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The head is shiny, and there is virtually no hair on it anywhere except for the brows above eyes that are cold and menacing. It has always been a source of some amusement to Xavier McDaniel that it is his head that makes him one of the most intimidating figures in the NBA. "When I see another guy with a bald head, he don't intimidate me," says the X-Man.
"I don't weigh but 209 pounds, and I have the flattest chest in the league," adds McDaniel, who is closer to 6'6" than the 6'8" at which he is officially listed. "People don't realize how small I am until they get up next to me." But getting too close to the 27-year-old McDaniel can often lead directly to a horizontal position, from which he looks positively enormous. A partial list of current and former NBA players who have found themselves up next to the X and then down for the count would include Kenny Carr, Dale Ellis, A.C. Green, Reggie King, Eddie Johnson, Kenny Johnson, Jerome Kersey, Wes Matthews, Mike Mitchell, Calvin Natt, Charles Oakley, Charles Pittman, Cliff Robinson and Kevin Willis.
When McDaniel, a small forward, was traded from Seattle to the Phoenix Suns earlier this season, he rejoined former teammate and sometime sparring partner Tom Chambers, who believes the X-Man is finally interested in winning more than fistfights. "He's matured, and I've matured," Chambers says. "I think we both understand what's important now. When you first come into the league, it's about survival and making a name for yourself. But eventually you learn that winning is the only thing that matters." The trade was completed on Dec. 7, and X post facto the Suns won seven in a row, and have been playing like a contender since, with McDaniel averaging more than 20 points a game.
"All my life I've felt I had to prove myself to people," McDaniel says. "I wasn't nothing coming out of high school. And even when I was a little kid playing street basketball against older guys, they would always intimidate me. Now that I'm in Phoenix, I still feel I have to prove to the Seattle SuperSonics that they were wrong to trade me."
"I think X has some scars," says Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who is counting on McDaniel's scar tissue to thicken the Suns' skin for the playoffs. "We needed to be tougher," Fitzsimmons says, "and X gives us that. He's not afraid to go out and bang on people." The Suns have faded in the Western Conference finals two years in a row as the games got more physical. "I think we've been a bunch of marshmallows," says point guard Kevin Johnson. "Real pushovers. Every time we knocked a guy down, we'd help him back to his feet. When X got here, that changed immediately."
"Basketball is about who can intimidate who," McDaniel says.
This philosophy had its beginnings in the Hendley Homes housing project of Columbia, S.C., where McDaniel learned brass-knuckles basketball when he was 14 and still had hair on his head. He was playing against men who were 18 and 19 years old then. His shot was blocked so often, he was forced to develop a turnaround fallaway jumper that was untouchable, but it was equally important to McDaniel that he remain untouchable. "I was timid," he says. "I didn't want to get into fights, but if you called a foul on the playground, there was always an argument or a fight. So I had to learn to score even if I was fouled, because I was always scared to call anything on the bigger guys."
When he was 16, McDaniel shot up to 6'6", and he went back to the playground to renew old acquaintances. "I wasn't intimidated anymore," McDaniel recalls. "I'd take each of them in turn and go one-on-one, and one after another I would dunk on them." When he appeared on the court each evening after school, "they would kick some other guy off the court and pick me for their team," McDaniel recalls proudly.
The oldest of five children, McDaniel got his name when an aunt decided on Xavier; then when he was still an infant his grandmother started calling him X. His father, James, worked at a food distribution company during the day and as a janitor at the University of South Carolina at night. "We didn't see much of our father because he was always working," McDaniel says. "When we came home from school, he'd be eating and watching the news on TV before he had to catch the bus to go to his night job." The X-Mom and the X-Dad imposed a rigid set of standards on their children, standards he adheres to—and holds others to on the court—even now. "They used to both give us whuppin's," he says. "If you were wrong, you were wrong, and you had to pay for it."
On weekends McDaniel worked all day as a dishwasher and busboy in a cafeteria, taking off only when he went to sell Cokes at South Carolina football games. He turned most of the money he earned over to his mother, Nellie. "Most kids would go to their parents and ask for things, but I knew what the answer was going to be, and so I learned not to ask," he says. McDaniel wore the same five pairs of pants through most of school, and he learned to wear his Converse gym shoes with cardboard in the toes until his father could afford to buy him new ones. "Sometimes you'd get embarrassed, but you did what you had to do," he says. "I've never been a person who needed a lot to be happy. In some ways, not having money is a lot easier than having it. I had a lot more fun then than I do now. When you've got money, you're always looking over your shoulder because everybody wants a piece of you."