College Sports

I quit on coach D'Antoni, but to his credit it never became personal

Marshall head coach Dan D'Antoni laughs at an official's foul call on one of his players during a game earlier this month.
Marshall head coach Dan D'Antoni laughs at an official's foul call on one of his players during a game earlier this month. The Associated Press

I figured it was a long shot.

Just a couple hours after Marshall had learned of its long-awaited seeding for the NCAA tournament, I had decided to reach out to my former high school coach, Dan D'Antoni, who's in his fourth year as the head coach of the Thundering Herd.

No answer. It went straight to voicemail and I left a message.

"Well, it was worth a shot," I thought to myself. "Maybe I'll hear back from him on Monday or Tuesday and we'll be able to share his thoughts of an NCAA berth 31 years in the making."

As I shifted my focus to my other duties, nine minutes passed before a familiar song started playing, 'How We Do' by rapper The Game. Ahh, it was my ringtone and I glanced at my phone and saw Coach D was already calling me back.

"How cool is that?" I thought. There's no doubt that he was a busy man at that time, with all the celebration, preparation and media obligations that come with an NCAA berth.

Yet, many years removed from his 30-plus years as the coach at Socastee High School, here he was prioritizing a call back to a news organization - and a former player - that's covered him for so long.

That's just the kind of guy he is. I know from experience.

One of the hardest decisions I've ever made involved the legendary coach. Two games into my first season as a varsity basketball player at Socastee, I realized I wasn't having fun anymore. The practices were grueling six days a week. I was working a job on Sundays, the only day away from basketball.

Basketball was my life. Though that was something I thought I had always wanted, it had worn me out. Playing wasn't fun anymore. It was too serious. By that time, any dreams of playing beyond high school sounded even more exhausting.

After a few days, I decided my days of playing organized basketball were over. The hardest part was telling Coach D.

I was afraid I'd look like a quitter, which in that aspect I guess I was. I was afraid he'd think less of me.

In the end, he tried to talk me out of it, but my decision had been made. Yet, I didn't feel like Coach D thought less of me; instead, I think he understood I was simply going in a different direction, and that meant a lot to me.

That direction wound up being exactly what I'm doing now: journalism. The summer after that school year - my junior year - I began self-teaching myself as much as I could about journalism - style, how to write and as much as I could find to prepare myself.

As I entered my senior year, I applied to be the sports editor of the Socastee newspaper and got the job. Truth be told, I don't think anyone else had applied, so therefore the fact I hadn't taken the journalism course that was a prerequisite was waived.

I was still playing basketball on the side, in a less serious capacity and was probably playing some of the best ball of my life. Nonetheless, I had a new passion.

One of the first people I interviewed was D'Antoni, and he was great. I think he also took comfort in the fact that after quitting basketball I was transitioning to something else substantial.

Later, after I started working at The Sun News, I talked to D'Antoni several times over the years, mostly when he was an NBA assistant under his brother, Mike, now the coach of the NBA-leading Houston Rockets. Each time I called, he'd either pick up or call me back as soon as he could and he'd always give me as much time as I needed.

One of the humorous times I recall was when the D'Antonis were with the New York Knicks, before future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony went there. It was near the trade deadline and there were rumors swirling that 'Melo might wind up in the Big Apple.

I had to ask, and his response is something I'll always remember.

It was something to the effect of, "David, if I comment on that they'll fine me so hard blood will squirt out of my eyes."

We both laughed. He knew how the media game worked and therefore was aware that I wouldn't have been doing my job if I hadn't tried to get something out of him.

Now, here we are in a situation where he's still coaching and I'm still writing (and playing basketball as a hobby). Before getting the Marshall job, D'Antoni had talked about possibly retiring, but now that doesn't appear to be in the cards anytime soon as he has the Thundering Herd in their best position since 1987.

I plan to continue to keep up with Coach D as long as he continues to coach and I'll write about him as long as he continues to answer the calls.

After all, I haven't quit this yet, and I think he realizes I don't plan to.