McDaniel learned to start looking over his shoulder before he was into his teens, at Olympia Middle School. "Other schools used to be scared to come in there to play basketball games," he says. "My junior high school was the kind of place where you didn't want to mess with the wrong guy, because a lot of the kids had already been to reform school. If a guy came up to you and asked for your coat, you had to be ready to give him the coat or fight for it."
As a sophomore playing in his first varsity game, at A.C. Flora High School, McDaniel made a basket at the buzzer to win it; the shot made him such a celebrated figure that he decided he no longer needed to study or go to classes. By the end of his sophomore year he had a grade point average of 1.4. He played sparingly the next season because of his poor grades and then became a starter in his senior year. "No one was bigger than the team," McDaniel says. "I guess [coach Carl Williams] wanted to build character in me. I think that's why I play as hard as I do now, because I know what it's like to sit on that bench."
McDaniel says it was "a dream come true" when South Carolina, whose players he had grown up idolizing, recruited him to play there. "Bill Foster [then the Gamecocks' coach] promised me a scholarship right in front of my mother," McDaniel says. "Then after I made up my mind to go there, they told me my grades weren't good enough. They knew all along what my grades were, but they tell you whatever you want to hear when they're recruiting you." Several schools that might have been interested in him backed away after hearing he was going to South Carolina. Wichita State discovered him only after coming to see one of his high school teammates, and when the Shockers offered a scholarship McDaniel took it.
He knew no one in Kansas. "It was lonely at first," McDaniel says. "I used to call home every day. I'd call my mother collect just to tell her I was going to class, then before I hung up I'd promise to call her back later. I guess I was running up a big phone bill, because she'd always say, 'Oh, you don't have to do that.' But I didn't have anyone else to turn to."
McDaniel adjusted enough to life away from home to lead the NCAA in rebounding as a sophomore, but he was probably better known for showing up with his head shaved clean when the Shockers played Tulsa that season. "At first I thought I looked funny, but as time went on it became part of me," he says. "I don't ever see myself with a whole lot of hair on my head now."
By his senior season, 1984-85, he became the first and is still the only player ever to lead the nation in both scoring (27.2 points a game) and rebounding (14.8). Though Seattle made him the fourth selection in the 1985 draft, he reported to the Sonics with a chip on his shoulder. "More than anybody I've ever seen, X came in determined to prove that he belonged in the NBA, and nobody was going to take that away from him," says Chambers. "I think that's been his edge his whole life, fighting for everything as if someone were trying to take it away."
Veteran forward Reggie King was assigned to guard McDaniel in training camp, and in McDaniel's opinion King was going about the job with an excess of zeal. "I was going to show them I wasn't intimidated by anyone," X says. "If I back down, I'm dead, so I always step forward. And if I had to punch a guy, I punched him." McDaniel asked Bernie Bicker-staff, who was then Seattle's coach, how to proceed with King. "Bernie told me to do what I had to do to get open," McDaniel says. "I told King to stop holding me, and he wouldn't. So I punched him. I was so emotional my rookie year I disputed every call, and every time something happened, I was in the middle of it."
His life off the court wasn't much better. At the end of that first NBA season, he had an argument with his wife, Sylvia, whom he met during his freshman year of college and married in August 1985. The police were called, and McDaniel was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault. He eventually agreed to a year of supervised probation to avoid a trial. (The couple was divorced in March 1987.)
In McDaniel's second season, the Sonics brought in Maurice Lucas, the NBA's venerable prince of darkness, and the two were often seen hanging around together. "Maurice would tell me not to try to stand up to every challenge," McDaniel says. "He showed me how to do things without getting caught, all his tricks. Luke taught me that if something happened in the first quarter, you wait to get even, to give the officials time to forget."
But McDaniel never could forget, and certainly would not forgive, the numerous indignities of his opponents. When the Sonics faced Dallas in the playoffs in 1987, McDaniel sought to physically intimidate the Mavericks. When James Donaldson, the Dallas center, bumped McDaniel and knocked the wind out of him, the X-Man leaped up and strode straight toward Donaldson, pointing his finger at him accusingly. "I'm going to get you," McDaniel hissed. "This thing ain't over with yet." However, it was over with all too soon for the Mavs and for Donaldson, who was scarcely heard from again during the series.