by Mike Coffey
When the Ring of Honor was first implemented, fans may have had varying lists of who they’d like to see in it. But those lists varied only after the first two names — Austin Carr and Adrian Dantley. Friday night at Purcell Pavilion, those two “reserved slots” will be filled, as A.D. takes his place in the Ring, and fans will be left to ponder who the next lucky contestant will be.
When A.D. arrived in South Bend in the fall of 1973, he was the latest delivery out of the D.C. Pipeline that had served the Fighting Irish so well. Besides the legendary Carr, such luminaries as Collis Jones, Bob Whitmore, and Sid Catlett had preceded Dantley to play for Johnny Dee. “What really got me started at Notre Dame were the Washingtonians who had attended Notre Dame [previously],” Dantley remembered. “That’s what got me interested in Notre Dame when I was in high school. When I was a young kid, they were always on TV, so everyone knew about Notre Dame and everyone thought about attending Notre Dame. My senior year, I really wasn’t that interested in Notre Dame because they’d had a pretty bad season the year before. But Digger wanted me to come out for just one day. So I came out for one day, and it was a great visit, and I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”
His timing couldn’t have been better — for the first time, freshmen were allowed to play instead of sitting on the bench watching. So A.D. had the advantage of playing early on a star-laden team – not that he was bothered by such a situation. “When you’re a freshman,” he said, “you don’t really think about chemistry. You just want to come to school, do well academically, and contribute to the team. In my case, I wanted to come in and start. That was my goal – try to do well academically and start.”
Start he did, and contribute he did. While he didn’t burn up the scoreboards like Carr had, his consistency at the rim and on the glass was unequaled. He didn’t have the typical size of a down-low banger, but opponents forgot that quickly. “He was the best 6’5” presence I ever saw inside,” said Blue and Gold Illustrated’s Lou Somogyi. “He had the best head fake ability I ever saw here. He got about four or five offensive rebounds a game where he’d head-fake the defender into the air, draw the foul, and either get a three point play or two points from the foul line. He would get 10 or 12 points at the foul line almost every game. Yet he could also take you outside and beat you off the dribble.”
“He could score in the low post for his size,” agreed teammate and fellow Pipeline product Donald “Duck” Williams. “Adrian was about 6’5″, but he was so strong inside. He knew how to play the game in drawing fouls on the bigger guys he played against. He knew how to give them the head fake and draw the contact.”
As the games passed, his scoring and rebounding totals continued to mount. Would the youngster catch his predecessor before he left? Perhaps with one more year, he would have. But he had higher goals in mind. “I went into that [1975-76] season thinking that it might be my last year,” he said. “I had attended summer school every summer, so I was pretty ahead of the game academically. But the decision wasn’t that tough. I was a two-time first-team All-American, so there wasn’t much sense in me coming back. I felt I was ready.”
“Personally,” agreed Williams, “I thought that after that year he’d probably be gone because of the year he’d had — being an All-American and one of the leading scorers in the country and all. At that point, to me, it was a foregone conclusion because of who else was out there and where he’d go in the draft.”
Dantley left South Bend the second leading scorer in Fighting Irish hoops history, and while he remains second in scoring average, he now sits third behind A.C. and Luke Harangody. But no one has attempted or made more free throws than A.D. at Notre Dame, and he remains among the leaders in rebounds and rebounding average. He carried his work ethic with him to the pros, and was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
Friday, though, he will get his due from the place where it all started. And the fans couldn’t be happier.