Day after day, Adrian Dantley hangs out on a street corner in his hometown, like some cliché of a pitiful ex-ballplayer years after his athletic prime. But Dantley's neither a cliché, nor is he pitiful. He's a crossing guard.
The greatest 6-foot-5 post player in the history of the NBA now pulls morning and afternoon shifts at a busy intersection outside Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, Md. The job, which he took at the beginning of this school year, earns him $14,685.50 a year, according to Montgomery County civil service records.
"He doesn't need the money," a Dantley associate tells me. The guard-forward was legendarily cheap during his long and fruitful NBA career, and he still lives nearby in a home he purchased in 1990 for $1.1 million, one that a former agent said "was virtually free and clear" of debt back in 1996.
"He's not going to just sit around," the associate continues, "and he just doesn't want to pay health insurance." Turns out that NBA veterans aren't provided health insurance by the league, not even all-timers like Dantley. Crossing guards in Montgomery County, however, are.
Dantley, who didn't return phone messages to discuss his current occupation, always had a reputation as greedy on the court and frugal off it. His résumé is second to none among undersized big men. His teams at DeMatha, six miles from Eastern Middle School, went 57-2 with Dantley in the lineup in the early 1970s. He was All-America in high school and twice more at Notre Dame, which he left in 1976 after three seasons. He led the U.S. team in scoring during its gold-medal run at the 1976 Olympics.
His NBA career peaked, numbers-wise, during his stay in Utah that began in the early 1980s. For each season between 1981 and 1984, he averaged more than 30 points a game. He retired in 1991 after 15 seasons and 23,177 points, making him the ninth-leading scorer of all time to that point. He loved free throws, naturally. Dantley still shares records for foul shots made in a quarter (14, playing for Detroit against Sacramento in 1986) and a game (28, while with Utah in 1984 against Houston). He hated squandering possessions as a player, too: Dantley shot 54 percent on his career, the highest-ever mark registered by anybody 6-foot-5 or shorter.
While Dantley always thrived in traffic, he wasn't any good at playing well with others. For all his offensive production, Dantley could never last in one place very long. He played with seven different teams and always seemed to leave town in a cloud of bad feelings.
He was bounced out of Utah after the 1985-1986 season following an awful negotiation with Jazz brass. It would take Dantley three years of crossing guarding just to earn enough to pay the fines he got while holding out ($44,000) for that last Jazz contract, a three-year, $2.85-million contract that was big for its day. Just before trading Dantley to the Pistons for Kelly Tripucka, Jazz head coach and general manager Frank Layden pulled one of the all-time management dick moves in pro sports history by fining Dantley $3 and making him pay it off in dimes—a figurative "30 pieces of silver" for an alleged betrayal, like Judas before the Last Supper.
Had Dantley actually been invited to that Biblical meal, chances are good he would have brown-bagged it: According to a Washington Post profile written after he retired, Dantley kept food per diems in his pocket. Jazz president Dave Checketts, picking up dickishly where Frank Layden left off, slammed Dantley after the trade: "We knew we had to get rid of him and we were never so happy to get rid of a guy in the history of the franchise.'' Dantley left Detroit steaming, too, traded to Dallas for Mark Aguirre in 1989 amid reports of altercations with head coach Chuck Daly and evil choirboy Isiah Thomas. Dantley's departure from Detroit came a year after leading the Pistons in scoring during an NBA Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, and months before Detroit's Bad Boys would win a championship.
Dantley never got that ring, but he played hard wherever he was, and he never hid the fact that he appreciated the fruits of his labors. "One of my goals, when I was young, was to be a millionaire," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "Not a millionaire with assets, we're talking liquid millionaire. I'm there. So that makes me feel pretty good."
There were some bumps on the way to the bank. Dantley and agent David Falk fell out after Falk had worked out a deal during the 1989-1990 season that enabled the Dallas Mavericks to void the last year of Dantley's contract, effective at the end of that season.
Dantley broke his leg just after that agreement, and his career was effectively over, minus the million bucks he'd have been paid had the contract not been voided. Dantley then sued Falk for $15 million in 1995, blaming his adviser for bad financial counsel during his playing days that Dantley said had cost him $1.5 million.
After filing the suit, Dantley told the Chicago Tribune that he'd asked Falk again and again about the investments and was never given any hint of trouble. "They said everything's fine. No problem," Dantley said. "I said it better be fine because I'm not going to spend much, sacrifice for later down the road. My money better be there. They said, 'You're set.'"
Dantley hired R. Kenneth Mundy, another legend in D.C. for helping former Mayor Marion Barry beat almost all of the drug and corruption charges he'd ever faced. Mundy painted Dantley as fiscally prudent, telling the Washington Post that Dantley avoided extravagances and lived on "about $1,500 per month" during his NBA career. The litigants settled the case just before trial, and while the details of the deal were to remain confidential, rumor around D.C. has always been that Falk's side gave Dantley's people every penny they'd asked for to avoid having the agent's business methods aired in public. Falk did not return a phone call for this story. Mundy died in 1996. Washington attorney Richard J. Leveridge, who represented Dantley after Mundy’s death, declined to comment on the settlement other than to say he was "choosing to honor" the confidentiality agreement.
Dantley's last job, as an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets, also ended badly. He was canned after the 2010-2011 season for refusing to sit in a row of seats behind the players, as head coach George Karl had asked his aides to do.
Dantley knew he'd bruised folks during and after his playing days. "I've got enemies out there," he told me in 2007, after he had been bizarrely denied again for the basketball hall of fame.
But those wounds seem to have healed, and all the honors that took too long to come Dantley's way have been realized in the past few years: His jersey was retired by the Jazz in 2007, and in ceremonies related to the event Layden took the blame for everything that went wrong. Dantley was elected to the hall of fame in 2008 after way too long a wait. And Notre Dame, which he left amid some squabbling with Digger Phelps, put him in the school's Ring of Honor in 2012. In a speech given as his jersey was hung in the rafters at the Joyce Center, Dantley tried to explain to the kids that life didn't get much better than college, even for superstars.
"Enjoy your years here at Notre Dame," he said. "You get a job in the real world, it's going to be a lot different."
Dantley's real-world job these days, though not as glamorous as his old one, has its benefits. Lots and lots of benefits, actually. Montgomery County officials took a lot of heat after a 2010 story in the Washington Examiner, a D.C. newspaper, reported that crossing guards there were taking in about $41.50 an hour. "Once considered the best-kept secret among a workforce of 30,000," the newspaper reported, "the position has become one of the county's most popular, particularly among those seeking health care coverage for their families." Guards are part-time employees, and they normally put in one hour a day, but they receive the same insurance and benefits package as full-timers.
On a recent morning I was sitting in a car at the intersection that Dantley guards, and just minutes before the first period bell was to ring, I saw him lunge in front of a running youngster, who was oblivious to everything but her own fear of tardiness, and keep the kid out of the path of a turning automobile. He went about this lifesaving task with all the effort he'd put into stopping Isaiah Thomas from driving to the basket or David Falk from touching a paycheck. It was as if the gods wanted me to know Dantley's not on anybody's dole.
Friends of Dantley are amused that he's taken a position that pays him less than 1/350th of the average annual income of an NBA player. But they aren't surprised that he took the job, or that he takes it seriously. "Adrian's cheap. But he's not going to take free money," says an associate. "That's not Adrian Dantley. No matter what the job is, he's gonna show up on time, and give other people shit if they show up late."
After Dantley's holdout in Utah ended with a big contract, Layden whined that the star player was getting the fans' sympathy: "Hell, don't feel sorry for Dantley. Feel sorry for the guy who carries a lunch pail."
A quarter-century later, Dantley's carrying the metaphorical lunch pail. But there's still no reason to feel sorry for him. Hell, he had a snow day last week.
Dave McKenna is a writer in Washington D.C.