Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

June 6, 2014

Dan D'Antoni: Back to the future

Marshall alumnus returns to alma mater

PRINCETON — Dan D’Antoni thought he’d played “the perfect game” for Mullens High against Bluefield back in the mid-1960s.

His father thought otherwise.

“I think it was one of my best games,” the new Marshall basketball coach said earlier this week. “Against Bluefield, I had 42 points. I was going to go out and celebrate with my friends.

“Before I (could) go, Dad said, ‘You want to sit down?’ and he pulled out two sheets of paper and said, ‘Let’s go over some things that’ll make you a little better.’ I thought I had played the perfect game — but I guess not.”

His father, legendary Wyoming County coach Lewis D’Antoni, “loved the fast break,” his son said. “He didn’t coach me, but as a father, he would give me little hints ... .”

“That was southern West Virginia, really. Every team that you found in southern West Virginia played fast-paced.”

The lessons that Dan D’Antoni learned in Wyoming County have continued through his days of the “Seven Seconds or Less” offense of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, and are being re-taught to his newest team, the Marshall Thundering Herd.

“We’re going to push it up the floor,” he said during the annual Marshall coaches’ tour stop at the Chuck Mathena Center in Princeton. “It’ll be exciting. I think fans will like the style — and it’ll put Ws up on the board.”

“It’ll take me a year or so, and let’s get these kids a chance to adjust to what we’re doing. It is a big adjustment, now, just the conditioning part of it. I hear it’s a little different from what it used to be.”

“We just have to get that going, and get these guys used to the style — making quick decisions, moving the ball fast, taking shots when they’re available.”

“We’re going to do some good things there. There’s a lot of people who support basketball. Southern West Virginia’s always been a stronghold (for Marshall), so you have passion, and where you have passion, you can sell things.”

“We’ll get that passion stirred up again, get a little excitement in the basketball game itself, and Marshall will sell itself. And, hopefully, I’ll be a big part of it.”

• • •

In high school, D’Antoni was a first-team all-state guard for Mullens. Looking back, he didn’t think much of his chances to play in college.

“I always say that when they got me to go to Marshall, I wasn’t talented by anybody,” he said. “Ellis (Johnson, MU’s head coach then) saw something that struck him, I guess, and next thing you know, I was at Marshall. But if you’d ask most knowledgeable basketball people, I would never have been there.”

Nicknamed “Mouse” for his combination of small size and speed, he started at point guard for Johnson’s “Iron Man 5” teams that went to the National Invitation Tournament in 1967 and ’68.

The first of those teams reached the NIT semifinals and D’Antoni led the tournament in assists.

He led the Herd in scoring in his senior year, 1968-69, scoring 17.5 points per game and made first-team all-Mid-American Conference. He ended with 1,109 points.

After graduating in 1970, he was named head coach of the freshman team, which included his younger brother Mike.

After a few years as assistant varsity coach at MU, he moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to begin a 30-year coaching career at Socastee High School, winning more than 500 games.

He has spent the past nine years as an assistant coach in the NBA, including stints with his brother Mike with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers.

His selection at age 66 as head coach of the Thundering Herd came on April 24.

His age isn’t an issue, he said.

“I feel good. You don’t feel that you’re done yet,” he said. He often cites his father, who still lives in Mullens and can carry on a sharp conversation at age 100.

“The most exciting time of my life is still ahead of me,” Dan D’Antoni said. “I can’t remember what’s behind. We’re looking forward to it. I feel good. I have plenty of energy for the job. I have a 16-year-old daughter (and that) keeps me young, too.”

“I am who I am, and we’ll see if it can work here at Marshall.”

• • •

His roster is riddled with defections by top players who are moving to other universities. D’Antoni almost immediately “made a couple of changes,” he said.

“We signed a kid from Serbia (6-foot-5 Aleksa Nikolic), which we think will be an outstanding player. We’ve got a kid out of Hedgesville (C.J. Burks), which we think will be a good player. He’ll not play this year, but he’ll play thereafter.”

“Things are looking good. The players are good, they’re all reacting good. It’s upbeat. I’m excited. Haven’t lost a game — so this is great!”

He won’t be writing off southern West Virginia on the recruiting trail, he said.

“We’ll look at players anywhere they are. Obviously, (Wyoming County) would be one of my favorite haunts. ... I would take a lot of pride if we can find players that can play at this level, from that school. And I’m sure they’re here.”

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to spot the talent that is here (in southern West Virginia), and bring it in to Marshall. I know they’ll play with passion if they’re from this area. That’s important to me.”

Asked about how he can revive pride in the basketball program, he began, “I really don’t know. I’m going to come and give it my best effort. I am a Thundering Herd (club) member, and I take a lot of pride in that.”

“We want to instill that back in the program, hope that passion and that pride will bleed off to other people, and we’ll get them back, and bring on the Herd again.”

He has run his players through a punishing conditioning schedule with the goal of speeding up their approach, physically and mentally.

He said, “I think the ball will move a lot faster than it moved in the past. It’ll be shared more frequently among players. Shots will be taken quicker. It’ll be a fast-paced game. I’ve always done that.”

It’s clearly a model taken from his playing days.

“I think we scored 119 points, without the 3-point line, in Madison Square Garden one time,” he said. “One time we scored 131 against Old Dominion when I played. We’re going to put the numbers up on the board.”

“Defensively, we’re going to get after it all over the court. As a high school coach, basically my teams were defensive teams. ... A lot of our offense came, when I was at Marshall, from our defense.”

“We’re going to put our backs to that basket, and make sure that they don’t put it in there, and we’ll take it to the other end real quick and see what happens.”

• • •

Several baby boomers at the Marshall gathering in Princeton retold stories on Tuesday about watching D’Antoni playing at the old Memorial Fieldhouse on Fifth Avenue in Huntington, in front of a packed house of basketball fans.

Recalling those days, D’Antoni said, “You know, life is about making stories, and I had a chance to make a lot of good stories from Memorial Fieldhouse. A lot of good people, a lot of excellent play and fun times.

“Coming back to Marshall, that’s one of the big draws that brought me back here.”

One of those memories centered on the late Ray “Doc” Hagley, the Marshall team physician in the late 1960s who became a mentor to the young basketball player — and his landlord.

“ ‘Doc’ Hagley was a big part of my experience at Marshall,” D’Antoni told the media contingent around him on Tuesday. “He passed away on the plane crash (that killed practically the entire football team in November 1970).”

“But one of his biggest dreams was for me to be the head coach. So I always tell him, ‘Well, here I am, Doc. It took awhile, but here I am.’ ”

— Contact Tom Bone at tbone@bdtonline.com

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