Even with a bullet in his right shoulder and the weight of a tortured past on his back, Lloyd Daniels still has the ethereal touch that has always earned him yet one more chance.
He has just made a dozen straight 3-pointers when he retreats to the carpet in front of the Sacramento Kings’ bench, about 6 feet farther from the basket. The arena is empty, except for Daniels and a couple of onlookers.
Daniels vows he won’t leave until he’s made five in a row from that distance. He takes a bunch of shots that barely miss, then remembers he’s due home to take his children shopping for a Christmas tree. He swishes the next five.
These days, Daniels is a family man looking for a steady job. His three-week stint with the Kings ended Tuesday when he was waived, but there will always be a basketball team somewhere that wants his offensive talent.
Life has not always been so straightforward for Daniels.
He has played many characters - from high school phenom to drugged-out reject - while plying his trade in six leagues on three continents.
To many people, he’s the epitome of all that is wrong with college basketball. A high school dropout with a third-grade reading level, he was widely recruited before selecting UNLV.
He was the guy who brought down UNLV and coach Jerry Tarkanian in a web of recruiting violations even though he never played there - he was arrested on a cocaine charge before his debut.
And he was the loser who was nearly shot to death over an $8 drug debt.
But Daniels, 29, sees himself simply as a survivor who won’t give up his fight to succeed and to remain drug-free. Orphaned when he was 3, addicted as a teenager, he’s still trying to live up to his vast potential.
“I’m still blessed. I’m still out there. A lot of people thought I would have given up by now,” he says. “I’ve been through it all. I’ve been shot, I’ve been through drugs and alcohol. And I’m still standing. A lot of people thought I wouldn’t make it.”
Daniels was lying near death at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Queens, N.Y., in May 1989 when Duane Causwell walked in.
Causwell, now with the Kings, had played against Daniels in high school. They were two of the best New York City prep players of their time and had hung around together, often going for Chinese food on Friday nights.
Now Causwell was in his junior year at Temple, and the 21-year-old Daniels was about to become a police statistic.
Daniels had been shot three times - twice in the chest - and had lost six pints of blood. Two men shot him around 2:10 a.m. on May 11, 1989, on the sidewalk in front of his grandmother’s house. They had come to collect a cocaine debt.
Daniels was in critical condition after surgery to repair his lungs and remove two of the bullets when Causwell visited. The first thing Causwell saw was shocking.
“He had a Bible in his hands,” Causwell remembers.
Causwell had always seen Daniels with a basketball in his hands, doing things few others could match.
His shooting and passing drew comparisons to Larry Bird. He was dubbed “Magic with a jump shot.” Some considered him the best New York prep player since Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Daniels was the first player to make all-city his freshman year. At Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, Daniels averaged 31.2 points, 12.3 rebounds and 10 assists per game before dropping out as a junior.
Causwell knew Daniels had a drug problem and was praying his old prep rival could turn his life around.
“I was just hoping he could change,” Causwell remembers. “Everybody needs something to change him around, and maybe getting shot was it for him. He started reading the Bible after that.”
Daniels hates dwelling on his past.
“The way I was living, I was running into a brick wall, and you know that brick wall ain’t going to move. You’re going to die,” he says.
He says he’s been drug-free for nearly six years, ever since George Karl convinced him to seek treatment. Karl, now coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, was coaching the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association at the time.
Daniels was cut on the last day of Albany’s training camp.
“He sat me down in his office and said, ‘Lloyd, you’ve got to forget about basketball and get your life in order.’ He was the first one that had the guts to do that,” Daniels says.
Karl remembers watching Daniels run the court in a sluggish daze and wondering how good he could be without drugs and alcohol. One player, who had known Daniels in high school, told the coach: “George, this guy is 10 percent of what he was.”
“I recommended that he quit playing basketball and go clean his life up,” Karl says. “He was trying to do both, and neither one was working.”
Daniels loves talking about his children.
He revels in the opportunities he’s going to give 4-yard-old Aubrey and 2-year-old Shaina, opportunities he never had. He promises them a good education, not the turmoil that was his constant companion.
He wants them to be everything their daddy wasn’t.
In eighth grade, Daniels missed 153 days of school but still was promoted to ninth grade. He attended four high schools, where coaches tried to find ways of getting him enough credits so he could get a college scholarship.
Finally, he just walked out after his junior year in high school, declaring: “I ain’t allergic to no school. I just don’t want to go.”
But that didn’t stop him from going to college.
Despite lacking a diploma or even a high school equivalency, Daniels signed a letter of intent to play for coach Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV. He also had been recruited by Kansas, Kentucky and LSU.
He enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., and earned 14 credits at the junior college in the fall of 1986. That enabled him to transfer to UNLV, even though he still read at a third-grade level.
Daniels enrolled at UNLV for the 1987 spring semester, planning to play for the Runnin’ Rebels in December. That plan, and his college career, ended when he was arrested at a crack house.
Now, Daniels has a private tutor so that eventually he’ll be able to read as well as his kids. He wants to recoup “everything I didn’t learn in school.”
He’s still searching for NBA success, but Daniels has a lot of other things he never dreamed possible.
“I’m great today,” he says. “I’ve got a house, a lovely wife. I’ve got money in the bank. I don’t want to look back.”
On the morning of Feb. 10, 1987, Tarkanian turned on the TV and recognized a face. It was Daniels, the 6-foot-8 player he had recruited, getting led away with 59 other junkies from a North Las Vegas crack house.
Daniels was arrested after buying $20 worth of cocaine from an undercover policeman. Tarkanian immediately declared Daniels would never play for UNLV.
Daniels pleaded guilty and was ordered to undergo drug rehabilitation. Four months after that, he was fined $600 for using cocaine and marijuana during his rehab program.
He became a basketball nomad, playing until teams lost patience with his addictions.
He was suspended by the Topeka Sizzlers of the CBA. He was dumped by a New Zealand team - the coach said Daniels drank a case of beer a night.
Daniels declared himself eligible for the 1988 NBA draft. No one cared. No one would touch him.
After recovering from the 1989 shooting, he was cut by Quad City and Albany of the CBA.
Finally, he enrolled in the drug clinic run by former NBA player John Lucas and went straight. Then came successful stints in Miami, Greensboro and Long Island in the minor leagues.
Still, the NBA eluded him.
But when Tarkanian was named coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1992, he made Daniels his starting point guard. The same Daniels whose recruitment - including handouts of cash, clothes and a car - led to NCAA probation for UNLV and hastened Tarkanian’s downfall there.
Perhaps Tarkanian felt Daniels deserved another chance. Or maybe, like so many others, he was enticed by those flashes of natural talent he had seen years earlier.
“He had great basketball instincts. He really had a feel for the game,” says Tarkanian, now coaching at Fresno State. “He’d just see things other guys couldn’t.”
Daniels outlasted Tarkanian in San Antonio, but was waived before the 1994 season. He had short stints with the 76ers and the Lakers, scored 27 points a game with Fort Wayne of the CBA and played in Italy.
He was signed by the Kings this November when forward Brian Grant underwent rotator cuff surgery.
“A lot of his troubles are way in the past. We’re taking a little bit of a chance, but he hasn’t had any problems in his recent past,” said Sacramento general manager Geoff Petrie. “He’s looking for a chance.”
The chance lasted less than a month. He was cut after scoring six points in five games.
Daniels still has young legs and hands soft enough to make feathery passes. He’s got an innocent smile and a childlike charm, and plenty of people rooting for him to succeed.
All his life, he’s been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe next time he’ll finally get that steady NBA job he craves. Or maybe the time after that.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A ROUGH RIDE A look at the tortured path Lloyd Daniels has taken in and out of basketball: Sept. 4, 1967 - Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. 1970-1971 - Orphaned when mother dies of cancer and father walks out. February 1986 - Drops out of Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, N.Y., as junior, after averaging 31.2 points, 12.3 rebounds and 10 assists per game. Had attended three other high schools. Spring 1986 - Despite lacking high school diploma, signs letter of intent to play for coach Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV. Fall 1986 - Enrolls at Mt. San Antonio Junior College in Walnut, Calif. After two games, leaves team to focus on tutoring. Earns 14 credits, enabling him to transfer to UNLV despite third-grade reading level. Feb. 9, 1987 - Arrested in North Las Vegas after buying $20 worth of cocaine during police sting operation at crack house. Feb. 10, 1987 - Banned by Tarkanian from playing at UNLV. 1987-88 season - Averages 16 points in 29 games for Topeka Sizzlers of Continental Basketball Association. Feb. 12, 1988 - Suspended by Sizzlers for failing to participate in drug rehab program. May 19, 1988 - Dismissed from New Zealand Basketball Federation for drinking up to a case of beer a night. June 28, 1988 - After declaring himself eligible for NBA draft, is not chosen by any team. May 11, 1989 - Shot three times in New York over what police say was an $8 drug debt. 1989-90 season - Cut by Quad City of the CBA after four games. Fall 1990 - Cut by Albany Patroons of CBA. Enrolls in drug clinic run by former NBA player John Lucas. April 30, 1991 - Signs with Miami Tropics of United States Basketball League. Oct. 23, 1991 - Signs with Greensboro City Gaters of Global Basketball Association. Averages 24.3 points per game and is named league MVP. April 29, 1992 - Signs with Long Island Surf of USBL. Averages 23.7 points a game. 1992-93 season - Averages 9.1 points in 77 games for San Antonio Spurs, coached by Tarkanian and then Lucas. Oct. 4, 1994 - Waived by Spurs. Oct. 8, 1994 - Signs with Philadelphia 76ers, coached by Lucas. Oct. 14, 1994 - Waived by 76ers. Signs with Fort Wayne Fury of CBA, averaging 27.3 points in 34 games. Feb. 22, 1995 - Signs with Los Angeles Lakers. April 11, 1995 - Waived by Lakers. 1995-96 season - Averages 23.2 points in 23 games for Scavolini Pesaro of Italian League. Nov. 17, 1996 - Signs with Sacramento Kings. Dec. 10, 1996 - Waived by Kings after five games.