By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
When you’re on the eve of your 99th birthday and as sharp as Lewis D’Antoni, keeping something secret is not easy.
Try as she might to surprise her legendary father with a gathering of friends and family to celebrate his big day, Kathy D’Antoni could not pull one over on him.
“It was supposed to have been a surprise, but it didn’t work out that way,” Lewis said Sunday. “I really know my daughter and I knew she was going to do something. I sort of figured it out because she was out here at the church a lot of the time.”
Kathy need not feel disappointed. Her dad has seen just about everything in a life that has resulted in him becoming one of what has turned out to be several basketball icons produced by the famed Wyoming County town of Mullens.
About 80 well wishers helped celebrate D’Antoni’s birthday at First Presbyterian Church, enjoying a spaghetti lunch — perhaps fitting for this son of an Italian immigrant who can whip up a tasty pot of sauce in his own right.
D’Antoni, who turns 99 today, was appreciative of the showing of support, especially the morning after a snowstorm that made travel treacherous on some area roads.
“With a bad day as it is today, we still have a large crowd of people,” he said. “They are wonderful people. This is a great town. It’s always been a great town and it has always had great families.”
That includes his own. D’Antoni, a multiple high school coach of the year in both West Virginia and Ohio, is the patriarch of an unmistakable basketball family — his son, Mike, is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, extending a career that also included stops in Portland, Denver, Phoenix and New York.
Mike’s older brother, Dan, is currently an assistant coach with the Lakers.
Both Mike and Dan are members of the Marshall University Athletics Hall of Fame. Mike had his No. 10 retired last year.
Lewis spent 12 years away from Mullens, living under the brighter lights of those big cities while following Mike and Dan around the NBA. He doesn’t believe Mike was given a fair shot by the Knicks and says selfishness among star players there led to his resignation in March.
Mike was hired as Lakers coach on Nov. 12, a move that was immediately criticized because the team passed on former Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson, who has 11 world championships. Mike has yet to win a NBA ring.
The Lakers, with newcomers Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, have struggled to mesh in Mike’s first month and a half, but Lewis believes success is inevitable.
“It’s hard to get a team going right, his way, without having a lot of practice time,” he said. “He’s going to struggle some, but I think he is going to come out of it all right.”
Success has not been limited to basketball for the D’Antoni family. Kathy has the thankless but rewarding job of educator, an assistant state superintendent of schools. Lewis’ fourth child, Mark, is an attorney in Charleston.
There are so many factors that go into living a life as full and as long as D’Antoni’s. Naturally, he stayed active, participating in every sport he came across — basketball, of course, but also football and baseball. He played baseball professionally for four seasons with the Bluefield Blue Grays, who eventually became the Bluefield Orioles.
He even played golf until he was 95.
D’Antoni, a novel enthusiast who two years ago wrote his own book, “The Coach’s Coach,” says he always took care of himself and has “had good health most of my life.” But he attributes most of the reason for his long life to his family — one of those great Mullens families who gave him little to worry about.
“I think a lot of times when you have a lot of problems,” D’Antoni said, “that sort of takes a few years away from your life.”
Obviously, Lewis D’Antoni has lived a charmed life.
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