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A former Marshall great and European star is back in
the states guiding the NBA's Phoenix Suns.

By Dave Wellman


Phoenix Suns’ basketball Coach Mike D’Antoni stands courtside a few feet from his team’s bench, his arms folded, his eyes focused on his players. Though he appears calm as the blur that is the Suns’ high flying offense streaks by, D’Antoni is “totally consumed” with the NBA battle being waged at US Airways Center.

Looks, he will tell you, are deceiving. He is not calm. Inside, butterflies are fluttering. Every missed shot, every turnover, every questionable call makes him nauseous. At times, he wants to throw up. Mike D’Antoni, three-and-a-half decades removed from his glory days as Marshall University’s beloved playmaking point guard, is still that consumed by a game – the game of basketball.

“I love what I’m doing. You get to do it 82 times a year during the season, plus
playoffs, so maybe 100 times a year,” D’Antoni, now 56, says. “That’s 100 times a year standing there with butterflies and wanting to throw up. Sometimes it’s unbelievably great, but sometimes you want to crawl in a hole and hide.”

Mostly these days, coaching the high-scoring, highly successful Suns is unbelievably great for D’Antoni. There’s rarely a need to find a hole to climb into. At the end of the 2006-07 regular season, Phoenix boasted the highest scoring average in the NBA at 110 points a game. Most importantly, though, the Suns’ winning percentage of better than .750 was second-best in the league.

Winning – and not just playing – basketball games, as it has been for many decades, is a way of life for Mike D'Antoni, whether on the court or on the bench. Phoenix’s streak of three consecutive seasons as one of the NBA’s best teams is just a continuation of
basketball success that D’Antoni has enjoyed dating way back to his high school days in Mullens, W.Va., where he was a two-time all-state guard with the Rebels.

Next he won big at Marshall as a player, leading the Thundering Herd to a 59-21 record and two post-season appearances from 1970 through 1973; he won in Italy as a player then a coach, guiding his teams to the Korac Cup, the Italian League title, the Cup of Italy and the Cup of Europe, twice being voted the league’s coach of the year; and, he has won in his brief time with Phoenix, leading the Suns to regular-seasons records of 62-20 in 2004-05, 54-28 in 2005-06 and 61-21 in 2006-07. Simply, D’Antoni wins far more than he loses, and he always has.

It is fair to say, most “experts” would agree, that Marshall’s 1970, ’71 and ’72 teams, ignited by the passing and defensive wizardry of D’Antoni, and an incredible fast-paced offense led by the likes of Russell Lee, Randy Noll, Tyrone Collins and Bill James, were among the most popular in Thundering Herd history.

Fans crammed into the 6,500-seat Memorial Field House, Marshall’s home for 30 years before Cam Henderson Center’s 1981 opening, to cheer for the Herd, led by the “Italian Hillbilly,” Mike D’Antoni. Students routinely filled the lower-level bleachers two hours before tip-off, just to make sure they got in and got a seat – any seat. The show was that good. Nobody wanted to miss it.

D’Antoni, whose popularity with the fans then compared favorably to Herd football great Chad Pennington’s in the late 1990s, was the catalyst for a Marshall team that won those 59 games. Marshall was ranked as high as eighth in the country in 1972 when it played in the NCAA Tournament, played in the NIT the following year, and blazed up and down the court in scoring 100 or more points an amazing 19 times during that span. The Herd averaged 91 points per game in the 1971 season and 93 in 1972 when 3-point field goals and shot clocks did not exist!

D’Antoni, 6-foot-3, thin and quick but not overly speedy, ran the fast break to perfection, often finding teammates with no-look passes that wowed the crowds and frustrated opponents. He totaled 659 career assists, second-highest to fellow Mullens native Greg White, who racked up 701 assists in four years. For good measure, D’Antoni also scored 1,227 points for a career 15.3 average and was a two-time academic All-American. Sports Illustrated named him one of the Top 50 Greatest Athletes from West Virginia 1900-2000.



To read the rest of "Mike D'Antoni," please visit the Back Issues page of our website to purchase
this issue of the Huntington Quarterly.



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