By Dan Bernstein
Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks are no longer an NBA laughingstock — thanks in part both to his own 23.1 points per game and the precocious play of rookie Kristaps Porzingis. But Anthony is busy off the court as well, lending time and money new a new documentary film.
The Legend of Swee’ Pea premiered last night at the IFC Center in New York. Bankrolled by Anthony, enough to earn him an executive producer credit, it tells the story of playground legend Lloyd Daniels, the onetime star basketball recruit whose prodigious skills never got to shine due to drug addictions and violence.
Daniels was a player ahead of his time, and everybody knew it. The 6-7 Swee’ Pea could play four positions. He had preternatural court vision and an innate understanding of the game, along with spectacular athleticism and deep shooting range. After playing for five New York high schools, he was set to attend UNLV, but a drug arrest in JUCO derailed his career, spiraling him in and out of rehab and from one minor league pro team to another. He finally reached the NBA at an older than-his years 25 — a shadow of his former self.
He was playing by then with bullet fragments still stuck in his body, there from a 1989 cocaine deal gone bad in which he was shot three times in the chest.
He would have his moments in the league, with occasional scoring outbursts that only reminded people of what could have been. He hung around for parts of six seasons with the Spurs, 76ers, Lakers, Kings, Nets and Raptors. In his winding career, Daniels played for 12 different minor league franchises in the US, as well as teams in New Zealand, France, Italy, Puerto Rico, Turkey, Greece, Venezuela, China and Portugal.
I first saw Daniels in 1991, when he was starring for the Greensboro City Gaters in the ill-fated Global Basketball Association. The team for which I worked, the Raleigh Bullfrogs, was the divisional rival down the road and frequent opponent, and the bullet-scarred Daniels was still clearly the league’s best player. I broadcast the first (and only) GBA All-Star game that season, where Daniels’ MVP performance in chilly Saginaw, Michigan, in front of a cadre of NBA scouts, would earn him an NBA chance with San Antonio the next year.
Our paths crossed again in 1994, when Daniels returned to the Continental Basketball Association’s Fort Wayne Fury during my stint as a broadcaster and PR director for the Rockford Lightning. He continued to play at a high level then, clearly too good for the minors but not trusted enough for a contract commitment from an NBA team.
He was always available to talk, whether for an interview or just around the arena at shoot-around, or while killing time at O’Hare during one of the league’s interminable puddle-jump layovers. He was open about his past, honest about his future.
He’d get a couple more call-ups, but could never stick. He lives in New Jersey now, and is said to be coaching an AAU team.
Everybody around basketball knew the legend of perhaps the greatest talent to never have his potential realized, despite multiple chances, due to a combination of self-destructive tendencies, unsupportive family environment and poor education.
A handful of us along the way were lucky to have the chance to see Daniels play, often and up close, to really understand how special he was, and could have been.
It’s great that Carmelo Anthony agrees enough to make sure his story gets told. It’s worth hearing.