "I'm a Dallas Maverick now," he said, pumping Carter's hand at the airport when he arrived. If there's one thing Dantley understands, besides how to get to the foul line—he has averaged 8.9 free throws a game during his NBA career—it's the cold, hard fact that business is business.
March 6, 1989
Neither Dantley nor Aguirre got off to a particularly good start with his new team. Aguirre, who went to Detroit weighing 245 pounds, was literally gasping for breath last week in a game against Portland. "[Coach] Chuck Daly wants training-camp condition from me," said Aguirre, "and I'm a long way from that." About 10 pounds from that.
Dantley drew a mixed reaction—about 70% cheers, 30% boos—when introduced before his first game at Reunion Arena, last Friday night, and then missed all seven of his shots from the floor in an ugly 127-92 loss to the Golden State Warriors. He bounced back the next night, scoring a game-high 32 points in a 127-93 defeat of the Washington Bullets. (The same night, Aguirre had his best outing in four games as a Piston, coming off the bench to score 31 as Detroit beat the New Jersey Nets 113-95.) The Mavericks, who were 28-24 at week's end, have been a disappointment this season and will need a couple of weeks to integrate into their scheme not only Dantley but also center-forward Herb Williams, who was obtained last week from Indiana in exchange for Detlef Schrempf and a second-round draft pick in 1990 or '91.
"I felt funny, kind of confused and disoriented out there," said Dantley after his Dallas debut. That's how he felt about the trade, too. Some of the Pistons felt the same way, but Dantley wasn't the subject of the angry good riddances that marked Aguirre's departure from the Mavericks. Even Thomas, who was obviously happy to have Aguirre aboard, could not publicly rejoice, considering the widespread belief that it was he who had pushed the buttons. Thomas's backcourt mate, Joe Dumars, was deeply saddened that Dantley, who had been his best friend among his teammates, was gone, but he held his tongue about the deal. In a gesture of respect, Dumars requested a DANTLEY 45 jersey as a keepsake.
Other Pistons were hopeful that Aguirre's offense, more multifaceted than Dantley's post-up game, would pay dividends, but they were also frankly apprehensive about the loss of Dantley, whom they called Teacher in recognition of his sagacious ways.
And no one felt more ambivalent about the trade than Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey, who closed the deal for the Pistons.
"I like and admire Adrian so much," said McCloskey. "The way he went about his job, kept himself in shape. He's a real pro. Adrian keeps people at arm's length, but I always felt we had a mutual respect." McCloskey shook his head. "I guess that might be lost now."
Something else was lost long ago: any respect that Aguirre's ex-teammates had for him. A deal in Dallas was overdue, both for the team and the player, a fact that even Carter, who was protective of Aguirre and often referred to him as "his son," came to realize after the gulf between Aguirre and his teammates widened over the past few weeks. The other Mavs were especially angry that Aguirre, pleading sore ankles, scratched himself from a home game against Utah on Jan. 31 and then all but disappeared—he scored no points—in the fourth quarter of a loss at Portland on Feb. 7. Considering that Dantley is a quality player and that Dallas also gets Detroit's first-round pick in 1991, the trade wasn't a bad one for the Mavs.
The deal doesn't seem to make any sense for Detroit. Why take a chance on a player with a reputation for being difficult? Why break up a team that extended the Lakers to seven games in last season's NBA Finals? Why tinker with a team that, at the time of the trade, had the NBA's second-best record (and, at week's end, still did, at 33-15)?
"For whatever reason, our chemistry is not what it should be this season," says McCloskey. "I'm not saying Adrian was the reason, but we haven't been the same team this year that we were last."
Amen. The celebrated Bully Boys have been meek and mild Woolly Boys against tough Eastern Conference rivals New York (0-3), Milwaukee (1-3) and Cleveland (0-2). There's a soft underbelly to their .706 winning percentage, and the Pistons needed to make a bold move. They don't worry about so-called difficult players, either. After all, for 214 seasons they got 20.3 points a game out of a difficult player named Adrian Dantley.
Still, if Dantley-less Detroit doesn't win the title, the trade will no doubt be pointed to as the source of that failure. "It's not fair—but it's that simple," says Piston center Bill Laimbeer.
Simple, too, is the idea that Thomas engineered the deal, a notion that was expressed on talk shows and in letters-to-the-editor columns for days after the trade. In fact, neither McCloskey nor Daly consulted Thomas about Aguirre—"for the very reason," says McCloskey, "that we knew there would be this reaction."
It would be ridiculous to think that Thomas would not rather have Aguirre on his team than Dantley, with whom he coexisted uneasily. But the impetus for this deal came from Daly, who believed even at the start of the season that the then 32-year-old Dantley would never again be as effective overall as he was last season, when he averaged 20 points a game. (He left averaging 18.3.)
As of last weekend, Dantley wasn't talking about the Detroit Pistons or Thomas, but someday he may break his silence—and it obviously won't be to sing the praises of Thomas. Less reticent was Dantley's mother, Virginia, who told the Detroit Free Press after the trade, "You shouldn't blame Jack McCloskey. He's not the one. It's that little con artist you've got up there. When his royal highness wants something, he gets it."
Thomas could only smile when asked about Virginia Dantley's comments. "I know my mom would be blowing off some steam too," he said. "I understand it." Nightline missed a good bet by not putting these two feisty moms on the air. Joining us from our Chicago affiliate is Mary Thomas....
Actually, there's one Detroit player who had a lot to do with the trade. Dennis (Worm) Rodman had begun to take minutes away from Dantley with his often spectacular play. Dantley saw how the Worm was turning in Detroit and didn't like it. He met privately with Daly after a Sunday-morning shootaround on Jan. 29 to express displeasure at his reduced role, but Daly wouldn't promise him that the situation would change.
And then there were the whispers that the Teacher had started to let down on the court. " 'Let down' is too strong," says one Piston—not Thomas—who requests anonymity. "It was more of a subtle problem with team chemistry. AD was unhappy and let you know it." This Detroit player also believes that, consciously or subconsciously, Dantley didn't get out and run on the break, as Daly wanted him to, because Dantley had too much to gain when the Pistons operated from their half-court offense. Like what? Like the ball, maybe seven of 10 times.
Well, that criticism qualifies as a panegyric when compared with the verbal missiles that Aguirre's former teammates launched at his broad back.
Dallas center James Donaldson: "I'm ready for somebody to come in here who's willing to play hard every night. Sometimes Mark would just loaf."
Guard Rolando Blackman: "Mark could dominate a game when he wanted to, only when he was in the right frame of mind. You just can't let your teammates down, and he let us down a lot."
Forward Sam Perkins: "Today should be an all-day party because he's gone. Good luck, Detroit, because you're going to need it."
Aguirre was asked about the barbs last week as he relaxed in the suburban Detroit hotel that will be his home until he and his wife, Angela, find an apartment. "Maybe they felt like I deserted them," said Aguirre. "Well, I didn't. It was a management decision."
Whoa, Mark, slip me some spin.
"Maybe if we had been a little more of a family, instead of letting the media tear us apart, things would've been better," continued Aguirre.
"Look, everything I ever did in Dallas, every problem that Dick Motta [who feuded with Aguirre when he coached the Mavs and who, as the Pistons' TV color man, is now, in a sense, reunited with him] and I ever had, was blown out of proportion. The only thing that was interesting about the Dallas Mavericks was my problems."
That's partially true, except that Aguirre created much of his trouble. But he has changed addresses now, and one thing is for sure: It's put-up-or-shut-up time for Mark Anthony Aguirre. He's playing ball with his buddy Thomas for the first time since high school, when, as members of the Whiz Kids, they confounded older teams in the Chicago summer leagues. He's with a team that knows how to win and with a coach who says he'll "force-feed" Aguirre minutes to whip him into shape. And he's in a system that wants, and needs, his varied offensive talents—low-post scoring, perimeter shooting, running the floor, and getting the ball to the open man when double-teamed.
"This is an opportunity for people to get to know me, not just as a basketball player but as an individual," says Aguirre. "For whatever reason, I've been looked at as a bad person, which is the exact reversal of what people used to think of me. If I work hard here, I can turn that around."
Dantley's dilemma is similar. Though only three active players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone and Alex English) have scored more points than he, the fact remains that he has been traded five times in his 12½ seasons. He's more respected than Aguirre, but that is to damn him with faint praise. Somehow, some way, Dantley, who has scored 21,870 points for a career average of 25.1 per game, eventually wears out his welcome.
AD wants it to be different in Big D. He wants a ring before he retires, and he wants to show the Pistons that they made a mistake. There is challenge in those dark, soulful eyes.
Dantley will need help, of course, and the return of power forward Roy Tarpley from drug rehabilitation, which may or may not happen in time for the playoffs, is an absolute necessity if the Mavs are to get better. But maybe, just maybe, the Teacher will supply that extra little bit of learning, that dose of experience and maturity that will get Dallas moving in the postseason and into its first NBA Finals.
And, meanwhile, maybe Aguirre will be giving the Pistons the extra boost that they need to put those hungry young teams, like the Knicks and the Cavaliers, back in their place.
A Detroit-Dallas championship final is a long shot, but ponder it for a moment. Wouldn't it be some showcase for the protagonists in this controversial trade? And wouldn't it give Virginia Dantley and Mary Thomas an awful lot to talk about?