The D'Antonis have always had a family game plan
MULLENS, W.Va. -- There was no such thing as a simple game of bridge in the D'Antoni household.
It didn't matter who won last night's game of Monopoly or who ate the most cereal, the victor's name was posted on the refrigerator for all to see.
Lewis and Betty Jo D'Antoni weren't about to let any of their children - Kathy, Danny, Mike or Mark - take a title without a fight.
"We wouldn't let them win . . . I mean, they had to earn it," Lewis, 98, said Monday from his home in Mullens. "And they had to learn how to win and also you had to learn when you're a loser. And you had to improve to be a winner." The competitions were fierce but not hostile, and were an attempt to teach a lesson learned from a life of overcoming adversity. The D'Antoni children took that lesson to heart.
Kathy, 70, the oldest, is an assistant superintendent for the state Department of Education. Mark, the youngest at 51, is an attorney in Charleston.
And on Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers hired the other two D'Antoni boys: Mike, 61, will be the team's head coach and Dan, 66, will be an assistant.
The Education Alliance, a West Virginia nonprofit devoted to better education in the state, is honoring Lewis tonight at its annual dinner for the D'Antoni family success.
All four children credit their parents with giving them the tools to achieve.
"I think the whole atmosphere, how to compete and how to interact with other people, how to lose . . . It was just something that was instilled, that was just the way our family grew up," Mike said Tuesday in a phone interview. "I've been fortunate enough to play games my whole life."
Winning was never the real reason Lewis and Betty Jo wanted their children to play. In a family so often defined by its success on the basketball court, winning has never been the ultimate goal.
Competition was the way Lewis and Betty Jo delivered their most important lesson: be the best you can be.
That's what D'Antonis call success.
Pride via optimism
Andrea D'Antoni never complained a day in his life.
Not when he came through Ellis Island in 1908, a piece of paper pinned to his lapel because he was unable to speak English. Not when he worked in a McComas coal mine, even after two brothers-in-law died in accidents. Not when the wood-frame building in Mullens that served both as his family's home and his grocery store burned to the ground. He also didn't complain when the bank lost all his money after going belly up during the Great Depression or when his wife died, leaving him to raise four children.
Lewis, who turns 99 on New Year's Eve, never forgot his father's attitude. "Dad had a lot of adversities. I cannot believe . . . that one human being would have that many. But I never heard him complain," Lewis said. "He just worked longer hours and harder."
Sixteen when his mother died, Lewis saw his father persevere. He used his father's example in his own life, because nothing came easily to the son of an Italian immigrant in southern West Virginia.
He wanted to show the people who looked down on foreigners that he was just as good as anybody else. Basketball gave him the chance to do that: he excelled as a point guard at Mullens High School before playing at nearby Concord College.
Graduating with a degree in biology, he went on to play professional basketball in Bluefield and Virginia for a few years before he returned home to coach and teach.
It was during his tenure as a coach at Pineville High School that he met his wife. He came down with the flu in 1940, and friends knew he was living alone. They invited him to stay at their home, where Betty Jo also happened to live. Lewis laughs as he recalls Betty Jo nursing him back to health. They were married in 1941, and apart from the 44 months Lewis spent as a member of the Navy's Seabees during World War II, they remained together until her death in 1990.
The strength of their bond created the foundation for a strong family.
"With me and my wife, what I was most proud of was the type of home that we had for our kids. I think you start there to develop your kids in the right manner," Lewis said. "And I think you have to have a good starting point."
That bond was never more evident for Dan than one day when he went to play basketball.
He remembers asking his mother if he could play and she told him he could not because it was almost time for dinner. Lewis always let his children play basketball so Dan went to his father and received the answer he wanted.
He found the pair standing on the porch waiting for him when he returned. Betty Jo quickly told Dan never to try a stunt like that again.
"I'm going to live with him the rest of my life; I love him," Dan remembers his mother saying as she pointed to his father. "I'm raising you to get the hell out of here."
That was how it went in the D'Antoni family.
Betty Jo - who Mark said took pride in being a distant relation of Devil Anse Hatifeld - laid down the law and Lewis enforced it. Mark remembers never wanting to get in trouble at home because when it came to his father's enforcement, there was always the "fear of the unknown."
All of the D'Antoni children said they wanted to make their parents proud. Lewis laughed about his wife's "sharp tongue" but said discipline was rarely necessary with his children. Instead, he and his wife tried continually to set an example.
Dan and Kathy defined that lesson with one of their mother's favorite sayings: "I'm not raising you to like me. I'm raising you so other people like you."
The D'Antonis let their children learn from their own mistakes. Mike said his father loved basketball but was never suffocating or pushy when it came to his sons' time on the court. In fact, Lewis took the job as principal of Mullens High School before Dan or Mike played.
Mark, the only D'Antoni to play for his father, thinks Lewis was a little relieved he didn't coach Dan or Mike. He never wanted to be accused of using his position to give his sons any favors.
The eternal basketball fan, the father couldn't help himself from giving Dan and Mike pointers after games. Lewis said he didn't go to every game, but when he did, he brought his pencil and paper.
"You'd think you would play a good game, and you would come home to two pages of notes," Mike said.
Dan and Mike were never forced to go over the notes. They could sit down with their father and talk about their mistakes, or they could take the notes to read later. It was Lewis' tone that made Dan comfortable with his father's suggestions. He was never negative but rather provided suggestions in a way that made his children want to listen.
He used the same tone in every lesson. Kathy remembers when she was a senior in high school and lost the competition for Mullens High homecoming queen by one vote. She excused herself from class because she knew she was going to cry. She ran into her father in the hallway.
Principal at the time, he told his daughter it wasn't his proudest moment.
"He said, 'This other young lady has no other honors in this school. You have many. Why are you not happy for her?' " Kathy said. "It's a life lesson. You don't feel sorry for yourself. You accept what it is, and you build on other things that you have."
Pink roses bloom along one side of the home where Lewis has lived off and on for the better part of 84 years. They are a testament to a devotion to gardening, one of the activities that replaced coaching basketball after Lewis retired from his final job in 1981.
He left the game with 450 wins and 200 losses, a mark that helped him become a member of the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. His children have won countless other basketballrelated awards. But all of the D'Antonis are quick to point to family as their greatest achievement.
"My four kids are the closest, closer knit, than any kids I've ever known in my life. They never say anything derogative about each other," Lewis said.
It's always been that way - Kathy would take younger brother Dan to play baseball in the neighborhood and stuck up for him if he was treated differently. Dan always picked younger brother Mike first in pick-up basketball games, even if that meant letting the other team choose the next four players in a row.
"We would compete in games against each other, but we never competed for their love or competed for 'I want to be better than you,' other than winning a game or something," Dan said. "When it came to competing outside the family, we always kind of took up for each other."
Lewis said he never dreamed his children would accomplish everything that they have. Never a braggart, he said he feels humbled and blessed by their success.
Dan said he feels like his father more every day as he works to raise his own children. Kathy, who visits her father every weekend, said she thinks she has let him and her mother down if she has trouble with a professional relationship. Mike called him the morning he became the coach of the Lakers.
They all want their father to know they're doing their best.
"To think that his family was able to make good lives for themselves, he's very proud of that, and I think he thinks about that a lot these days," Mark said. He laughed, and added, "Until the next ball game comes on."