Danny D’Antoni never will forget the moment.
“The details aren’t vivid,” said Marshall University’s veteran head basketball coach and former star player, “but the feeling is vivid.”
D’Antoni, along with his father (Lewis) and brother (Mark) were at Dr. Ray and Shirley Hagley’s house in the Highlawn section down by the Ohio River, babysitting the Hagley’s children on the evening of Nov. 14, 1970.
If it sounds as if D’Antoni was practically a member of the Hagley family, it’s because he was. Besides being D’Antoni’s mentor, Doc Hagley even allowed him to live on the second floor of the building that housed his medical practice.
That’s why D’Antoni was babysitting that night.
“We were keeping the kids when it flashed across the television,” remembered D’Antoni. “They were outside. I think they were playing kickball. And we were getting ready to watch a football game, Dad and I. And one of the kids was sitting in my lap. I can’t remember which one it was.
“And, then, it came across and I remember saying, ‘Dad, that’s the plane.’ And Dad said, ‘Now, you don’t know that.’ And I said, ‘No, I do know that.’
“That’s when we took the one child we had outside and then got back together to figure out how we were going to deal with this.”
Similar scenarios were occurring across the Tri-State because so many influential Huntington people — including the Hagleys — were on the plane. That’s why the entire community was so devastated.
“It hit me real hard,” said D’Antoni, who was a Marshall assistant basketball coach at the time. “That’s why I take a little bit different view on how to remember the plane crash.
“Number one, I’m always going to remember. I don’t need any reminders. I don’t need the fountain being turned on. I don’t need to go back. That, to me, is the hardest day of my life is when that day in my life is brought back to me.”
It’s not a day he wants to remember.
“I don’t know if I’ve just built up a defense mechanism,” said D’Antoni, “but my thing is I want to ... you know, their whole agenda, the players and Rick [head football coach Rick Tolley] and all of them, their agenda was pushing Marshall forward in a real positive light. To get it to where the university would shine and people would recognize it.
“That was their goal. That’s what they worked for. That’s why they were so dedicated to Marshall. The Ralstons, the Wards, the Hagleys, the Proctors — I could go on, I don’t want to miss any — that is what they worked for.
“So, I have taken the approach that I don’t want to look back at the tragedy part of it. What I look at is Marshall today. And see how proud they would be of all the new academic buildings we have and the outstanding football facilities that they had envisioned and were working for.”
But it took a while for D’Antoni to form that philosophy. First he had to get away. He had to get away from the horror and the heartbreak. He had to get away from Huntington.
“There’s no question,” said D’Antoni. “I didn’t have any answers, so I left. It was hard for me. There were some things going on. Doc Hagley wasn’t there to help channel that, so we had to go through that.
“Doc Hagley started the Big Green. The support and the influence was no longer there and it created a couple of decisions that weren’t in the best interest of our family. It really left me saying, ‘I’ve got to go.’ So, I left. I went to Myrtle Beach.”
D’Antoni was gone for all those years until returning on April 24, 2014, as Marshall’s head basketball coach. Coming back was a homecoming, yet it also was very difficult. There’s a reason D’Antoni cried at his introductory press conference.
“I get stuck when I start remembering the tragedy part of it,” he said. “I smile when I see where we’re going and what we’re trying to accomplish. And trying to get that in their memory. Basically, trying to create that same scenario that they gave their lives for.
“And, so, I look more toward them smiling and seeing things that are going on — happy with things that are going on — rather than looking back at a tragedy. Even now, that is difficult for me to do.”
Fifty years hasn’t dulled the pain.