On March 2, 2008, former Notre Dame two-time consensus basketball All-American Adrian Dantley was feted at halftime of the Notre Dame-Villanova game for his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame that season.
Adrian Dantley and head coach Digger Phelps helped make Notre Dame basketball a consistent force in the 1970s.
Exactly four years to the day later, Dantley will be honored again by his alma mater, this time on a more personal level. He will join Austin Carr (1968-71), Ruth Riley (1997-2001) and Luke Harangody (2006-10) as the fourth player in Notre Dame’s Ring of Honor at halftime of tonight’s Big East regular season finale with Providence.
It was hardly Divine Providence that led Dantley to enroll at Notre Dame in August 1973. During his recruiting visit, the second he saw the Golden Dome, he was enthralled.
“It wasn’t hard to recruit me here,” recalled Dantley back in 2008. “I’m glad I came here. I think Notre Dame made me a successful person on and off the court.”
Dantley was an elite national recruit under coach Morgan Wootten at DeMatha High (Hyattsville, Md.), and Notre Dame’s basketball program was reaching its zenith thanks in great part to its Washington D.C. pipeline that made the Irish top 10-caliber most of the time from 1968 through 1981.
It began with Bob Whitmore, Austin Carr, Collis Jones and Sid Catlett in the 1960s under head coach John Dee, and continued under Digger Phelps in the 1970s with Dantley, Don “Duck” Williams, Tracy Jackson and Tom Sluby. The formation of the Big East conference in 1979 helped sever Notre Dame’s gravy train in the nation’s capital.
Today, Dantley probably would be perceived as a “one and done” prospect. He did turn pro after his third season in 1976, but at the time he was only six credit hours short from his degree. Keeping a promise to his family, the program and to himself, Dantley graduated with a degree in economics from the College of Business Administration in August 1978.
“That was a given,” said Dantley, who turned 56 on Feb. 28, of obtaining his degree. “Everybody expects anyone going to Notre Dame to graduate. Same way as it is now, that’s the way it was [then].”
Former UCLA centers and basketball icons Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton raved about Dantley’s resourcefulness and savvy on the court despite his lack of size. Former NBA teammate and current executive Joe Dumars lauded Dantley as the most disciplined player he has ever seen in the NBA, from his strict diet, to his unwavering workout regime, to handling himself in a professional manner. Thus, Dantley was not taken aback by Notre Dame’s lack of a country-club ambiance.
“There wasn’t too much social life — I don’t really need that,” he said. “It wasn’t a partying school … it was a good fit for me.”
Along with his basketball idol, Elgin Baylor, and Charles Barkley, Dantley ranked among the NBA’s greatest with his inside presence despite a height that was listed at anywhere from 6-4 to 6-5, His head or shoulder fakes — the bread and butter of his repertoire — consistently flummoxed opponents and made him a fixture at the charity stripe. He holds the Notre Dame record for free throws made (615) and retired fifth in that department in the NBA (6,832).
Yet, even in the NBA, prior to each free throw, he would recite his mantra from junior high that adept lip readers couldn’t mistake: “Over the front rim, backspin, follow through.” Fundamentals were not lip service but a way of life for Dantley.
In high school he was deemed roly-poly, and in college and the pros too small. A master psychologist on the court, Dantley often would play possum early by letting an opponent swat away his first shot to give him a false sense of confidence.
“At every level, guys thought they could block my shots,” said Dantley, who led the NBA in scoring twice and four times in free throws made. “My goal was to get people into foul trouble. If you get two fouls on them early, either they’re not going to guard you as tight or they’ll bring in a sub who isn’t as good.”
Once he had you in his web, he was merciless down low. Along the perimeter, the adept ball-handler would sometimes deliberately dribble too high to tempt you into the steal. Once you took the bait, he would be like a locomotive driving by you toward the hoop.
His game was about remarkable, consistent, efficiency. He wasn’t one to score 45 points one night and 15 the next. Game after game at Notre Dame, he would usually be between 26 to 32 points while making about eight to 10 foul shots and pulling down nine to 11 rebounds. When he led the NBA in scoring in 1983-84 (30.6), he averaged 18.3 shots per game, one of the lowest figures ever by an NBA scoring champion. His .540 field-goal percentage in the NBA ranks among the greatest ever among non-centers.
Also not known to many was Dantley played with a special, customized shoe because one leg was inches shorter than the other.
While Dantley’s basketball skills were a testament to maximizing his skills, he credits his family, DeMatha and Notre Dame for helping steer him on the right course. Although often described as relatively aloof and one with his share of feuds in the NBA, Dantley has been long comfortable in his own skin.
“I hope I was a good guy,” he reflected. “The main thing my parents taught me was to do the right thing. I always tried to do the right thing when I was in high school, college, pros … I always took big pride in not embarrassing my family, not getting in any trouble, even though there were temptations out there.
“Just do the right thing, have good character, and everything will work out for you.”
Including a Ring of Honor at Notre Dame.
Adrian Dantley By The Numbers
1 Among the 52 Notre Dame players who have scored 1,000 career points, Dantley is the only one who shot at least .550 from the field (.562) and .800 from the foul line (exactly .800) during his career.
3 Straight top-15 finishes for Notre Dame during Dantley’s three-year career: No. 5 in 1974, No. 14 in 1975, and No. 7 in 1976. The Irish were 68-19 during his time.
25.8 Career scoring average at Notre Dame, second only to Austin Carr’s 34.6. Dantley averaged 18.3 as a freshman while playing with fellow first-round picks John Shumate and Gary Brokaw, 30.4 (second in the nation) as a sophomore and 28.6 (fourth in the nation) as a junior.
32 Points scored by Dantley in 30 minutes in the USA’s gold-medal victory over Yugoslavia in the 1976 Summer Olympics at Montreal. Dantley’s 19.3 scoring average paced Team USA. It marked the first time a United States player tallied at least 30 points in Olympics competition.
42 Seconds left when Dantley’s quarterback son, Cameron, threw the game-winning 11-yard touchdown pass in Syracuse’s stunning 24-23 victory at Notre Dame in November 2008.
23,177 Career points tallied by Dantley in the NBA, 22nd on the all-time list. He averaged 24.3 points per game — the same as Larry Bird — during his 15-year career.