At the last meal before the first game of the rest of his life, Lloyd Daniels closed his eyes, lowered his head over a tossed salad and prayed. In a few hours he would be announced to a sellout crowd at Sacramento's Arco Arena as a player with no college or even high school affiliation, only as a rookie member of the San Antonio Spurs. He would simply be "Number 24, the 6'7" guard, Lloyd Daniels," and soon after that, he would thread a pass or stroke a jumper or navigate a drive as he had done years ago on the playgrounds of New York, even as drugs eroded his spirit and before three bullets nearly killed him. "My blood pressure goes up thinking about the game," he said as he ate last Friday. "My first league game! That's going to be the greatest feeling in my life."
The emotions still filled Daniels that night, after his debut. No, he had not played like "Magic with a jump shot," as he had been proclaimed when he was a teenage playground legend. He had struggled in the Spurs' 114-106 loss to the Kings, scoring but six points, and he had often lost his man on defense during his 24-minute stint.
But he was undaunted. These days Daniels soaks up lessons from everything around him. "I can't have that locked brain no more," he says, "like I'm too good to take notes."
Daniels, 25, calls his arrival in the NBA "the greatest comeback story ever," and how could anyone argue? His mother died when he was three. His father turned to alcohol. At 10 he was smoking marijuana; at 15 he was peddling dope in the streets. At 16 he knew he possessed NBA talent—"I'm walkin' millions," he would say. But he never finished any of the four high schools he attended, and at 19 his chance at suiting up for coach Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV was thwarted when he was arrested at a Las Vegas crack house. During the next few years Daniels was dropped by a variety of minor league teams for breaking team rules or for being out of shape. At 21 his life was devalued from "millions" to $8, the amount of cash over which Daniels was shot and left for dead on a New York City sidewalk in a drug-related dispute in 1989.
November 16, 1992
He lost six pints of blood but recovered. Fourteen months after he was shot, Daniels was cut by the Albany (N.Y.) Patroons of the CBA. But it was in Albany that he met a woman, Kendra Dunn, who found him funny and flirty, and they fell in love. "If I was a lady, I would have been scared to mess with a guy like me," Daniels says. "But she knew one day I would change." Dunn, who worked for an insurance company, quit her job and accompanied Daniels to Miami, where he played for the Tropics of the USBL and, more important, where he continued to attend AA meetings, as he had in Albany.
In August 1991, after the end of the USBL season, Daniels and Dunn moved to Houston, where Daniels began a three-month rehab program run by John Lucas, the former NBA star and recovering addict who had recently purchased the Tropics. "I got a spiritual awakening when I went to Lucas," Daniels says. "He just touched something inside me." The pieces finally began to tumble into place. Daniels, who says it has been more than a year since his last drink and more than two since he last took drugs, earned MVP honors last winter playing for the Greensboro (N.C.) City Gaters of the Global Basketball League, and he became a born-again Christian. In April, Kendra gave birth to a daughter, Aubrey, and last month she and Lloyd were married.
The latest chapter in Daniels's basketball odyssey began when Tarkanian arrived in San Antonio in April as the Spurs' new coach. Tark and Daniels had kept in touch over the years, and it was a storybook natural that Daniels would sign with San Antonio, which gave him a two-year, nonguaranteed deal worth $300,000 that includes a clause requiring him to undergo drug tests twice a week. Daniels has an unflinching respect for Tarkanian, who never deserted him. "This is a coach who's putting it out there for me, man," says Daniels. Tarkanian, meanwhile, has an unyielding belief in Daniels's talent. Recently, as Tarkanian offered Daniels pointers on making entry passes to center David Robinson, Daniels shrugged him off. "I'll get it, Coach," he said. With a bemused look, Tarkanian turned and said, "Not hurting for confidence, is he?"
The Spur players have universally embraced the sweet-natured Daniels. During the preseason, power forward Antoine Carr assured reporters that Daniels was not alone in his recovery. "Don't worry about what Lloyd's been in the past," he said. "I got him now. He's with me."
Says guard Dale Ellis, who was convicted in 1990 of drunken and reckless driving: "We all know someone from the neighborhood who was better than us, who could be playing now, but who didn't have the book sense or got sidetracked by drugs. Lloyd has overcome all that."
The support Daniels has received from so many corners has emboldened him to seek a lasting internal peace. "It's not all about basketball," he says. "I'm learning how to live life. I never lived life before. My life was, Where am I going to get the next high? Like Lucas used to tell me, 'You're starting over, like a baby, Lloyd.' Lloyd is like a grown man crawling."
On the court Daniels hunches over his dribble like someone scanning the floor for loose change. The lump formed by the bullet still lodged inside him is visible on his left shoulder. The hard, lost years have sapped some spring from his legs and defused the explosiveness of his first step. But in an instant Daniels can snap a pass to a cutting teammate, a pass few players could even conceive. Last Saturday night in Denver, Daniels played 45 minutes, making rookie mistakes but also making majestic NBA plays: running bank shots, no-look feeds, post-up turnarounds. He had 26 points, eight rebounds and six assists in the Nuggets' rousing 125-121 double-overtime defeat of the Spurs.
How much can he grow? How long will he crawl? Kendra, for one, is not worried that Lloyd will fall pray to temptation. "Not at all," she says. "Lloyd's walking a straight line now, and it's a lot harder to get on it than it is to get off." For now, Lloyd lives according to a simple litany: Stay clean, work hard, keep focused and learn. "One day at a time, buddy," he says. "You can go a long way that way."