Dan D’Antoni never got far from his roots, even though basketball took him away from his home in Mullens, West Virginia for nearly 50 years. He continued to be a proud son of the Mountain State while teaching the world about the unique style of basketball that he says came from the courts he grew up on.
He calls that style of play West Virginia basketball or more famously “Hillbilly Ball.” It is the fast break style of play that dominated West Virginia in the 1950s and 60s under famous coaches and players like Jerry West, Hal Greer, Willie Akers and Leo Bird and is now taking over the NBA, much to the credit of Dan’s younger brother Mike D’Antoni -- the head coach of the Houston Rockets.
“I always said you had to shoot real fast because first of all the courts were uneven and you might lose your dribble and if you shot it and missed it would go down the side of a hill. So you learned to go real fast, shoot quick and make it because if not you would have to chase it,” he said.
The term “hillbilly” may have negative connotations for some, but D’Antoni said he didn’t buy that.
“This is what Hillbillies look like. We put a team out there that’s efficient. They are clean cut young men who carry themselves well, who represent the basketball program both academically and on the court. This is really what a hillbilly stands for, hardworking, creative, able to accomplish things,” D’Antoni explained.
Dan D’Antoni grew up in Mullens while his dad, the late Lewis D’Antoni, lead the Mullens Runnin Rebels to a state title in 1955.
“As a young kid, Mullens was the Hoosiers before the movie. They won a state title from a very small school, when there were no classifications. They were runners up, they were champions and they were semifinalists the last one being beaten by (Jerry) West. Those were right in my formative years. It was great, the feeling I had and the passion that it gave me to play basketball and all my life I’ve been chasing to repeat the experience,” he said.
Lewis D’Antoni pushed young kids to get out and play basketball in one of the five outdoor courts. He even helped to construct some of the community courts when they were built. The courts became a gathering place for young people and almost a sort of training ground for players that helped Mullens earn seven state titles.
The D’Antoni family contributed to a foundation that’s working to restore the Mullens basketball courts of the D’Antoni’s youth. The West Mullens playground will be dedicated to Lewis D’Antoni, later this year.