Born Again

It is not an exaggeration to say that the below story helped inspire Benjamin May to begin his work on The Legend of Swee’ Pea, the documentary on Lloyd Daniels that is currently seeking funding. Considering my personal path as a New York-area kid who grew up fascinated by, well, the legend of Swee’ Pea, getting the chance to write this feature back in 2000 was an amazing experience. It’s definitely been a gap in the collection of Old School print features we’ve run on the site, but as long as I knew the movie was in the works, I wanted to time the running of this appropriately. With funding entering crunch time on Kickstarter (click to support!) and one-time Net Lloyd showing up at games with fellow NYC legend Kenny Anderson, today seemed plenty appropriate.—Ben Osborne

Originally published in SLAM 46

by Ben Osborne / portrait by Benoit Peverelli

The search for Lloyd Daniels, a product of New York City’s uniquely unforgiving concrete, has led, unpredictably, to a land of lush greens. Allenwood, NJ, may be only miles from New York City, but it feels like a million. Just off the Garden State Parkway, only miles from the beach, open land is plentiful. Cows and horses roam freely, produce stands sell fruit so sweet it should be served as dessert. Rising from the fields is a big, white church. The Shore Christian Church is not old—there aren’t enough long time residents there to be an “old” church right here—but it’s still got a traditional feel to it, with a shiny spire reaching towards the heavens. lloyd daniels

Next to the church is an even newer building; a flat, white, year-old structure that houses a gorgeous gym, and, for the fifth and final day this summer, the Lloyd Daniels Basketball Camp. To some, the name of this camp would elicit a shrug. From others, however, a genuine look of shock. For as far as many basketball fans know, a Lloyd Daniels Basketball Camp—at a church, no less—is the ultimate oxymoron.

Walk inside, and on one level, things start to come together. This is definitely a full-fledged basketball camp, with 25 fresh-faced youngsters pounding balls and running through drills. At the center of the court, a fit, light-skinned fellow with an asymmetrical bald dome is working the kids pretty hard. It’s obvious this guy knows what he’s doing. And to a knowing eye, it’s obvious the guy is the Lloyd Daniels, a 32-year-old basketball lifer who was once considered the best high school player in the entire country, who was supposed to be the next Magic Johnson or first Lamar Odom, whose mishaps at UNLV helped Jerry Tarkanian lose his job, whose life was ravaged by periods of drug addiction sandwiched around a near-fatal gun wound to the chest, who rose from the living dead and actually played 212 games (including playoffs) in the NBA, some as a starter for the San Antonio Spurs, who—

“If you’re from SLAM, why are you here?!” Inquisitive minds—and are any minds more inquisitive than those inside 12-year-olds?—want to know. Telling them it was to speak with, and photograph, the Lloyd that is running their camp doesn’t shut ’em up. “Yeah? Why do you want to talk to Lloyd?”

Well, the growing group of nosy lads is told, before he made the NBA, Lloyd was perhaps the best high school player in the country. That sends the kids right to the source.

“Llloooyyyyyyyyddd, is it true?” they whine doubtfully at a man they obviously like, but think of only as a really good basketball instructor. “These guys from SLAM say you were one of the best players in the country.”

Lloyd replies firmly: “Nah, that ain’t true.” But when he meets the eyes of those who know it is, he relents. “Okay, it is true. But who cares?

“Get back to your drills.”

Lloyd Daniels doesn’t need accolades or attention based on what he did, or could have done. At this point in his life, even with a still-healthy overseas career and an outside shot at making the Pacers this upcoming season, “making” it as a player isn’t all that important to him. If Daniels wants any props at all, he’ll take them for what he’s doing at this camp. “If I never make the NBA again, this is a big thrill for me, knowing that I got a program with kids that’s about to shoot off,” he says while the kids are eating lunch. “I did one week of camp this year, next year, it’ll be three, and I’m gonna start an AAU program with these kids, too. And look at this lovely facility, the Shore Christian Academy. A great facility, a great church, great people. People who don’t give a damn if Lloyd Daniels never plays in the NBA again. My wife, my three kids, and the members of this church all love me and that’s all that matters. This is not phony, this is real life.”

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”—Step One of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Recovery Program

The early life of Lloyd “Swee’pea” Daniels was all about hustling, a tale of sex, drugs and violence. A 6-7 point forward with a cherubic face and quick smile (he got the nickname Swee’pea from the baby on Popeye) Daniels combined never-before-seen instincts on the court with an equally unlikely mixture of tragedy and foolishness off it. His life was so dangerous, so sordid and so damn intriguing that it spurred a book, Swee’pea and Other Playground Legends by Newsday writer John Valenti and Cardozo HS (Queens) coach Ron Naclerio. The book chronicles the occasional ups and many downs of Lloyd’s life through ’90, and concludes that after years of second chances, he’s not going to amount to much of anything.

Some pro athletes have walked—and still walk—that fine line; can still get high and chill with their boys, and end up with a life that should be called “Big Pimpin’, the pro athlete remix.” But Lloyd didn’t survive to  live that song. No, his life is much more defined by “Keep it Simple,” an inspirational tome of sayings, referenced often by individuals in 12-step recovery programs (for drug and alcohol addiction). As the 12-step model of recovery encourages, Daniels has turned to a higher power to help keep himself away from the substances that “should have” ended his life. “I’m a guy that should have been dead,” he says. “I did drugs, alcohol, was shot three times, and I’m still livin’ because I finally realized that my way of life was not working. ‘Keep it Simple’ is like the Bible. AA is like the Bible. Recovery goes hand in hand with religion, with turning your life over to God.”

Lloyd’s current life has him smiling today (from all accounts, actually, Lloyd is always smiling). And he’s not the only one. Not only are the kids scrimmaging on the court mixing hard work with huge smiles, but the parents strolling into watch their sons learn from a master—mostly white, upper-class parents who Lloyd himself says “would have been scared of him” years before—are blissfully unaware of who Lloyd Daniels was. “I know a little bit about Lloyd, but I don’t think anyone could guess the problems he had,” says Terry Mahoney, a father watching from the bleachers. “I just know that he’s been working these kids really hard, and they’ve loved it. He has the perfect combination for a coach; he’s a good person, a good motivator, and he has a very good knowledge of the game.”

“I don’t think these kids really care what Lloyd’s background is,” says Doug Kamm, another proud parent. “All they see is a guy who loves working with them, and these kids respect that.”

Due to a distrust of a media that has written many “Lloyd Daniels is a failure” stories, Lloyd has been slow to allow interviews for the past few years, as as such, the good word about what he’s up to now has been slow to spread. Now people can start to learn. Reached on his cell phone, the last four digits of which spell T-A-R-K (classic), Tarkanian is overjoyed to hear about his former UNLV recruit and player in San Antonio [where Tark coached for the first 20 games of the ’92-93 season]. “That’s wonderful,” the Shark exclaims. “Lloyd was always such a sweet guy, and so good with people, ‘Please just sit and talk to the guy and you’ll see he’s good.'”

As camp finishes, the children create a half-moon around Lloyd and listen intently to his parting words. “Always play hard, guys,” Lloyd says as seriously as an always-smiling guy can. “This game is not just about talent, because a coach will always find room for a guy who plays hard, too. If you’re out there cheating yourself and cheating your teammates by not playing hard…that will not work. And remember that this game is not just about shooting and scoring, it’s about playing basketball.

“I love y’all.”

“Lloyd Daniels had an almost mystical feel for the game. I don’t know how else to put it,” says old-time New York-based recruiting guru Tom Konchalski, who saw young Lloyd play many times. “Here’s a kid who didn’t even watch the game all that much, but he learned how to play it. He had enough ability that he could have—that he should have—gone down as one oft he best players in New York City history, and the fact that he didn’t is a shame. Getting clean, having a family and making the NBA are accomplishments, but he should have been a 10-time All-Star. 

“The fact is that he aborted his manifest destiny.”

Daniels, who one-ups Konchalski’s religious overtones by saying that he’s actually been “blessed,” that his life has followed exactly the path it was destined for, has no regrets about a career that came up short of expectations. But that doesn’t make those outside expectations any less real.

He was born on September 4, ’67, to Lloyd and Judy Daniels, but any excitement he brought the family quickly dissipated. Lloyd’s mother contracted uterine cancer shortly after the birth, and she died when he was three. After the loss of his wife, Lloyd, Sr. turned to alcohol and disappeared from his son’s life. These losses left Lloyd to the care of two overwhelmed grandmothers, one in Hollis, Queens, the other in East New York, Brooklyn.

The personal losses also left him in the care of the game.

Suffering from then-undiagnosed dyslexia [a learning disability that affects the ability to read and speak properly], surrounded by drug and alcohol abusers in and around his family, and living in two of NYC’s more neglected communities, Lloyd sought his solace in basketball, sneaking out well after dark to play, dangers be damned. “I practiced by myself,” Lloyd tells Valenti in Swee’pea. “Shootin’, dribblin’, passin’ off the gate or the fence. Twelve, one o’clock in the mornin’, I’d be out playin’ ball down the block.”

The hard work (and the hand of God, according to Lloyd) made for an especially knowledgeable player. “The way I know the game, that’s a gift from God,” he says today. “God knew I was gonna come from a family where my mother was gonna die when I was three, knew my father would be an alcoholic, knew I was gonna have to run from house to house and so he blessed me; ‘Give this kid talent, and hopefully he’ll be able to make it out and one day not want to use drugs and alcohol,’ And I did.”

The blessings, the lack of working on anything other than finding a game and finding his next meal (Lloyd did eighth grade twice, making it to school only 94 out of the 364 possible days over those two years, according to Swee’pea), and the tough comp on New York’s playgrounds were the building blocks for a teen career that had talent scouts drooling. As a 17-year-old junior to be, even having played little actual prep ball because of academic troubles, an ankle injury, and multiple school transfers, Daniels became a national name in the summer of ’85, when he earned Most Outstanding Player honors at storied Five-Star Camp. “The first time I saw him, I nearly fell out of my seat,” Howie Garfinkel, the long-time director of Five-Star, told Valenti. “He was just incredible. I remember one time where he was on a three-on-two break and as he came down I thought,  ‘Is he going to shoot, going to pass?’ He went to shoot, drew the defender. No one was free. At least I didn’t see anyone. Then, all of a sudden—Bingo!—while in mid-air he hit someone for an easy layup. I was like, how did he find that man?”

Blown away by the maturity of his game—Lloyd was a decent athlete, for sure, but no one wanted him for his hops—Garfinkel told former Marquette coach Al Maguire: “He’s the best junior alive, dead, or yet unborn.”

The next winter, Daniels stayed out of trouble long enough to play an entire season for Andrew Jackson HS in Queens, and he killed, earning Parade All-American honors with per-game averages of 31.2 points, 12.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists. “Lloyd was as talented a high school player as I’ve ever seen,” Tarkanian says. “He could do everything, including finding guys open before they even knew they were. Even at his size, I thought he’d make a terrific point guard.”

As well as Lloyd could direct things on the court, he was a mess off it. He dropped out of school the day after his junior season ended, running with gangs and watching many of his former mentors give up on him. Tark, however, was still interested, eager to suit Lloyd up in the red and silver. The coach somehow got Daniels admitted to Mount San Antonio (CA) junior college, where he was faking his way towards graduating from the school and gaining NCAA eligibility. And you might have seen LLoyd throwing ‘oops to the likes of Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon were it not for a pitiful event that underscored Lloyd’s judgement problems. While on a weekend visit to Vegas in ’87, the Vegas signee was arrested in a LVPD sting operation at a crack house, a UNLV’d down. The bust was televised and Daniels’ D-1 career was over before it started.

Thus began a pro basketball career for Daniels, all 20 years of him. Just out of a court-ordered rehab stint, he signed with Topeka (KS) of the CBA and then played pro ball in New Zealand. In both places, mix-ups with drugs and alcohol ended his stays and briefly acknowledging that he had a problem, Daniels voluntarily entered a rehab program in Van Nuys, CA. There were a bunch of fallen hoops stars at Van Nuys, including Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, Quintin Dailey, Roy Tarpley, and 70’s superstar David Thompson. “How about that team,” Lloyd laughs today, “A bunch of crazies, right? But you know, I don’t know how much different we were than people from all walks of life. There’s probably people worser than we were in the White House and the FBI, but we were basketball players, so people wrote about us.”

Regardless, the rehab still didn’t work. Months after getting out he was back on the streets of Hollis, and early in the morning of May 11, ’89, Daniels took three shots in the chest from point-blank range, allegedly after a mix-up with some local dealers. Had he died, which doctors originally thought he would, Daniels would have passed away a broke 21-year-old with nothing to show for gifts that few humans had ever possessed. Today, when Lloyd removes his shirt you can’t help but notice the scars that rake across his stomachs like clawmarks. In calm, measured tones, however, Daniels explains why it doesn’t pain him to see the scars, every day for the rest of his life. “Every day, somebody in this world has a reminder of something, something they have to think about,” he says. “Even a pastor has things to think about that keep him on the straight path.”

Unfortunately, the clarity with which Daniels speaks today wasn’t around in the wake of his shooting. That book about him ends in early ’90, and things don’t look good, Daniels has survived the shooting, but he’s just bouncing from friend’s house to friend’s house, ballin’ a bit and still messing around. Chillingly, a quote from Lloyd’s grandmother, Lulia Daniels, effectively ends the book about Lloyd Daniels’ life. “I think he’s lost in the midst now,” she said. “…Sooner or later, he’ll kill hisself with drugs or booze or get killed hangin’ out in the wrong place. He’ll die a young man.”

“Take One Day at a Time.” —Oft-repeated advice in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step recovery program.

It’s mid-August now, a couple weeks after the first-ever Lloyd Daniels Basketball Camp concluded, and Daniels is on the phone from poolside in Puerto Rico. If Lloyd knows anything, it’s that the day he’s having is a good one. “It’s great down here,” he says. “This team down here, Poncé, needed a guy for the stretch run, so I came down here. I got my wife with me, my kids. It’s great!”

Daniels’ family is his wife of 10 years, Kendra, and their three young children, Aubrey, Shaina and Lloyd, Jr. Their permanent residence is a 4,000-sqaure foot house in Colts Neck, NJ, minutes from the Shore Christian Academy. Daniels owns a ’96 Mercedes and a new Lexus truck. As everyone from church members to his two agents point out repeatedly, “Lloyd has done all right for himself.” He didn’t get rich the way Konchalski might say he was “destined” to, but he’s made an awful nice life for himself, riding love, faith, and a Pippen-esque bank shot to contentment.

Reviewing Lloyd’s post-addiction professional basketball career is anti-climactic, since it more closely follows the lines of guys like Willie Burton and David Rivers that those of Magic and Bird, the players who teenage Lloyd was most often compared to.

Within two years of the shooting and the unhappy book ending it created, Daniels surfaced with John Lucas’ Miami Tropics team in the USBL, a team that doubled as an aftercare program for abusers. “Luke is a drug addict and alcoholic just like me, and I was getting to be around this guy every day,” Daniels says warmly. “He was a good advisor to me, picking me up, taking me to meetings, working me out, just being around. Luke was there for me.”

lloyd daniels

Whether it was Lucas’ influence, his wife’s, a more committed approach in AA, or simply that God decreed that Daniels would no longer do drugs or alcohol, he kicked the stuff and stated climbing back up. After the Tropics and one more successful stint in the USBL, as well as one in the Global Basketball Association, Daniels was invited to Spurs camp in the fall of ’92 by new coach Tarkanian. Daniels made the team and was an instant contributor, appearing in 77 games, mostly at two-guard, and averaging 9 ppg, 3 rpg and 2 apg. He played 65 games the next year, when Lucas was the coach and the Spurs had guys like Sean Elliott, David Robinson and Dennis Rodman. It was the only two years Daniels ever had a guaranteed contract, and the memories Lloyd has are mad positive. “Tark gave me a chance, and I took advantage of it,” Lloyd recalls. “Guys on the team liked me because they knew what I’d overcome…On the court, my greatest moment was when we played against Michael Jordan live on NBC [Jan. 24, ’93]. I was just amazed to be playing against Michael! I’d seen this guy on TV, and I’d had people tell me, ‘Lloyd, you’re never going to make it to play against him,’ but there I was. And I ain’t gonna lie—I got the game on tape to prove it—one time I came off a screen and flicked a little jumper over Mike. I was hyped.”

The great NBA moments would be rare, however. Thinking he could get more than the Spurs offered heading into his third season, Daniels became a free agent, and from then on his only time in the L came on short-term deals. In the midst of logging major minutes in the USBL, CBA, IBL, and countries like France, Greece and Turkey, Daniels played in the NBA with the Sixers, Lakers, Kings, Nets and, most recently, six games with the Raptors in ’97-98. One game with TO, Lloyd was the leading scorer with 21 points, proving to many that he still had it. “He was a solid player for us,” then-Raptor John Wallace said days after Daniels’ release. “I’d always heard about him, and maybe people are still caught up in his past, but that guy can still play.”

Days after the Toronto stint, Atlanta signed Lloyd to a 10-day, where he logged two DNP-CDs and then was 20 minutes late for a practice. Goodbye, NBA. “People have long memories, and there’s not a lot of people willing to give Lloyd a chance in the NBA anymore,” says James Ryans, who coached Lloyd this past summer when Swee’pea suited up for eight games as member of the USBL’s Long Island Surf. “I wasn’t always a good guy in the NBA,” Lloyd admits. “Even totally clean. I was late for a practice or a game here and there. But you got guys making $10 million a year coming late all the time. Why Lloyd Daniels can’t get another shot then?”

While Ryans claims that Lloyd has mentioned many times that “he’s only 10 games from being eligible for the NBA pension plan” [the NBA confirms that Lloyd is close], Daniel swears he just wants one more shot at the Show because he knows he’s good enough to play in it. “That pension don’t mean crap—just get me a shot in an NBA Vet Camp,” Lloyd says. “The Pacers have some interest in me [Pacers’ President Donnie Walsh says he may invite Lloyd] and that would be great. Since people have been writing about the so-called ‘great Lloyd Daniels’ since I was 10 years old, they think I’m so old now. But I’m just 32, and I think I’m better than some of the 10th, 11th and 12th guys in the League. I just want a shot to make a team.”

If he doesn’t get one, the odyssey will continue from PR to probably Spain, and then maybe back to the CBA. “The legend of Lloyd Daniels has not been built on much of an actual basketball résumé,” says Konchalski. “What it’s been is some AAU games, not many high school games, no college games, a couple seasons in the NBA, and a lot of games overseas—so he has to be thought of as a playground legend.”

Well then, basketball-wise, let’s leave it at that—Lloyd Daniels is the latest inductee into the Playground Hall of Fame. And life-wise?

“Hey, this is Llooyydd Danniieeellls,” Swee’pea’s cell phone message says with noticeable cheer. “I can’t come to the phone right now because my kids are icing down my ankles—so I can stay in shape.” For the next 30 seconds you hear nothing but infectious giggling, from Lloyd and his kids.

Does that sounds like an unfortunate destiny?