Lloyd Daniels is walking off the court in the fourth quarter of a minor league basketball game in Philadelphia. All eyes are on him. Always are. Should be. He is a legendary basketball player, one of the most celebrated ever to come off the storied playgrounds of New York City. Better than Kareem, they say. Better than Connie Hawkins, they say. Former NBA reserve player Sam Worthen says, "When Lloyd was 16, he had the knowledge of the game to play in the NBA."
Expand the comparisons. Just like Magic Johnson, they say, only with a better jump shot. Yeah, Larry Bird's jump shot, they say. He'll redefine excellence in the NBA, they say. Not long ago, UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian said, "They'll write the history of guards and start with Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Lloyd Daniels." Two weeks ago, Tarkanian was staying the course, insisting that Daniels is "the best I've ever been around." NBA franchise maker, they say. They've been saying this for years.
Daniels's coach, Eric Dennis, wants to give him a breather. "Go back in with 5:30 left," he says. At 5:30, Daniels just sits. At 5:20, drink cup in hand and towel around his shoulders, Daniels slowly rises to his feet and takes a couple of world-class slow steps in the general direction of the scorer's table. At 5:12, time is called to get Daniels into the game.
July 7, 1991
Here we have a player who says repeatedly, "I just want to play ball," but who doesn't seem to want to play when this game is right in front of him. Daniels is wearing a Miami Tropics uniform and is lollygagging on the sidelines of a game with the Philadelphia Spirit, in the Holy Family College gym in northeast Philly on a hot evening in late spring. It's a game in the U.S. Basketball League, which calls itself the League of Opportunity. Indeed, players like Spud Webb of the Sacramento Kings and Manute Bol of the Philadelphia 76ers and Hot Rod Williams of the Cleveland Cavaliers have all used the USBL's 20-game June-July schedule as a springboard to the NBA.
Alas, Daniels, for now, is making the least of his opportunities. When his name is brought up, Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting, says, "This guy can't play. He's a myth." Indiana Pacer scout Al Menendez, who has been watching Daniels for years, says, "I think his talents have been blown completely out of proportion. He's like a hero by word of mouth. He's a great outdoor player where he's a great outside shooter. Unfortunately, the game is played indoors."
Bob Weinhauer, the 76er player personnel director, is sitting courtside in the Holy Family gym. He says, "I don't question for a minute that he has the knowledge and desire to be an NBA player. But he looks to me like a player who has reached his level. I see no lack of effort, but his body doesn't seem to respond to his mind. He doesn't seem to have a live body anymore. Has it been sapped by lifestyle?" Later, in the third quarter, Weinhauer is growing increasingly unimpressed. He says, "Look, he's exhausted. He has made one explosive play tonight. Everything else is soft. Soft pass. Soft shot. One big play in a game is not getting it done." John Killilea, an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets and one of Daniels's former coaches in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), says Daniels is "neither physically nor mentally tough enough to play in the NBA. He'll never make it." Ed Krinsky, the general manager of the USBL's Long Island Surf, shakes his head: "The odds are really against this kid."
Lloyd Daniels, a very old 23, has long been a sad story. His mother died when he was three, and he was left in the care of relatives. Asked the major influence in his life, he says, "Myself." That is the core of the problem. Riding up the New Jersey Turnpike following the Tropics' 124-117 loss to the Spirit, Daniels says he started smoking marijuana when he was 10. When he was a teenager he was friendly with Richard (the Fixer) Perry. Perry was convicted in 1974 for his part in a harness-racing betting scandal in New York and for conspiracy to commit sports bribery in the notorious Boston College point-shaving case of 1981. Asked about Perry, Daniels says, "No comment." Daniels attended four high schools in three states and never graduated. He reads at an extraordinarily low level and admits it: "Any kid like me who doesn't go to school can't read. How are you going to learn if you aren't there? I wasn't there. I was one of those kids who just passed through. It's bad. People keep telling you you're a helluva ballplayer and kiss your butt. Then they don't teach you nothing. But I'm no dummy."
Daniels attended Mount San Antonio Junior College in Walnut, Calif., for a semester in 1986 and was enrolled as a student at UNLV in 1987. Perry helped direct him to UNLV. "We knew it was a long shot," says Tarkanian. "I figured I might have him for a year before he would go into the NBA." But before Daniels could even practice with the Runnin' Rebels, he was busted in a Vegas crack house. Daniels said he was there in search of basketball tickets.
Perry posted a $1,500 bond for Daniels, who later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy rock cocaine. He didn't go to jail; instead he was placed in a drug rehabilitation program.
That was it for the college experience. Except, of course, for a lingering NCAA investigation of UNLV. Allegations have surfaced in the media that Daniels was the recipient of a car and cash. Asked about it, Daniels once again says, stiffly, "No comment."
Blake says that Daniels was "the biggest mistake Tarkanian ever made." Tarkanian says, "He has been nothing but a problem for me, but he's not malicious. He has great talent, he's very sweet and he's a good person."
Daniels has been in drug rehab twice in the last four years—if you believe him—or "four or five times," if you believe his best friend, Kevin Barry, who runs a Brooklyn shelter for drug abusers. Barry has kept Daniels in his home, helped him, nurtured him, counseled him. In gratitude, Daniels got high twice and Barry kicked him out. "If Lloyd stays clean and makes it to the NBA," says Barry, "it will be the greatest turnaround of all time. I Here is somebody worth two to three million dollars a year, and drugs overpower him." For now, Daniels is making $400 a week with the Tropics.
After leaving UNLV after his arrest in February 1987, Daniels went to play in the CBA with Topeka. He was released after 28 games because he was out of condition and because he failed to continue his drug rehab. Then he went off to Auckland, New Zealand, for about half a season. He left, he says, of his own accord, although published reports said he was dismissed for drinking. In 1989, he played four games for Quad City in the CBA before he was placed on waivers. Last fall he was cut in training camp by Albany.
Yet optimism continues to burn in some hearts. Tropics guard Ron Matthias, who does appear to be a potential NBA player, insists, "Give him a year and he'll play point guard for some team in the NBA." Of course, all Daniels's friends say he will. Barry says, "He's a Rembrandt on the court." Thus far, however, he's only painting by numbers.
Daniels hates any talk of being a legend. "A legend," he says, "is somebody old and washed up. I'm not old and washed up." He says all the playground legend chatter has been generated by the press. Daniels's agent, Thomas Rome of New York City, says he hopes to "shrink the legend to human proportions." That's a good idea; even extraordinary performances might not match what people think they saw Daniels do as a teenager up in Harlem or in the Bronx or out in Brooklyn. Barry says he remembers two games in which Daniels scored a total of 42 points and had 42 rebounds; naw, says Daniels, it was 22 rebounds. Barry and others also fondly remember the time in a park when Daniels took San Antonio point guard Rod Strickland to the cleaners. Naw, says Daniels, the only time he and Strickland played, they were on the same team.
In May 1989, Daniels was shot in the chest and neck during a reported drug dispute in Queens. He was in critical condition. "I was a little nervous when it happened," he says. "I still think about it. Wouldn't you?" No one was apprehended for the shooting. Of this litany of trouble, Daniels says, "Everybody messes up in life."
In reality, Daniels has played only two complete basketball seasons, both during his high school years. Like Zsa Zsa Gabor, he's mostly famous for being famous. Look closely at his game and it unravels like a ball of yarn.
He's 6'8" and he thinks of himself as a point guard, but he almost certainly is not quick enough or agile enough to play that position. He can't shoot well enough to play the off guard, and he is probably too short to play weak forward. Passing is his strength, although he tends to overuse his no-look number. He ranks seventh in the USBL in assists. He is unselfish, a rarity in basketball. "The perfect game for me would be 20 assists and no points," he says. Offensively, he is rusty, to say the least. In a game against New Haven on June 17, he was 0 for 8 in the first half. In consecutive games against New Haven, Philly and Long Island in mid-June, he shot 12 of 43 from the floor, including just 2 of 11 on three-point attempts. He shrugs and says, "You have to warm up a car before you can drive it."
Defensively, Daniels is a disaster. Dennis, who resigned last week, admits he yanked him out of the New Haven game because of this shortcoming. The 76ers' Weinhauer points out that as soon as Daniels is bumped while playing defense, he lets his man go and starts looking around for help. On the positive side, he does have a smooth game, but not in the classic manner of Walt Frazier or George Gervin. His smoothness sometimes makes it appear that he's not giving his maximum effort. Weinhauer says he never sees Daniels dive for a loose ball. That's ironic because Daniels says his sports hero is former New York Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles. "I saw him dive for the ball a lot," says Daniels. "I should try to play like him." Too often in a game, Daniels simply disappears. Poof. Even Daniels estimates he is now "60, maybe 65 percent of my old self. But I don't want to put a percentage on it."
So does Daniels wish he could start all over? "I don't wish nothing, man," he says. Then Daniels stretches out as best he can in the confines of a car, stares into the night and reflects on himself: "Lloyd is a regular human being who wants to play basketball and lead the good life. Lloyd is a decent guy. Most everybody likes Lloyd. Lloyd treats people like he wants to be treated."
Still the beat goes on for Daniels. It's as if the basketball world just can't quite believe he is not going to be what the rumors always said he would be. Perhaps an NBA team will invite Daniels to a rookie camp later this summer because it has heard so much about him. One more chance. Maybe this time.
And, of course, the jury is out on whether Daniels can stay away from New York's mean streets. "I don't want to lead a street life," he says. "I just want to play ball. I'm staying clean. The best feeling in the world is to wake up feeling good, and I feel that way because I did the right thing the night before. I went straight. I didn't lie to nobody. I wake up feeling good. Believe me, there were plenty of mornings when I didn't. I'm feeling good about Lloyd and I will feel that way about Lloyd as long as Lloyd is doing what Lloyd's supposed to do."
Yet he can't help dancing close to the fire. The other day in New York, he asked to be dropped off at 155th and Third Avenue, one of his many old neighborhoods. It's a corner where, within 15 minutes, a lot of negative things can happen. When somebody suggested to Daniels that it might not be the best place for him to be, he waved it off: "I'll be fine. I know I have to remember every day that I have a problem, and that the devil can walk back up on me."
Daniels can talk the talk, but can he walk the walk? There he goes down 155th Street.