The only thing I ever really wanted and couldn't get was a name that would stimulate crowds. Like 'Wilt' or ' Elgin' or 'Pistol.' Not that I mind 'Adrian.' It's been a long time since anyone thought I was a girl. One thing about it, though—people see a basketball player with a name like Adrian Dantley, they know there must be something special about him."
Thus Adrian Dantley, 21-year-old, 6'5" forward of the Buffalo Braves, the best bet for NBA Rookie of the Year, having knocked aside the other candidates like so many bowling pins, much the way he does people who try to stop him from getting the ball into the basket. It has not been a season of superstar rookies but of unusually capable ones, and while such players as Scott May, John Lucas, Ron Lee, Lonnie Shelton, Mitch Kupchak, Quinn Buckner and Robert Parish will someday be NBA All-Stars, Dantley has already arrived: he averages 36 minutes a game and 19.4 points, hits 51% from the field, 82% from the line, rebounds with the best and is strong enough to squeeze the air right out of a basketball.
On top of that he retains the kind of confidence and drive that have pushed him past his physical bounds and confounded critics ever since he first waddled onto the floor at De Matha High School in suburban Washington, D.C. as a 6'2", 220-pound freshman dubbed "Baby Fats." Then, as a pudgy 231-pound freshman at Notre Dame, he opened the game that snapped UCLA's record 88-game winning streak with a hell-bent drive to the basket that bloodied Bill Walton's nose. He went hardship after his junior year and two All-America seasons at Notre Dame and was chosen sixth in last June's NBA draft. "I know I would have been the first player picked if I was 6'7"," he says. "They were looking at the inches rather than the player."
Dantley prefaced his NBA debut with a sensational performance in the Montreal Olympics, averaging nearly 20 points and leading the U.S. to the gold medal, scoring 30 points in the championship game against the Yugoslavians. "I never worked harder for anything in my life than the Olympics," he says. "Like always, people were saying that I wasn't a player. That I was too fat, too slow, too short. That I got easy points at Notre Dame. So I went on a diet, conditioned my body. One day I was walking in the Olympic Village and I passed a couple of players from other countries. One said, 'That's Dantley. He strong. He strong.' Man, I threw out my chest and I thought, 'Yeah, I am strong.' "
Arriving in Buffalo, he was met by still more doubters. Fans there were incensed that the popular Jim McMillian had been sold to make room for Dantley. "They were saying, 'Let's see you replace McMillian, rookie,' " says Dantley. "But as soon as I got 15 points and 19 rebounds in my first game I stopped hearing about McMillian."
He has not stopped scoring points or scattering bodies since. His basic move, the backward bulldozer—he gets the ball on the right wing and backs his way in to the basket—works nearly as effectively against pros as it did against collegians. But he is trimmer and quicker now, and scores a lot facing the basket or streaking like a runaway truck on the break.
"His best skill is in his reaction to defensive pressure," says Braves Coach Joe Mullaney. Dantley decides what he wants to do and maneuvers his way through small openings with his quick steps. He makes his move—a fake spin or pump—and explodes upward for the shot like a Polaris missile. His arms extend from his 43-inch chest like steel rods protecting the ball, and his legs are spread so wide that when he comes down he cannot be moved, even by the likes of George McGinnis and Wes Unseld. Dantley plays the game more horizontally than vertically, staking out territory he intends to take and defend. When a shot by a teammate goes up, he has a knack for being in the exact spot the rebound will come down. Says Lakers Coach Jerry West, "I don't understand why he wasn't the No. 1 pick in the draft."
Dantley has had to work hard to get the respect he thinks he deserves. "First time against Detroit, I came out for the tap and Bob Lanier just starts staring at me, looking me up and down. I didn't know where to look, he's so big. Then he says, 'Well, well, Adrian Dantley, my maaaaiiin man. Don't be planning on coming into my territory tonight.' I only went for 10. But the next time we played them I got 23. I have trouble with Rick Barry. He's so smart. Last time I played against him I got 24. But it was hard. E.C. Coleman of the Jazz is the toughest defensive forward there is. I put a move on him and he said, 'No, no, Adrian. That move's not going to work,' and he blocked my shot. I said, 'O.K., next time I'll make it work.' So the next time down I gave him a pump and he fouled me. I said, 'See, I told you it would work.' "
Then there are the officials, who want to let the rookie know who's in charge, especially a rookie like Dantley who depends on free throws for well over a third of his scoring. He has been to the line more than any other regular small forward. But if a superstar like Barry or Julius Erving took the pounding Dantley takes, the officials would blow the peas out of their whistles. Says Dantley: "One time against Philly I asked George McGinnis, 'Hey, George, did you just foul me?' He said, 'Yeah, you know I fouled you, but no rookie ain't going to get no calls.' "
As Buffalo has deteriorated as a team, life on the court has been getting tougher and tougher for Dantley. The Braves got rid of Moses Malone, whom they owned for a week in October, and sent Bob McAdoo to the Knicks in December, so Dantley has found entire defenses collapsing on him, with little help coming from the other big men: John Shumate, George Johnson, Don Adams, John Gianelli and Gus Gerard. The only other scorer is Guard Randy Smith (19.7), who is mostly interested in getting out of Buffalo. Guard Ernie DiGregorio, running the club again after two years in limbo, has had to change his game for four different coaches in two seasons, and it shows.