Ex-Jazz star Adrian Dantley makes a long-time-coming return to Utah

Former franchise centerpiece-turned-pariah makes a pre-All-Star weekend appearance for the organization he’s on good terms with now, and recalls some of his better times here.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Adrian Dantley, a six-time NBA All-Star, a two-time All-NBA selection and a two-time NBA scoring champion and coach talks about his career, Jan. 28, 2023 at the Vivint Arena prior to the match-up between the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks.

“It’s good to be back. It’s been 11 years, I think,” Utah Jazz legend Adrian Dantley said Saturday night at Vivint Arena, a little less than an hour before they tipped off against the Dallas Mavericks.

If, however, the last time he visited Salt Lake City was — as he recalled — when he was serving as the interim coach of the Denver Nuggets in a first-round playoff series against the Jazz, that would put his absence from the Beehive State closer to 13 years.

Nevertheless …

“I remember you guys beating us,” he deadpanned.

Indeed, the Jazz scored a 4-2 series victory over the Nuggets in 2010, before being swept by the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals.

Regardless, the high-scoring forward has plenty of good memories associated with his time in the organization and in Utah, hence his willingness to appear for a media session as part of the organization’s ramp-up to the 2023 All-Star Weekend.

He twice expressed his appreciation for the fanbase — first noting that he was treated well by the community during his time here between 1979-86, then recalling how frequently opponents told him they hated playing here owing to the intensity of the crowd.

He had some intense moments here himself over the years.

He noted that when he was traded by the Lakers to the Jazz in exchange for Spencer Haywood, it would prove to be something of a basketball culture shock.

Los Angeles went on to win the NBA championship that season, led by superstar center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a rookie point guard named Magic Johnson. The circumstances were a little different for the Jazz, though.

“When I first got here, we were almost like an expansion team,” Dantley said. “Guys going in and out. Pete Maravich was here … but he wasn’t the same. He had flashes, but not consistent.”

In fact, besides Dantley — who would go on to average 29.6 points and make six All-Star Games in his seven seasons in Utah — the team’s next-biggest star was arguably head coach Frank Layden, thanks to his good-natured sideline antics that often made him more entertaining than most of the stuff taking place on the court.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Adrian Dantley, a six-time NBA All-Star, a two-time All-NBA selection and a two-time NBA scoring champion and coach is recognized, Jan. 28, 2023 at the Vivint Arena during the game between the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks.

The forward recalled an oft-performed bit where the coach would ask a ballboy to bring him a cup of water — then insist on the kid tasting it first in case someone was trying to poison him as retribution for the team’s shortcomings.

Layden became a beloved Utah institution. But having the head coach be the second-biggest draw on the team was indicative of an organization that was, in Dantley’s words, just trying “to survive.”

Better players — and, correspondingly, better times — would come.

Dantley expressed pride in being a part of the 1983 team that became the first in franchise history to qualify for the playoffs. And he praised Layden (with whom he had a famously fraught relationship) for his role in improving the team’s overall talent level. To this day, he stays in close contact with former Jazz teammates Rickey Green and Ron Boone, referring to the latter as “a big brother to me.”

He was also happy to ultimately get his No. 4 jersey retired and hanging in the rafters of Vivint Arena, though he was a bit nonplussed that it didn’t happen until 2008 — 21 years after he was traded to the Pistons, and 17 years after he played his final NBA game.

“It feels pretty good, feels pretty good,” he said. “Took awhile to get there, but it finally got there.”

His relationship with the organization has come a long way (then-Jazz president Dave Checketts infamously said of 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.”). The organization and the league itself have come a long way, too.

He noted with wonder that the entire franchise was worth somewhere around $3 million when he first got here, and now that’s a low-level player salary. He marveled at how Frank and Scott Layden represented the entirety of the team’s coaching staff back then, and “today, you’ve got like 15 coaches.”

Dantley would nevertheless like to see continued evolution.

Like, say, at the All-Star Game.

The league has expanded. Regular-season and postseason rosters have expanded. In his view, it’s time for All-Star rosters to expand as well, to reflect the NBA’s burgeoning talent level.

“I think it should be a 15-man roster instead of 12,” Dantley said. “You always get a lot of guys that don’t make the All-Star team that should.”