Lloyd Daniels is walking off the court in the fourth quarter of a minor league basketball game in Philadelphia. All eyes are on him. Always are. Should be. He is a legendary basketball player, one of the most celebrated ever to come off the storied playgrounds of New York City. Better than Kareem, they say. Better than Connie Hawkins, they say. Former NBA reserve player Sam Worthen says, "When Lloyd was 16, he had the knowledge of the game to play in the NBA."
Expand the comparisons. Just like Magic Johnson, they say, only with a better jump shot. Yeah, Larry Bird's jump shot, they say. He'll redefine excellence in the NBA, they say. Not long ago, UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian said, "They'll write the history of guards and start with Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Lloyd Daniels." Two weeks ago, Tarkanian was staying the course, insisting that Daniels is "the best I've ever been around." NBA franchise maker, they say. They've been saying this for years.
Daniels's coach, Eric Dennis, wants to give him a breather. "Go back in with 5:30 left," he says. At 5:30, Daniels just sits. At 5:20, drink cup in hand and towel around his shoulders, Daniels slowly rises to his feet and takes a couple of world-class slow steps in the general direction of the scorer's table. At 5:12, time is called to get Daniels into the game.
Here we have a player who says repeatedly, "I just want to play ball," but who doesn't seem to want to play when this game is right in front of him. Daniels is wearing a Miami Tropics uniform and is lollygagging on the sidelines of a game with the Philadelphia Spirit, in the Holy Family College gym in northeast Philly on a hot evening in late spring. It's a game in the U.S. Basketball League, which calls itself the League of Opportunity. Indeed, players like Spud Webb of the Sacramento Kings and Manute Bol of the Philadelphia 76ers and Hot Rod Williams of the Cleveland Cavaliers have all used the USBL's 20-game June-July schedule as a springboard to the NBA.
Alas, Daniels, for now, is making the least of his opportunities. When his name is brought up, Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting, says, "This guy can't play. He's a myth." Indiana Pacer scout Al Menendez, who has been watching Daniels for years, says, "I think his talents have been blown completely out of proportion. He's like a hero by word of mouth. He's a great outdoor player where he's a great outside shooter. Unfortunately, the game is played indoors."
Bob Weinhauer, the 76er player personnel director, is sitting courtside in the Holy Family gym. He says, "I don't question for a minute that he has the knowledge and desire to be an NBA player. But he looks to me like a player who has reached his level. I see no lack of effort, but his body doesn't seem to respond to his mind. He doesn't seem to have a live body anymore. Has it been sapped by lifestyle?" Later, in the third quarter, Weinhauer is growing increasingly unimpressed. He says, "Look, he's exhausted. He has made one explosive play tonight. Everything else is soft. Soft pass. Soft shot. One big play in a game is not getting it done." John Killilea, an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets and one of Daniels's former coaches in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), says Daniels is "neither physically nor mentally tough enough to play in the NBA. He'll never make it." Ed Krinsky, the general manager of the USBL's Long Island Surf, shakes his head: "The odds are really against this kid."
Lloyd Daniels, a very old 23, has long been a sad story. His mother died when he was three, and he was left in the care of relatives. Asked the major influence in his life, he says, "Myself." That is the core of the problem. Riding up the New Jersey Turnpike following the Tropics' 124-117 loss to the Spirit, Daniels says he started smoking marijuana when he was 10. When he was a teenager he was friendly with Richard (the Fixer) Perry. Perry was convicted in 1974 for his part in a harness-racing betting scandal in New York and for conspiracy to commit sports bribery in the notorious Boston College point-shaving case of 1981. Asked about Perry, Daniels says, "No comment." Daniels attended four high schools in three states and never graduated. He reads at an extraordinarily low level and admits it: "Any kid like me who doesn't go to school can't read. How are you going to learn if you aren't there? I wasn't there. I was one of those kids who just passed through. It's bad. People keep telling you you're a helluva ballplayer and kiss your butt. Then they don't teach you nothing. But I'm no dummy."
Daniels attended Mount San Antonio Junior College in Walnut, Calif., for a semester in 1986 and was enrolled as a student at UNLV in 1987. Perry helped direct him to UNLV. "We knew it was a long shot," says Tarkanian. "I figured I might have him for a year before he would go into the NBA." But before Daniels could even practice with the Runnin' Rebels, he was busted in a Vegas crack house. Daniels said he was there in search of basketball tickets.
Perry posted a $1,500 bond for Daniels, who later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy rock cocaine. He didn't go to jail; instead he was placed in a drug rehabilitation program.