Term of Art: Like Monk, Dantley?s been sentenced to sweat it out.
Term of Art: Like Monk, Dantley?s been sentenced to sweat it out. Credit: Photograph provided by the Utah Jazz

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Springtime in Washington. The cherry blossoms are blooming, and folks are again asking why Adrian Dantley’s not in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“There’s no sense crying about it,” says Dantley, the hometown hero who found out last week that he won’t be a member of the hoop hall’s class of 2007. “But I don’t think it’s about my numbers.”

Can’t be. Because Dantley’s numbers, at every level of organized ball, were ridiculous. On the snub meter, Art Monk’s noninduction to his hall of fame’s got nothing on Dantley’s.

Now an assistant coach with Denver, Dantley left the NBA as a player in 1991 with 23,177 points, which made him the ninth leading scorer in league history. And though just 6-foot-5, he shot 54 percent for his career, a level of efficiency unheard of for a guy of his height. (For some perspective: Current Nugget Allen Iverson’s 20,000 career points have come by shooting just 42 percent.) Dantley was named rookie of the year in 1977, led the NBA in scoring twice, and appeared in six All-Star games. Even with D.C.’s storied basketball history, those figures put Dantley alongside Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing in this town’s Big Three of all-time players.

But election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, unlike the halls of fame for the other major American sports, isn’t about just pro performance. Dantley was also a two-time All-American and college player of the year while at Notre Dame, and he’s still the school’s No. 2 all-time scorer (second only to fellow D.C. native Austin Carr) despite only playing three seasons. He was the leading scorer for the U.S. gold medal squad in the 1976 Olympics. He was the first freshman ever to start for Morgan Wootten at DeMatha and was named All-Met each season from 1972 to 1974, a rare feat indeed. (This year, St. John’s Chris Wright became the first area ballplayer to make three All-Met teams since Dantley.) He was also national high school player of the year in 1974.

“There’s no good reason he’s not in,” says Hot Rod Hundley, the 33-year play-by-play announcer of the Utah Jazz, for whom Dantley played throughout most of the ’80s. “He’s been in basketball his whole life, and you talk about him as a player, there’s no doubt he belongs. He’s one of the greatest post-up players in the history of basketball.”

“Here’s how good he was,” Hundley says: “When Karl Malone first came to the Jazz, on offense Karl played at the top of the circle, and Adrian was the post-up guy. For his height, there was never anybody better.”

Hundley is scheduled to emcee a luncheon in Dantley’s honor this week, when the Jazz retires his jersey during a game with the Nuggets.

Dantley, now 51, grew up in Columbia Heights, and, like Bing and Baylor, he learned the one court trick that would be the key to his hoops success—”Take the little guys inside, and take the big guys outside,” Dantley says—while playing on the pavement at city playgrounds: Banneker Park and Rudolph Recreation Center were his haunts. In his day, the D.C. playground game was as strong as any city’s in the country. His neighborhood heroes, guys like Carr and Kermit Washington, were already national figures. (Dantley was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1977 to replace Kermit Washington, after his idol’s unfortunate knockout of Rudy Tomjanovich.)

And he’s always stayed loyal to his hometown. Throughout his pro basketball travels—his playing career started in Buffalo in 1977 and ended in Milan in 1992—Dantley always kept a home in the area. He now lives in Silver Spring in the off-season.

“I’m from D.C., and I’ll always be in D.C.,” he says.

Even at the height of his NBA career, he played in local summer leagues. Hardcore ballers still remember his 61-point performance in a 1977 Urban Coalition League playoff game, in which Dantley’s Pappy Parker’s squad won by the hilarious score of 241n168.

“Those games were fun,” Dantley says. “And they kept me in shape.”

In return, a lot of area residents have remained loyal to Dantley. And, so, for another year, the Hall’s approval rating on the local basketball scene is pretty darn low right now.

“I really find it very hard to believe,” says Morgan Wootten, who along with being a hall of famer himself was Dantley’s high school coach (and history teacher). “I seriously believe what Red Auerbach told me once, that he’s the most eligible person alive not in the Hall of Fame. Red said he can’t understand it. I can’t understand it, either.”

Miffed as he is, Wootten isn’t Dantley’s angriest local supporter. That might be wife Dinitri Dantley, his sweetheart since 10th grade.

“Adrian called me and told me he didn’t make it,” says Dinitri. “And to tell you the truth, since it was April Fools’ Day weekend, I thought he was joking. “You’re joking, right?’ I said. Then I remembered I was talking to Adrian Dantley, and Adrian Dantley doesn’t joke about these things. He’s always been a low-key, straightforward guy, and maybe that’s worked against him. I really thought this was going to be the year. He would never say he’s upset by this, but my first thought is, it isn’t right. And if you think I’m upset, you should hear his mother!”

Dantley, low-key as he is, did have a few high-level scrapes over his career. He left the Detroit Pistons in 1989, just months before the “Bad Boy” Pistons won their first NBA title. The circumstances of his Motor City departure were anything but amicable; the organization traded Dantley to Dallas for Mark Aguirre.

“That was Isaiah’s best friend,” Dantley says, referring to current Knicks boss and former Piston Isaiah Thomas, who over his career earned his backstabbing black belt by undermining both Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.

But Aguirre got some rings with Detroit. Like Bing and Baylor before him, Dantley never won a championship. He hears about that annually, with each noninduction.

And after Dantley’s retirement, he was involved in a very high profile suit against superagent and one-time NBA power broker David Falk for allegedly defrauding the player out of a nine-figure sum. That suit was settled out of court.

But when asked if any of his off-court relationships have doomed his chances for hoops immortality, Dantley says, “I don’t think I’d ever think about this if people didn’t ask me this question every year. But I’ve got enemies out there.”

He declined to name names.