Where are they now? Full circle career for D’Antoni

dan-marshallDan D’Antoni has been involved in basketball at every level during his 40-plus year coaching career – from the dark and dingy high school gyms to the glitz and glamour of the NBA – and now as head coach at his alma mater, Marshall University. Despite the many differences in each stop between Socastee High and his return to the Thundering Herd, one thing remains constant.

“At all levels you have to remain true to yourself; that it’s a game that you’re helping the players and not helping yourself,” said D’Antoni, whose career has come full circle with his return to his native West Virginia. “If you believe in that and that it’s for the common good and not for your own good, most players give you a chance to coach them, and that goes through all levels. Whatever success I get will be because of the players.”

That philosophy holds true to perhaps his biggest claim to fame – founding the Beach Ball Classic. Preparing to tip off its 35th year Monday at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, the Beach Ball Classic has given thousands of players the chance to showcase their talents, helped hundreds of local students and athletes with college scholarship opportunities, and provided countless hours of entertainment and unforgettable memories for local basketball fans. The BBC was held over the holidays “to create an event where a lot of Myrtle Beach people could come together and celebrate not only the game and the event itself but the season,” he said.”

That was the game plan that D’Antoni and a handful of others drew up when the Beach Ball Classic launched in 1981, but it was the brain child of the Socastee coach years before. It was a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention as D’Antoni set out to raise his players’ recruiting profiles, raise funds for his growing program, give local hoops fans a venue to enjoy top teams and talent, and make a name for Myrtle Beach as a sports destination. Missions accomplished.

“In 1979, I had two players named James Brown and Stan Parker,” D’Antoni recalled. “I had some players I didn’t think were getting looked at college-wise. They were on a good team. We won the region when we entered the playoffs. I had just turned the Socastee program around. These players really turned this program around and I didn’t think they were getting looked at college-wise, so I was trying to think of a way for college coaches to come and see them.

“We also needed money in the budget, and spending money. I wanted them in the better uniforms and travel stuff, and bags to make them feel special. I was looking for money to support the program. The only way I thought I could get people to watch my players is if they came to watch somebody else and then they would see my players if they played well. So I came up with the idea: ‘I’ll get a tournament, and get some teams away from here that colleges are following, bring them here to this tournament, and hopefully we will compete against them.’

“My players would match-up pretty well and it showed that we were being under-recruited. So that was the premise that started it. I tried to make it not just a basketball tournament; I wanted to make it something fun, and my fun is socializing and being around people and enjoying the conversations and the celebrations.”

Just like the many players who have gone from the Beach Ball to the top levels of high school, college and the NBA, D’Antoni has seen his own share of success. After spending 30 years at Socastee, he went on to serve as an assistant under brother Mike D’Antoni with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers before landing his dream job as head coach at Marshall, where he was also the starting point guard four decades earlier. The Herd’s hectic holiday schedule will prevent D’Antoni from attending this year’s Beach Ball, but the show will go on under the leadership of some of his many friends and former players.

It’s not only his coaching skill on the court that makes Coach D’Antoni special, but also the bonds and connections he makes off the court that leaves a mark on all the players that have been under his tutelage.

“Coach (D’Antoni) was the ultimate motivator,” said former player Derrick Hilton, who will coach Socastee in this year’s tournament. “He was an excellent locker room guy. He would just let us play when we were out on the court, but he also stressed the importance of team unity and being on the same page as a group, as a family.”

One of Hilton’s high school teammates, former Coastal Carolina guard and current North Myrtle Beach coach Alvin Green, expressed how much D’Antoni meant to him off the court.

“Coach was one of the best things to happen in my life; he not only made me a better basketball player but made me a better person. He treated me as if I was one of his sons and always took the time out for us and was always a wonderful role model to us. I’m always going to be appreciative of what he has done and is still doing for me to this day.”

That list of appreciation includes the Beach Ball Classic, where Green and other local players have gained national exposure over the years. What started as a dream of his, the Beach Ball Classic has earned recognition as one of the premier holiday basketball tournaments in the country. Some of the biggest names in the game have come to play in this tournament, names like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Jason Kidd. Just to sum up how big this tournament has become, when Coach D’Antoni was in the NBA there was an All-Star Game where nine of the 10 starters were Beach Ball Classic veterans.

The success of the Beach Ball all goes back to D’Antoni’s dream and his philosophy that it’s all about the players.

“At all levels you have to make the players buy into your system,” he said. “They have to believe in you and trust you.”

Photo courtesy of Marshall Athletics

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