Every time Denver visits EnergySolutions Arena to play the Utah Jazz, Nuggets assistant coach Adrian Dantley is forced to defend himself.
His players look up, see seven retired numbers hanging from the rafters and ask - if Dantley was really that good - why isn't his jersey up there, too? "They always give me a hard time," said Dantley. "They tease me all the time. They say, 'Man, you must not have been very good. Your jersey's not up there with all those other ones.' ''
For Dantley, the good-natured taunting stops Wednesday night, when the Jazz retire the No. 4 he wore during seven seasons in Utah that were punctuated with two scoring titles, six All-Star appearances and occasional controversy.
"It's long overdue," said ex-teammate Mark Eaton. "He made a tremendous contribution to this team. He was a cornerstone of things to come. . . . Look at the game today. How many players can you count on for 30 points a night? It's a pretty small handful."
Despite a couple of highly
publicized battles with his star player, which were put to rest long ago, Frank Layden agrees that Dantley's jersey should be retired.
"It's a wonderful thing," said the former Jazz coach, general manager and president. "He was a scoring machine. I will make a bold statement and say if it wasn't for Adrian Dantley, we wouldn't be here today. He gave the franchise a lot of credibility when we were a horse---- team."
The Jazz acquired Dantley from the Lakers for Spencer Haywood just before the start of the 1979-80 season - their first in Utah.
That year, their average attendance was 7,821.
In Dantley's final season, the average attendance had spiked at 11,655.
"It was a tremendous deal that brought him to Utah - a deal that Frank made," said longtime Jazz scout and assistant coach David Fredman. "If you go back, it's probably one of the biggest trades in franchise history.
"It brought an automatic sense of credibility to the team. We had a legitimate All-Star - someone to build around. . . . A.D. was the first player fans in Utah had to identify with since the ABA days."
Dantley has mostly fond memories of playing in Utah. Among them: his friendships with Pete Maravich, ex-coach Tom Nissalke and former owner Sam Battistone
On the court, Dantley remembers helping the Jazz go from laughingstock to a second-round playoff team.
"I was proud when we made the playoffs," he said. "That began a long run to the playoffs for the franchise and I always felt a part of that. . . . It was bad when I got here. Not bad. We just weren't very good. That made me appreciate the situation even more. It felt good to help the team get to the playoffs after starting at the bottom."
At times, it was a pothole-filled road - one which created some ill will and probably accounts for the fact that it took owner Larry Miller two decades to decide to retire Dantley's jersey.
In 1982-83, Dantley tore wrist ligaments and played only 22 games. After being the Comeback Player of the Year, he held out in '84-85 while pursuing a new contract.
"Adrian felt like he needed to get paid at the moment because he was coming off a great year," Fredman said. "As the GM, Frank was trying to do what was best for the team."
Layden and agent David Falk sparred publicly, and Dantley was caught in the middle.
"I tell people to this day, I never had a problem with Frank," Dantley said. "I never gave Frank a problem. I never talked back. Maybe I was quiet. But I never talked back. It just so happened a couple of situations got blown up."
Said Layden: "My thing was with his agent and not him. But I let him get involved when I shouldn't have. . . . It all went for naught anyway because he got his money and I got brain damage from having a miserable summer."
The Dantley-Layden relationship came under scrutiny again the following season - A.D.'s last in Utah.
Despite the fact rookie Karl Malone missed three of four free throws in the final seconds, the Jazz won a game at Phoenix, 105-103.
"I should have handled it differently," Layden said. "But Karl was bricking some free throws and I got on him viciously. I remember Adrian said something like, 'We won the game, leave him alone.' I exploded and I shouldn't have because it turned out much worse than it needed to be."
Layden sent Dantley home from the trip and fined him 30 dimes - a Biblical reference to one of history's most infamous traitors, Judas.
Despite the Phoenix affair, Dantley insists he was angry at Layden only once.
In the final week of the '85-86 season, Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins used a 57-point outing to inch away from Dantley and prevent him from winning his third scoring title.
In Dantley's opinion, Layden substituted for him too often in the last two games.
"That's the only time I got mad at Frank," he said.
Still, Dantley's legacy in Utah had already been established, and it will last as long as the franchise is based in Utah.
Said Eaton: "A.D. was our perennial All-Star. He was a scoring machine in a sea of guys who nobody really knew."