Dantley was all that Jazz

By Steve Luhm
Updated: September 6, 2008

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Think about Utah’s sporting history, except that 30 seasons of NBA basketball are missing.

Picture John Stockton not sending the Jazz to the Finals, or Karl Malone not winning two MVP awards. Imagine the 1993 All-Star Game that went overtime not being played in the Delta Center, or today’s fans not being bedazzled by rising star Deron Williams.

It could have happened that way, according to former coach, general manager and president Frank Layden, if Adrian Dantley had not spent seven of his 15 NBA seasons in Utah.

“He played such an important role in those early years of the Jazz,” Layden said. “If not for him, maybe we aren’t still here, in Salt Lake City.”

On Friday night, Dantley joined the greatest players, coaches and contributors in the history of the game when he is inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as part of a star-studded class that includes Miami Heat president Pat Riley, former New York Knicks great Patrick Ewing and ex-Houston Rockets star Hakeem Olajuwon.

Dantley’s former teammates couldn’t be more elated. “He carried us, he was the franchise,” recalled Mark Eaton. “He was the guy you could count on for 30 [points] every night – the one bona fide All-Star we had.”

Between 1980 and 1986, Dantley played 461 regular-season games with the Jazz. He averaged a Jordan-esque 29.6 points, shot 56.2 percent from the field and established himself as one of the game’s greatest low-post players, despite being only 6-foot-5.

“I was always fascinated by how he could get his shot off in traffic against bigger guys,” said broadcaster Ron Boone, who was also Dantley’s teammate with the Lakers.” The things he could do … just amazing.”

Said Layden: “Wilt Chamberlain once said Adrian Dantley was the best pivot man he ever saw.”

Professionally, the Hall of Fame is as far as a player can get from the Utah Jazz in 1979, when the financially fragile franchise moved from New Orleans and players like Tom Boswell, Paul Dawkins, James Hardy and Jerome Whitehead were good enough to carve out significant roles.

Not that many fans noticed.

In their first-ever game at the Salt Palace, the Jazz played Milwaukee and drew a crowd of 7,687. Three nights later, the Jazz faced Portland and drew 5,443.

On the court, the Jazz also struggled. They finished 24-58 during their inaugural season in Utah. Over the first four years in their new home, the Jazz averaged 26.8 wins and never finished better than 30-52. Still, Dantley legitimized the franchise with his work ethic, focus and ability to produce points.

Said Boone: “I just remember the hard work. … Professional basketball is all about being prepared, and he prepared himself to succeed every night.”

Dantley was “the consummate pro on the court,” said Eaton. “The way he handled himself. The way he prepared. His conditioning. … The guy was basketball-basketball, 24-seven.”

The Jazz’s breakout year came in 1983-84. With Dantley returning from a serious wrist injury that cost him most of the previous season, Utah went 47-35, won a division title and reached the playoffs for the first time.

Individually, Dantley led the league in scoring, was named Comeback Player of the Year and proved to those who doubted him that he could blend in and help an NBA team prosper.

“He scored and that’s what people always remember about him,” said Jazz assistant coach Scott Layden, who was also on the Utah bench when Dantley played. “But he was a complete player – a good passer, good defensively – and that became more and more evident when we started getting some good players around him.”

Beginning with the ’84 division title, the Jazz went to the playoffs 20 consecutive years. They didn’t experience another losing season until 2004-05. The whispers that the franchise would relocate also slowed, and eventually stopped.

“When we won the division,” Scott Layden said, “it set the tone for years to come.”

The Jazz retired Dantley’s number two seasons ago. Just like the Jazz’s hard-earned success, however, Dantley’s acceptance by Hall of Fame voters took awhile. He was a finalist six times before finally getting at least 18 votes from the 24-member Honors Committee.

In April, when the Class of 2008 was announced, Dantley described his reaction as “relieved,” not overjoyed. He admitted to turning off his cell phone for a few days because he did not want to get the disappointing news that – once again – he’d been denied admission to the Hall of Fame.

Now his career circle is complete. “I’m happy for Adrian and his family,” Scott Layden said. “It’s kind of an exclamation point on everything for them.”

Frank Layden and his star player quarreled a few times during their years together in Utah. Today, however, it’s unlikely Dantley has a bigger fan.

“He is a nice guy and he loves basketball,” Frank Layden said. “I’m so pleased for him and his mother, who was always so supportive. … This is just icing on the cake for a wonderful career.”