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There is an expression common among grain dealers, fishmongers and the various NBA deep thinkers who have, at one time or another, traded away Adrian Dantley. The expression is "giving good weight." At 6'5" and 210 pounds, Dantley has always given good weight. According to NBA dribble-speak, he is either the best small power forward in the league or the game's preeminent big small forward; wherever he has gone he has always performed better than the player he was traded for.
Dantley has played only three full seasons in the pros, and in that time he has been Rookie of the Year for the Buffalo Braves, and been traded; been the second-leading scorer in the league for the Indiana Pacers, and been traded; been the second-leading scorer and rebounder (to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) for the Los Angeles Lakers, and been traded. Last week Dantley was giving plenty of good weight to his new team—the Utah Jazz. His scoring average was 29.4, third best in the league behind San Antonio's George Gervin (31.8) and San Diego's Lloyd Free (31.2). "I'm just a piece of meat," says the much-traveled Dantley, "but I know I'm a good piece of meat."
If Dantley is puzzled by his forced march around the NBA, he isn't the only one. "He's a great player and we worked hard to get him," says Utah General Manager Frank Layden. "Three other teams made serious mistakes about him."
All Dantley did in his rookie season was average 20.3 points a game for a bad Buffalo team, thereby establishing himself, at least in the shrewd judgment of team owner John (Why?) Brown, as trade fodder. Brown was in such a lather to get Forward Billy Knight from Indiana that he gave up both Dantley and Mike Bantom for him. The Pacers, meanwhile, decided they weren't going to get enough help from the draft. They needed a big center, so when Los Angeles offered seven-foot James Edwards, Earl Tatum and cash for Dantley and Dave Robisch, Dantley was gone again.
"A lot of times people get traded because they don't produce or they don't get along with management," Dantley says, "but I've played better than anyone I've been traded for, and I get along with everyone all right. So now people come to me and ask me what's wrong, why am I always getting traded? They can see I'm playing well, so they think I must have a bad attitude."
Oddly, if there was a problem with Dantley's attitude in Los Angeles, it was that he didn't seem to have an attitude, or at least didn't have one sufficient to keep the Lakers from being a bore to watch. When Jack McKinney took over as head coach at Los Angeles, he ordered out for a big forward—the Lakers' other forward was Jamaal Wilkes, who is 6'6�" and 190 pounds—and the Jazz obliged him with Spencer Haywood, one for one.
On the whole, Wilkes has never been either the scorer or rebounder Dantley is, so eyebrows were raised when Wilkes was kept and Dantley was let go. "I don't think anybody in the league thinks Wilkes is a better player than Dantley," says Utah Coach Tom Nissalke. "I think they made a real mistake with A.D."
Dantley has been troubled by these dislocations, and why not? He is 23, skillful at what he does, and yet the way Dantley sees it he has been fired from every job he's had. "It's been tough," he says. "No ballplayer wants to get traded, because it hurts your pride, makes you feel like you aren't wanted, like you didn't do the job you were asked to do. One thing I can say is that I've adjusted real well to every team I've played for. I've played just about every role they've got."
Dantley has always been high-strung, and being bounced around from one new home to another hasn't contributed to his composure. When he is nervous his left shoulder twitches violently, and kids on playgrounds all over Salt Lake City have begun to imitate the Dantley Twitch. Often he is exhausted going into a game because he is unable to get to sleep much before 5 a.m. after having played the night before.
His insomnia has not been lessened by his travels. "Sometimes I think these owners just trade for the sake of trading," he says. "Each of those guys I've played for has told me, 'You're going to be here, buy a house, you're going to end your career here.' I've heard that so many times it's ridiculous. They say, 'Trust me, trust me.' But I don't trust anybody anymore. I hate to get close to people now, and I feel bad that I've never had a home, but I think I'm at the point where if I got traded again, it wouldn't bother me. I just go out and play my game and don't bother anybody."