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Swee’Pea: The Story of Lloyd Daniels and other Playground Legends – a review
May 15, 2017Posted by on
Lloyd Daniels entered my consciousness sometime in the early nineties. I don’t know if it was in 1992 when he made his NBA debut with the San Antonio Spurs as a 25-year-old rookie or if it was sometime before when he flirted with NCAA eligibility and Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV program. As a 12-year-old, I was perplexed about why there was this hoopla around a guy who averaged under ten points and hadn’t played on any college team I knew of. Whenever I first heard of Daniels, it was absent awareness of John Valenti’s 1991 book (co-written by Ron Naclerio), originally titled Swee’Pea and Other Playground Legends: Tales of Drugs, Violence and Basketball; later republished as Swee’pea: The Story of Lloyd Daniels and Other Playground Basketball Legends.
It’s a not a radical title makeover, but it’s enough to raise an eyebrow as the original title and the content within Valenti’s book is flush with the drug abuse and violence that rolled like an avalanche through American cities in the 1980s in the form of crack. Not immune from the drug game and its accompanying violence were New York City basketball players from Earl “the Goat” Manigault in the 1960s to Len Bias and Lloyd Daniels in the 80s.
Valenti and Naclerio are perfectly qualified to tell Lloyd’s story. Valenti, a nine-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter and Naclerio, one of the most decorated coaches in New York’s famed Public School Athletic League with over 700 wins, have the requisite skills and firsthand knowledge (Naclerio had been a Daniels confidant and supporter since the early-80s) to tell Lloyd’s tragic story.
It’s a story that is as much a sociological study of the impact of drugs on the inner-city boroughs of New York as it is an exploration into the city’s playground basketball legends. Unfortunately, the two have been tragically intertwined. In my reading, I wanted more basketball, more stories, more myths, more descriptions. But the narrative we want isn’t usually the one that was lived. And in the 18-to-20 hours each day that Lloyd Daniels wasn’t aweing basketball coaches or fans from Brooklyn to Mount SAC, from a young age, he was skipping school, sleeping in and getting high. That reality wasn’t unique to Daniels and it’s the story Valenti tells here which is why the title shift feels disingenuous.
Daniels was a 6’7” wing player born in 1967 so he came up around the same time as future NBA players J.R. Reid, LaBradford Smith, and Dennis Scott. His mother died at a young age, and his father wasn’t in the picture, so Daniels was passed back and forth between grandmothers. By age seven, he could navigate the city’s boroughs by public transit and by ten he was selling coke and weed and toking up daily. Ten-years-old, no mother, no father, unable to read with undiagnosed dyslexia, a well-developed con necessary just for survival. That same boy who was failed by the education system and failed by his family, was sneaking out night to play basketball in the dark. As Valenti writes,
He taught himself how to dribble on those darkened, glass-strewn courts. Taught himself how to pass, bouncing the ball off the chain-link fences. Taught himself to shoot jumpers in the park, which had no lights, banking them home in the dark. He said it developed not only his eye for the basket, but his feel for it. He’d take a hundred shots. After a while, despite the darkness, he could make 98, 99.
This balance, the drug hustle and basketball, is the delicate tightrope Daniels kept falling off throughout his life and is the backbone along which the content of the book strides. From the time he’s a young kid, barely a teenager, Daniels is swarmed by hangers-on, people who genuinely care for him, but are also pulled in by his prodigious talents. They let him get away with on and off-court crap because he’s just so freakishly talented. This extremely human conflict, a self-vested interest, is a recurring theme in Lloyd’s life where we see these older, typically well-off white men constantly drawn to Daniels’s talent, his likability, and they develop genuine relationships with the young star. Simultaneously, Daniels picked up pretty early that he was a hot commodity because he was good at basketball and developed terrible habits. He used people to get what he needed and into his 20s, had a teenager’s inability to take accountability for his actions.
People don’t take interest unless you’re one hell of a player and that’s what makes Lloyd’s story so damn compelling. This is a player who, as a junior in high school, averaged 31-points, 12-rebounds, ten assists, and five blocks per-game and was named to the 1986 Parade All-American team. He was regularly compared to Magic Johnson and George Gervin because his feel for the game was so natural, the execution so smooth. Just watching this clip from 1996 when Lloyd was 29 and had beaten his body up with years of drug and alcohol abuse and survived a drug-related shooting that nearly killed him, you can see the fluidity and talent that were so magnetizing when he was a teeThat there is so little video of Daniels playing ball is part beauty, part tragedy. Beauty in the sense that myths and legends are food for the imagination. You can choose to believe or not and even among those who saw Daniels as a teenager and then saw him in his mid-20s when he was well-past his basketball-playing prime have waffled on how good of a talent he really was. It’s tragedy in that a talent so vast and unique was underutilized to the point that, despite the availability of video equipment, a relatively small number of people were able to appreciate his gifts. His greatest lives on via oral tradition or in the locked-up memories of those who saw him when. Valenti, via high school recruiting expert and Daniels aficionado, Tom Konchalski captures this fleeting essence in religious tones:
Stories of Lloyd Daniels and his immense and immeasurable talent, remain like those of apparitions of the Virgin Mother at Lourdes and La Salette, at Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe and even Syracuse. That is, that most nonbelievers don’t believe those apparitions existed. But for those who were there, who saw with their own eyes, well … they believe, because they know in their hearts and in their minds what they saw. Truly saw.
Valenti uses a colorful cast of New York ball players to show that, however talented he may have been, Daniels being failed by family and schools and succumbing to temptations was not the exception, but the rule. He uses Tony Bruin III to show that even young men who grew up with a strong family presence and made it to college were still vulnerable to the pull of drugs. There’s the Goat, Richie Adams, Fly Williams, and how many other players who traded the ball for the rock.
On the flip side, there’s Lefrak City’s Kenny Anderson whose uncle was a well-regarded ballplayer caught up in the streets and killed at 27. Anderson’s older brother Ricky, another ballplayer who made a name for himself, but quit in exchange for “other interests.” Anderson is a background character in the broader story, but serves a purpose as a contrast to Daniels. From before he entered high school, Anderson was surrounded by a support team that included Kenny Smith’s brother Vincent, and Archbishop Molloy’s legendary head coach Jack Curran who helped insulate Kenny from all the shit swirling around. It wasn’t different from Daniels having Naclerio, Konchalski, Lou d’Almedia or Arnie Hershkowitz trying to help steer him to places like Oak Hill or Laurinburg; places where, in theory, Lloyd could thrive with discipline and a break from the temptations of the city.
It’s hard to point specifically to what made Anderson and Lloyd different though Valenti, through the stories of Mark Jackson and John Salley, repeatedly points out the steady and influencing role of family that helped some players avoid the street temptations. But it’s not that simple as the Tony Bruin case shows. There’s not always an explanation to why some people succeed and others fail. What makes Lloyd’s story so compelling, and this is no doubt part of the problem, was his rare talent. In July of 1989, just after he had been shot, Lloyd attended the Mike Tyson-Carl Williams fight in Atlantic City and was the toast of the celebrity-filled afterparty. He’s buddy-buddy with Mike Tyson, cool with Rick Pitino and even artist Leroy Neiman, friendly with Charles Barkley and Charles Oakley. He was a defacto celebrity without ever having played in the NBA or the NCAA – that’s how prodigious his talent was.
Swee’Pea is a sociological survey. It’s also a basketball story. It’s a study of human psychology and power dynamics as the substance abusing Lloyd, who was let down by his family and the New York schools, who can’t read, can’t be relied upon for work, can’t commit to putting forth consistent effort, can’t do the basic shit all of us try to do just to get by, is gifted chance after chance at redemption because he has a set of skills that can be packaged up and sold for millions of dollars. On its surface, that’s a miserable, transparent, and heartless exchange. But what makes Swee’Pea worth reading is that it’s not as simple as a heartless exchange. Administration and bureaucracy lead to cold, unfeeling exchanges and on the outer rims of high level basketball, you’re not finding much in the way of administration. It’s not just Jerry Tarkanian using Lloyd to try and better his program or Lloyd conning the owner of his CBA team who took him into his house.
Beyond the brutal zero-sum game of drugs and high caliber basketball are humans worth giving a damn about. That they’re engaged in the endless pursuit of self-interest doesn’t make them different from the rest of us. It makes them more relatable; just sitting at a different table with different stakes, playing games we can all relate to in one way or another.