The head is shiny, and there is virtually no hair on it anywhere except for the brows above eyes that are cold and menacing. It has always been a source of some amusement to Xavier McDaniel that it is his head that makes him one of the most intimidating figures in the NBA. "When I see another guy with a bald head, he don't intimidate me," says the X-Man.
"I don't weigh but 209 pounds, and I have the flattest chest in the league," adds McDaniel, who is closer to 6'6" than the 6'8" at which he is officially listed. "People don't realize how small I am until they get up next to me." But getting too close to the 27-year-old McDaniel can often lead directly to a horizontal position, from which he looks positively enormous. A partial list of current and former NBA players who have found themselves up next to the X and then down for the count would include Kenny Carr, Dale Ellis, A.C. Green, Reggie King, Eddie Johnson, Kenny Johnson, Jerome Kersey, Wes Matthews, Mike Mitchell, Calvin Natt, Charles Oakley, Charles Pittman, Cliff Robinson and Kevin Willis.
When McDaniel, a small forward, was traded from Seattle to the Phoenix Suns earlier this season, he rejoined former teammate and sometime sparring partner Tom Chambers, who believes the X-Man is finally interested in winning more than fistfights. "He's matured, and I've matured," Chambers says. "I think we both understand what's important now. When you first come into the league, it's about survival and making a name for yourself. But eventually you learn that winning is the only thing that matters." The trade was completed on Dec. 7, and X post facto the Suns won seven in a row, and have been playing like a contender since, with McDaniel averaging more than 20 points a game.
"All my life I've felt I had to prove myself to people," McDaniel says. "I wasn't nothing coming out of high school. And even when I was a little kid playing street basketball against older guys, they would always intimidate me. Now that I'm in Phoenix, I still feel I have to prove to the Seattle SuperSonics that they were wrong to trade me."
February 11, 1991
"I think X has some scars," says Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who is counting on McDaniel's scar tissue to thicken the Suns' skin for the playoffs. "We needed to be tougher," Fitzsimmons says, "and X gives us that. He's not afraid to go out and bang on people." The Suns have faded in the Western Conference finals two years in a row as the games got more physical. "I think we've been a bunch of marshmallows," says point guard Kevin Johnson. "Real pushovers. Every time we knocked a guy down, we'd help him back to his feet. When X got here, that changed immediately."
"Basketball is about who can intimidate who," McDaniel says.
This philosophy had its beginnings in the Hendley Homes housing project of Columbia, S.C., where McDaniel learned brass-knuckles basketball when he was 14 and still had hair on his head. He was playing against men who were 18 and 19 years old then. His shot was blocked so often, he was forced to develop a turnaround fallaway jumper that was untouchable, but it was equally important to McDaniel that he remain untouchable. "I was timid," he says. "I didn't want to get into fights, but if you called a foul on the playground, there was always an argument or a fight. So I had to learn to score even if I was fouled, because I was always scared to call anything on the bigger guys."
When he was 16, McDaniel shot up to 6'6", and he went back to the playground to renew old acquaintances. "I wasn't intimidated anymore," McDaniel recalls. "I'd take each of them in turn and go one-on-one, and one after another I would dunk on them." When he appeared on the court each evening after school, "they would kick some other guy off the court and pick me for their team," McDaniel recalls proudly.
The oldest of five children, McDaniel got his name when an aunt decided on Xavier; then when he was still an infant his grandmother started calling him X. His father, James, worked at a food distribution company during the day and as a janitor at the University of South Carolina at night. "We didn't see much of our father because he was always working," McDaniel says. "When we came home from school, he'd be eating and watching the news on TV before he had to catch the bus to go to his night job." The X-Mom and the X-Dad imposed a rigid set of standards on their children, standards he adheres to—and holds others to on the court—even now. "They used to both give us whuppin's," he says. "If you were wrong, you were wrong, and you had to pay for it."
On weekends McDaniel worked all day as a dishwasher and busboy in a cafeteria, taking off only when he went to sell Cokes at South Carolina football games. He turned most of the money he earned over to his mother, Nellie. "Most kids would go to their parents and ask for things, but I knew what the answer was going to be, and so I learned not to ask," he says. McDaniel wore the same five pairs of pants through most of school, and he learned to wear his Converse gym shoes with cardboard in the toes until his father could afford to buy him new ones. "Sometimes you'd get embarrassed, but you did what you had to do," he says. "I've never been a person who needed a lot to be happy. In some ways, not having money is a lot easier than having it. I had a lot more fun then than I do now. When you've got money, you're always looking over your shoulder because everybody wants a piece of you."
McDaniel learned to start looking over his shoulder before he was into his teens, at Olympia Middle School. "Other schools used to be scared to come in there to play basketball games," he says. "My junior high school was the kind of place where you didn't want to mess with the wrong guy, because a lot of the kids had already been to reform school. If a guy came up to you and asked for your coat, you had to be ready to give him the coat or fight for it."
As a sophomore playing in his first varsity game, at A.C. Flora High School, McDaniel made a basket at the buzzer to win it; the shot made him such a celebrated figure that he decided he no longer needed to study or go to classes. By the end of his sophomore year he had a grade point average of 1.4. He played sparingly the next season because of his poor grades and then became a starter in his senior year. "No one was bigger than the team," McDaniel says. "I guess [coach Carl Williams] wanted to build character in me. I think that's why I play as hard as I do now, because I know what it's like to sit on that bench."
McDaniel says it was "a dream come true" when South Carolina, whose players he had grown up idolizing, recruited him to play there. "Bill Foster [then the Gamecocks' coach] promised me a scholarship right in front of my mother," McDaniel says. "Then after I made up my mind to go there, they told me my grades weren't good enough. They knew all along what my grades were, but they tell you whatever you want to hear when they're recruiting you." Several schools that might have been interested in him backed away after hearing he was going to South Carolina. Wichita State discovered him only after coming to see one of his high school teammates, and when the Shockers offered a scholarship McDaniel took it.
He knew no one in Kansas. "It was lonely at first," McDaniel says. "I used to call home every day. I'd call my mother collect just to tell her I was going to class, then before I hung up I'd promise to call her back later. I guess I was running up a big phone bill, because she'd always say, 'Oh, you don't have to do that.' But I didn't have anyone else to turn to."
McDaniel adjusted enough to life away from home to lead the NCAA in rebounding as a sophomore, but he was probably better known for showing up with his head shaved clean when the Shockers played Tulsa that season. "At first I thought I looked funny, but as time went on it became part of me," he says. "I don't ever see myself with a whole lot of hair on my head now."
By his senior season, 1984-85, he became the first and is still the only player ever to lead the nation in both scoring (27.2 points a game) and rebounding (14.8). Though Seattle made him the fourth selection in the 1985 draft, he reported to the Sonics with a chip on his shoulder. "More than anybody I've ever seen, X came in determined to prove that he belonged in the NBA, and nobody was going to take that away from him," says Chambers. "I think that's been his edge his whole life, fighting for everything as if someone were trying to take it away."
Veteran forward Reggie King was assigned to guard McDaniel in training camp, and in McDaniel's opinion King was going about the job with an excess of zeal. "I was going to show them I wasn't intimidated by anyone," X says. "If I back down, I'm dead, so I always step forward. And if I had to punch a guy, I punched him." McDaniel asked Bernie Bicker-staff, who was then Seattle's coach, how to proceed with King. "Bernie told me to do what I had to do to get open," McDaniel says. "I told King to stop holding me, and he wouldn't. So I punched him. I was so emotional my rookie year I disputed every call, and every time something happened, I was in the middle of it."
His life off the court wasn't much better. At the end of that first NBA season, he had an argument with his wife, Sylvia, whom he met during his freshman year of college and married in August 1985. The police were called, and McDaniel was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault. He eventually agreed to a year of supervised probation to avoid a trial. (The couple was divorced in March 1987.)
In McDaniel's second season, the Sonics brought in Maurice Lucas, the NBA's venerable prince of darkness, and the two were often seen hanging around together. "Maurice would tell me not to try to stand up to every challenge," McDaniel says. "He showed me how to do things without getting caught, all his tricks. Luke taught me that if something happened in the first quarter, you wait to get even, to give the officials time to forget."
But McDaniel never could forget, and certainly would not forgive, the numerous indignities of his opponents. When the Sonics faced Dallas in the playoffs in 1987, McDaniel sought to physically intimidate the Mavericks. When James Donaldson, the Dallas center, bumped McDaniel and knocked the wind out of him, the X-Man leaped up and strode straight toward Donaldson, pointing his finger at him accusingly. "I'm going to get you," McDaniel hissed. "This thing ain't over with yet." However, it was over with all too soon for the Mavs and for Donaldson, who was scarcely heard from again during the series.
Of all the brawls McDaniel has been involved in, none had quite as much lasting impact as the time, in 1987, he tried to strangle Wes Matthews, then a backup guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, in front of 14,634 witnesses at the Seattle Coliseum. Matthews had elbowed McDaniel in the stomach while setting a screen, and the next time down the floor McDaniel knocked Matthews down while they were chasing a loose ball. Matthews then attempted to kick X. What happened next was preserved in a frightening photograph that ran in almost every newspaper in the country: McDaniel with his hands around the neck of a smaller man. throttling him so hard that Matthews's eyes had already begun to roll back in his head.
"I still get people wanting me to sign that picture, but I won't sign it because that would be like promoting violence," McDaniel says, sounding like a mellowed X-Man. But just as quickly as it came, the note of grace is gone. "I feel bad that incident had to happen, but sometimes you get frustrated when you're not playing well," he says. "People think I've mellowed, but I haven't. No one really messes with me anymore. I told Rod Thorn [the NBA's director of operations] it doesn't matter how much he fines me, I'm never going to back down."
Two months after attempting to do the neck version of the Heimlich on Matthews, McDaniel made the NBA All-Star Game for the only time in his six-year career. But in the following season, '88-89, Bickerstaff announced plans for a grand experiment to convert McDaniel to a sixth man. "I'm not a sixth man, and I felt it was a demotion regardless of what Bernie said," McDaniel says. Bickerstaff wanted him to score when the Sonics were trailing and to concentrate on defense when the team was ahead. "It got to the point where I would rather not have played when we were winning, because I never knew what my role was." The experiment was finally dropped for the final 10 games of the season, and McDaniel averaged 30.5 points in those games, more than 11 above his season average, and the Sonics went 8-2.
When Seattle allowed Chambers to sign with the Suns as an unrestricted free agent two years ago, one of the reasons given at the time was friction between Chambers and McDaniel. "Our relationship wasn't rosy all the time, and I'm not saying we never argued, but I didn't hate him," McDaniel says. Whatever their differences were then, the two have played well together in Phoenix, with Chambers showing more versatility now that he doesn't have to shoulder so much of the scoring load.
McDaniel left Seattle as he entered it, battling with a teammate. This time it was with Dale Ellis, the Sonics' other star, in a donnybrook that started at practice on Nov. 21 and resumed later the same day in a parking lot. "It was stupid," McDaniel says. "Dale has a lot of problems, and I should have had enough maturity to let it go." McDaniel believes many of the antagonisms in Seattle were the result of the team's unfulfilled promise. "We were supposed to be the team of the late '80s and overtake the Lakers," he says. "We were young and strong, but we never did get over the top. After a while the pressure got to all of us."
Phoenix is another team that is young and strong and trying to get over the top. "We think X can put us there," Fitzsimmons says. By moving Kurt Rambis to the bench, Phoenix adds depth as well as McDaniel's 20.6 career scoring average to its front line without giving up any rebounds or defensive skills. "I just want guys to remember I'm on the court too," X says. "I want them to be up for me, because I'm going to be up for them."