Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Road to Redemption
I've always been a sucker for tales about basketball players with dark sides.
Stories like Chris Herren as a basketball junkie in the literal sense. Charles Shackleford locking himself in his North Carolina State dorm room and listening to Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" on repeat. Former Detroit Pistons center turned seven-foot stickup artist Reggie Harding. ABA tough guy turned Ugandan guerrilla fighter John Brisker.
I guess the fascination started with Lloyd "Swee' Pea" Daniels.
Daniels is definitely on the starting five of the All-Squandered Talent team. The excellent book "Swee' Pea and Other Playground Legends: Tales of Drugs, Violence and Basketball" by John Valenti and New York City high school coach Ron Naclerio traces Daniels' spiral from being "Magic Johnson with a jumpshot" to never getting to suit up for UNLV after getting arrested in a crack house.
The six-foot-seven forward, more of the crafty type than the typical flashy New York City player, was recovering from a gunshot wound to shoulder and getting his bloated, alcoholic body into shape for another comeback attempt in 1990. He struggled with the Miami Tropics of the USBL before falling off the wagon. He spent some time with John Lucas, the resident drug counselor for hoops stars, before seeking out another chance.
Fortunately for Daniels, the upstart Global Basketball Association was formed. The league had solid renegade credentials, starting at the top with former ABA commissioner Mike Storen (father of ESPN's Hannah Storm). The GBA had too-cute nicknames and hometown heroes, like the Raleigh Bullfrogs (yes, Jeremiah was the mascot) with former scrappy N.C. State point guard Chris Corchiani playing for former scrappy N.C. State point guard Monte Towe. The ABA had the iconic red, white and blue ball. The GBA went with the all-white rock.
My home of Greensboro, N.C., was one of the lucky townships to get a charter GBA franchise. The Greensboro City Gaters were named after the seldom-used nickname "Gate City" and illogically had their mascot be a gator.
Daniels was signed by the Gaters in October of 1991. The coach was Ed McLean, a former Jim Valvano assistant who also coached Pete Maravich at Raleigh Broughton High School.
The league couldn't hitch its wagon to washed-out NBA players like Milt Wagner (Louisville Shooters) and Chuck Nevitt (Bullfrogs), so the GBA heavily promoted Daniels.
I remember reading the requisite takeout feature on Daniels in the Greensboro News & Record and, being 12 years old without much sense of nuance, thinking how much of a coup it was that this rare talent had landed in my city.
I badgered my parents into taking me to see the Gaters at the venerable Greensboro Coliseum. My strongest memory is how the Coliseum — host to many Final Fours, ACC tournaments and NBA preseason games — seemed so small with a crowd that couldn't have topped 1,000 fans.
You could hear the kiss of the sneakers on the hardwood and the conversations on the court. I unwaveringly tracked Daniels. He looked almost middle-aged with a bald pate and battered body. He even looked slower than the other GBA players, but inevitably he would fill the box scores I pored over in the News & Record.
That season kick-started Daniels' comeback. He thrived under McLean and Jim Price, a former NBA journeyman who took over as coach a few months into the season. Daniels averaged 24.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game and was named the GBA's inaugural MVP. He was also the All-Star Game MVP. The Gaters finished 30-33 and were bounced in the first round of the GBA playoffs. For the record, the Music City Jammers, who finished 24-40 in the regular season, won the championship.
It was the first full winter of basketball for Daniels, then 24, since his junior year in high school. He hooked up with the Long Island Surf for the USBL's summer season.
In 1992, Daniels finally got his chance at the NBA. He signed with San Antonio Spurs, where he would play for Jerry Tarkanian, the coach who coveted Daniels so badly when "the Shark" was at UNLV.
Tarkanian lasted only 20 games as coach of the Spurs. The Greensboro City Gaters folded after that one season because of sparse crowds. The GBA made it only a month into its second year.
Daniels appeared in 200 games with six teams in the NBA, averaging 7.1 points per game.
I always checked the box scores for his name.