Originally published in the November 1992 issue of Esquire. Reprinted here with permission. An afterword from the author follows.
Bald, bone-white, wearing baggy sweats and clunky sneakers, Jerry "Tark the Shark" Tarkanian looks like a cross between Mr. Magoo and Yertle the Turtle as he paces the length of the hardwood floor of the Blossom Athletic Center in San Antonio, where the Spurs are holding their rookie/free-agent camp. Twenty players, most of them seasoned pros and all but one a college meal ticket, are running a fast-break drill up and down the court, pulling up short for eighteen-footers, bending the flexible rims when they hang after slamming it, passing blind. Tarkanian keeps his hooded, bloodshot eyes fastened on that one raggedy-ass exception: Lloyd "Swee'pea" Daniels, a pigeon-toed, bald, twenty-five-year-old man with delicate, intensely expressive features, limbs that are puffy with subcutaneous fat, and a bullet embedded in his back that he'll let you feel when he gets to know you. The two go back a ways.
The drill is pure Tarkanian, a relentless run-and-gun inner-city mazurka that sends three men sprinting downcourt with the ball against two defenders. In between sprints, hands on his knees as he sucks air, his silver jersey untucked to hide a slight gut, Daniels has the glowing goon smile of a former pothead as he says, "Whoo, you killing me, Coach Tark." Tarkanian, who's in his first season as a pro coach after resigning his job of nineteen years at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas amid controversy and ongoing NCAA investigations, grins automatically, a U-shaped and vacant grin, his whole face set in relief by the dark circles around his eyes. Through the shoulder cutaway in Daniels's jersey, Tarkanian can see what looks like a historical map of a battlefield: a series of jagged shapes, rugged indentations, and a half-inch-thick line of keloid zigzagging down the side of his chest. A fight over a few vials of crack in Queens. Three and a half years ago. Three shots.
Daniels looks old. His body looks old, and his game looks old: two-handed chest passes à la Bob Cousy; jump shots, with only the slightest lift, that he shoots off the glass like Jerry West; and old-fashioned lay-ups, from the side, never slamming.
He even wheezes like an old man, bending over to catch his breath and groaning about the overly physical play of teammate Ken "the Animal" Bannister. "Whoo," Daniels exhales. "The Animal killing people."
This year, in the bush-league highlight of a prematurely tarnished basketball career, Daniels was voted the Global Basketball Association Most Valuable Player, averaging twenty-four points and four assists a game for the Greensboro Gators in North Carolina. But he had a reputation as an unregenerate crack addict, and no coach in the NBA would touch him. Until Jerry Tarkanian, who claimed he had taken a few shots in the back himself from his former employers at UNLV, got hired as the coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
The resolution of what became known as the Lloyd Daniels Affair—or the struggle for the soul of Swee'pea—is the showpiece of this camp and of Tarkanian's last stand, here in the Alamo City. As the players square off into teams for scrimmages, Tark looks like Hamlet's ghost, aimlessly pacing the gym as he thinks about things he's never had to think about before: salary caps and unrestricted free agency, the greed of agents and the ages of unsigned veterans. The most successful coach (by won-lost percentage) in the history of the sport, he's suffering extreme anxiety from his move up to the NBA, which he says is "a players' league." Though he has one of the NBA's best in David Robinson, at center, Tarkanian also has a hole in his front line and needs an experienced ball handler; he can't sleep nights. All but his thumbnails are bitten to the cuticle.
With the scrimmage half-over, Daniels has been anything but impressive, gasping his way up and down the court, misfiring passes and reluctant to take shots. Then, suddenly, a no-look pass that shaves two defenders' heads before it finds his man in full stride on the break; Daniels comes alive. He starts scoring: back to back bank shots from the perimeter, two from the top of the key, one from three-point land. The three-pointer draws his man out, and Daniels starts driving: an easy lay-up, followed by a dish-off—when he confronts Bannister on the next drive—that's so deft and classical it gets a roar from everyone in the gym: press, players, and assistant coaches.
And Tarkanian? The pass is too sweet to prevent a well-worn college cliché from bubbling up: "He looks like a man among boys out there." There's a trace of color in his face, and for the first time this morning I see his neck. "You can teach a kid to pass and to play defense," he says. "But how can you teach him to be six seven and to pass the ball so soft and pure?"
Daniels, swelling with arrogance as he backpedals on defense, keeps an eye on Bannister until he looks up and acknowledges what's happened. The Animal gives it to him, a gentlemanly thumbs-up and a nod of the head, which Daniels returns with his own grin and a school-yard retort: "Welcome to the jungle." On his next possession he charges headlong into Bannister, and he still has that absurd grin on his face as they both go hurtling to the floor. Tarkanian just loves it. "He's ready now," he mutters. After practice, when sportswriters gather around him at midcourt, he answers all their metaphorical questions—"Is Daniels your great white whale?" "Was he your last straw at UNLV?"—by mixing up a metaphor of his own: "That's a crock of shit, anyway you slice it." Long after the press has gone, however, he taunts Daniels by saying, "Lloyd, you cost me my damn job: Now don't go making trouble for me down here, you son of a bitch." It makes them both howl.
Tarkanian should have known Daniels was trouble from the moment he laid eyes on him, back at a high school all-star summer tournament in Vegas in 1984. Even though Daniels, the youngest player in the game, was wasted (he thought he had to smoke a joint before each game to "keep the level up"), he commanded the court. As they watched the ninth grader dominate, Bernie Fine, an assistant coach at Syracuse, filled Tarkanian in on the Swee'pea legend—already in full bloom, though Daniels had played only seven games of freshman ball.
He was, essentially, an orphan. His mother died of cancer when he was three, and his father turned to drinking, abandoning his son to various relatives. At the age of seven, he taught himself the game, sneaking down to an unlighted park around the comer in East New York to shoot baskets at midnight—from so far out he couldn't see the rim. He learned to shoot it off the backboard. By 1980, age twelve, his turnaround jump shot was automatic from fifteen feet, without looking, but he didn't shoot it much. From the moment he was big enough to play with older kids, Daniels—who'd picked up the Swee'pea nickname because of his resemblance to the character in Popeye—had a gift for the pass. Others saw the court as a place to humiliate. Daniels saw it as a place to connect, probably for the only time in his life: Dish it off at exactly the right moment—"soft and pure," as Tark says—and learn immediately who can be trusted with the offering and who has no game. Some people call it court vision. Bird had it. Magic had it. And many coaches regard Daniels as their equal in anticipating the next move of every player on the court. Daniels has a jazzman's feel for the game's improvisational nature as well. "When it builds," he says, referring to the ebb and flow, "you nag it some till it gives. Then you drop it down. I always loved that. I couldn't much explain why, though."
Tarkanian can't explain much either; nor does he much care to. He had trouble putting his sense of the game into practice when he played point guard for Fresno State in the early Fifties, but he soon made a career of knowing who could when he saw them. When he arrived at UNLV in 1973, he already had a 328-43 record at three California colleges that had never before won a championship and had sent a half-dozen players, who'd been languishing in the junior colleges where he found them, to the NBA. "Even back in Long Beach, in the late Sixties," says UCLA's legendary former coach John Wooden, "Jerry was the Pied Piper who'd take in the lost souls no one else would. People everyone else avoided, myself included—transfer students, severe disciplinary problems, severe academic deficiencies—he devoted himself to."
Tarkanian calls that devotion loyalty. It's an almost mythical word in his lexicon, and one that can seem beneficent or vaguely sinister from sentence to sentence. Like the word family. "Jerry was a surrogate to me," says Greg Anthony of the New York Knicks, one of three UNLV players in the NBA who wear Tarkanian's old Fresno State number, 2. "And I loved him as a father." Others might call the relationships a ravenous symbiosis: Tark is as addicted to talent as Lloyd Daniels ever was to crack. He tries to downplay it now, but in 1986 Daniels's court vision blinded him. "The moment a man was free, the ball was there," Tark says. "I'd never seen anything like it before, except Magic Johnson—maybe. I was ready to recruit him on the spot. The only problem was, he was a freshman in high school."
Even at sixteen, though, freshman was a relative term with Daniels. Shuttled along from school to school, he was illiterate and severely dyslexic. When Tarkanian saw those same passes in the same place a year later, Daniels had been waived through three other high schools, but he was still illiterate. He was still high, still in control of the court. Now he was famous. Heavily recruited by everyone from Larry Brown of Kansas and Lou Carnesecca of St. John's to Providence's Rick Pitino and Louisville's Denny Crum, he carried a scrapbook of clips and ardent recruiting letters from dozens of schools—none of which he could read. When he arrived in April 1986 to sign his letter of intent to attend UNLV, he was a crack addict and at the top of his game: "A jump shot like Larry Bird and a handle like Magic Johnson," wrote a local sportswriter. "The only thing he couldn't do with a basketball was autograph it."
In order to qualify for UNLV admission standards, Daniels, still a "junior" in high school, spent a term at Mount San Antonio College—Mount SAC—a junior college in California. He made the dean's list despite his continued illiteracy and a $200 a day coke habit. A month after returning to Vegas, he was arrested while buying a twenty-dollar rock of crack in a police sting operation. The bust was shown on national TV, with Daniels telling the cameraman, "You're going to end my career." Daniels was right, but his fall put his coach's career in jeopardy as well. A series of articles about UNLV's recruiting practices appeared shortly after in New York Newsday, leading to the investigations that eventually caused Tarkanian to resign.
The irony is that while Tarkanian had seen Daniels as indispensable in his quest to win a national championship, he won his first and only without him in 1990. Of course, he did have Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, and George Ackles, a formidable lineup and probably the greatest trash-talking team ever to lace up sneakers. (It wasn't that they just dissed their opponents' games; it was that they claimed, "We've got your momma upstairs in our hotel room.") Their yapping victory over Duke in the NCAA championship was by the largest margin in the history of the tournament, and Tarkanian seemed untouchable at UNLV.
Daniels, meanwhile, had become a twenty-year-old pariah. After listing himself as eligible for the 1988 NBA draft, he spent four years wandering from one semipro team to another, with stops at various rehab centers and aftercare programs along the way; he even passed a desperate month playing for a team in Auckland, New Zealand, until the boredom drove him nuts.
The nadir came in May 1989. when Daniels awoke in a hospital bed in Queens after getting ripped by three bullets at point-blank range over a crack deal gone bad. He was missing six pints of blood. There was an autographed basketball sent by Michael Jordan and a bouquet of flowers sent by Tarkanian. Two months later, he was back on the streets. But for the first time in his life, he felt he'd lost his taste for the game. "If you're going to smoke crack, then you have to smoke crack—that's it," he says now. "Crack and ball don't mix. Now I know the score. Now I know there's nothing but ball."
"The thing that's most encouraging about Lloyd now," Tarkanian tells me, "is he's saying, 'I love life.' You can't say that until you have your priorities straight. You have to know what matters."
Within an hour of meeting these two, you realize that they're cut from the same basic fraction of cloth. Self-dramatizing, nonverbal obsessive-compulsives, both seem to have been born with a small basketball court in a part of the mind normally used for cognitive grammar.
Tarkanian discovered his love for the game at age thirteen, shortly after his father died and the family moved from Euclid, Ohio, to Pasadena, California. It's been written that he slept holding his basketball, but he denies this. "I grew up," he declares now, "with the same interests as all the other guys." But still, you have to wonder. In 1988, he hadn't heard of Roe v. Wade: He assumed people meant Syracuse guard Matt Roe when the subject came up during a summer-league game. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded two years earlier, Tarkanian thought people were talking about the minivan shuttle from campus to the Vegas strip. His wife, Lois, took him to the ballet that same year and he fell asleep. When he woke to applause at the curtain, he turned and asked her, "Who scored?"
Neither man can be trusted behind the wheel of a car. Daniels, whom I spent several days following around town, has his head both above the dashboard and facing forward no more than 85 percent of the time. In a car with Tarkanian, you simply learn not to look. Daniels says your name twice when he meets you and puts a finger to his head, showing you that you're in there for good. When Tarkanian brings you into the fold, he takes more than a minute to write your name in his address book in precise block letters. Neither says goodbye when you part for the day. Daniels, who had been living in San Antonio for two months when I met him, can give me directions to gyms in four different parts of town but not to the cross streets of his rented condo. Tarkanian, who's been living in a hotel suite in downtown San Antonio since taking the Spurs job in April, tells me that he'll probably stay there the entire season. "Lois is president of the school board, so she stays in Vegas. The kids are all grown up and working. So what am I going to do? I haven't cooked or washed a dish or a shirt in thirty years. Who's going to take my messages?"
The moment Tark steps off a basketball court, he's with family. "The Tarkanians," says Bonnie Glusman, one of their closest friends, "are as near to a clan as you can get. Out on the road with the UNLV team, he'd get one hotel room, and they'd all pile in. Him, Lois, two granddaughters, two daughters, two sons. One room." The sons—George, a junior-college basketball coach, and Danny, a lawyer—are down in San Antonio for the rookie/free-agent camp. They are dark, intense men who brood about their father like Willy Loman's sons and seldom pass a clause without dropping the acronym NCAA—which they pronounce NCtwoA: "NCtwoA hearings," "NCtwoA investigators," "the NCtwoA's 1988 arguments before the Supreme Court about Dad," "the five-year NCtwoA investigation into Dad's recruitment of Lloyd Daniels that has uncovered no NCtwoA violations to date." Loyalty, one quickly learns, is measured out by Tarkanians in degrees of NCtwoA hatred.
Tarkanian picked the fight originally, writing columns about the NCAA in 1972. They struck back, investigating his treatment of recruits and players at Long Beach State, and imposed a two-year suspension. He took it to court, won a landmark decision in 1977, and went for ten years without investigation.
"The NCtwoA came after us with a vengeance for Daniels," Danny Tarkanian says. (The NCAA investigated numerous alleged recruitment violations, including that one of Tarkanian's assistant coaches had improperly adopted Daniels.) "It's like they made it a project to destroy me," adds Tark. "Anyone else, anywhere else, they would've given a slap on the wrist. But they knew they could nail me with Lloyd."
"Do you feel angry with Lloyd?" I ask.
"I can't even understand that question, much less answer it," Tark snaps. "He was just a nineteen-year-old kid with a drug habit and a sixth sense for the game of basketball. He's as loyal as you get."
"You know me," Daniels says as we step into a Caribbean restaurant in a tony shopping mall near Lady Bird Johnson Park in north San Antonio. "Just taking one day at a time. Doing what I got to do for Lloyd."
Said with the voice of reason, a big smile, and a warm hand on my shoulder, this is Daniels's way of telling me to shut the fuck up about crack, Mount SAC, getting shot, and almost every other question about the past. "I know this isn't gonna be one of them legend stories," he says. "I always hated them fucking legend stories."
The wait is making him anxious, and he picks up the phone at the maître d's booth and starts making calls: to a rookie from the camp, to the Spurs' front office, collect to his agent back in New York. He wants to call his fiancée, Kendra Dunn, and ask her to put their three-month-old daughter, Aubrey, on, but the number that keeps coming to mind is for his last aftercare program in Houston. He remembers his home number when the maître d' comes to seat us. "'I'm gonna have a cellular the next time I'm here," he assures the man. "First I gotta get me that Toyota 4 x 4, though."
When Daniels comes to the table, I have to get up and switch seats. He won't sit with his back to the door. I ask if that's a ritual—he has others, like carrying nickels in various pockets and dollars in his sock. "No," he says, "more like a safety habit. Some things of the child don't get lost. No matter how old."
This is a sad truth with Daniels, who from moment to moment can seem decades older or younger than his twenty-four years. Several times a day, he'll interrupt the conversation by repeating some question incessantly. "When we see Mary? When we see Mary?" he'll ask Peter Raeford, his strength trainer. He asks the question five rimes in a row, knowing full well his appointment with Mary, his massage therapist, is at 3:45, after his biweekly drug test. He asks me repeatedly what Coach Tark has said about him, then repeats the same cluster: "You like Coach Tark? I love Coach Tark. I like his whole family. Mrs. Shark's real sweet."
At first he sounds like a hyperactive idiot savant who has simply learned to be ignored. Then you remember him shooting hoops at midnight, the same twenty-footer, and what you hear in his drone is the sound of a ball hitting a cheap tin backboard over and over. You get the same feeling talking to Tarkanian: Words express much less than ball. And never more so than when they're speaking of each other.
The waitress brings us a basket of rolls, and Lloyd whips his cap off and prays frenetically for fifteen seconds with his eyes hammered shut, then asks what I'm eating, He orders the same, oysters, and looks crestfallen when they arrive. I hand him the menu so he can order something else, then realize too late that perhaps he can't read it.
"I found God in Greensboro," he says, scraping a thin line of butter along a roll. A man named Jim, he says, took him to a Creation Church, whose theology he explains to me. It's the first time I've heard him put more than four sentences back to back. Suddenly, he sounds as if he's in the middle of a Flannery O'Connor story:
"He was a good man, Jim. He was sure great to me. It was like a Word church. Lots of people's, like, hypocrites in the church, you can't hear the Word of God in the aisles. Now, I want and I need to hear the Word, and the Word is God. Put off the old man," he says, draining three oysters, "and put on the new. These are good. Only man cause you to stumble and fall. I learn to walk by faith, nor by sight. Faith is sight in the eye of God. People been looking at me with them big eyes since I was fourteen. Still are, but now I know my position here. In all things," he concludes, scarfing a half-dozen oysters before delivering the predicate, "I give God the glory."
Tarkanian, Lois, and their daughter Pam look like a Diane Arbus photograph of triplets as they sit on the top half of the L-shaped couch in the family's condo in a high-rise in Pacific Beach, California, talking about Tark and Swee'pea. The entire family is dressed in Tark clothes: sweats, white socks and basketball shoes. (The only time he wears anything else is at a game, when he wears a short-sleeved shirt and a tie.) On the bottom half of the couch, Audra and Justine, his two granddaughters, are talking in nonsense syllables. "You're enzeedooway." "No, you're an enzeedooway." Beyond Tarkanian's shoulder, a tenth-story window looks over a vast expanse of boardwalk, beach, and the Pacific. I suddenly realize the two girls are calling each other NCtwoAs.
"Jerry doesn't have some death wish," Lois is saying. "When we took Lloyd, we kept records of everything. We knew that the NCtwoA was going to be on top of us."
"And they were," says Pam. "The NCtwoA investigated four, five years—and got nothing."
"The university really tried to nail us on Lloyd," Tarkanian says. "Their own report cleared us of any impropriety with Lloyd. That must've really ticked [UNLV president Robert] Maxson off." says Tarkanian. "I bet that really ticked him off good. Bastard."
"That man tried to paint Jerry as scum," Lois explains to me. "Jerry's no saint. Nobody's going to say that, but he's not scum,"
There are moments when I can barely distinguish which of them is talking. Pam has her father's dark-eyed, wistful gaze, so sweet you'd feel almost criminal disbelieving what she says. Lois has a stare I find almost impossible to meet. "God forbid you should get on the wrong side of any Tarkanian," says Bonnie Glusman. "The whole family will consider you their mortal enemy."
Robert Maxson, I learn sitting squeezed six deep into Tarkanian's red Fleetwood for the drive up to La Jolla for dinner, has been that mortal enemy since Tark resigned from his job at UNLV. Rather than stand beside him against the NCAA, Maxson, Tarkanian says, lied and betrayed him. Tarkanian, allegedly at the wheel, has an alarming number of fingers in his mouth as he tries to work out a hateful quote to give me about the man. A flashing red outside La Tolla becomes a heart-stopper. He doesn't see it. A shower of horns greets the two left turns we make in town to get to the restaurant that serves osso buco the way Tarkanian likes it. He doesn't hear them. Halfway through dinner, he still hasn't thought of anything better than, "Robert Maxson is the most dishonest man I've ever met in education."
"I've got it!" Lois announces. "He's the emperor who wears no clothes."
"I don't get it," Tarkanian puzzles to himself. "Why does the emperor wear no clothes?"
"Oh, Jerry, it's a fairy tale."
"What the hell're you giving me fairy tales?" he grumbles, retreating into his osso buco. "I'm trying to say this guy's a bad, bad guy. He's an evil guy." (Robert Maxson won't comment on Tarkanian's remarks or his charges, but says he had to decide: "Are we going to become a serious academic institution or a basketball team with a college attached to it?")
Tarkanian's still working on his Maxson epithet as we stroll down by the water, two hours later, but it's basketball that's on his mind. "I really can't focus on anything except for ball," he complains, sounding even more monomaniacal than Daniels. "I can't go to a movie because I can't follow the plot and Lois gets mad at me. I haven't finished a book in years because I can't concentrate. That's why I get lost on the highway, because I can't follow directions and I'm always looking up and I missed my exit."
"What do you think about?"
"I think about plays. And I think about the players. I think about the opponents, and I think about the plays they run."
"How much of it is fantasy?"
"Oh, 50 percent, probably more. It's getting worse the older I get. I've even stopped going to most sports events. I can't follow them. I used to get the best seats for the fights. Then I'd look up and somebody'd be down on the mat."
Forty-eight hours later, Tarkanian sits at the bar in Piero's, his friend Freddie Glusman's restaurant in downtown Las Vegas.
Piero's is Tarkanian's only regular locus off the court. He's eaten here almost every night for twelve years, he has an office above the kitchen, there's a "Tark Room" off the bar, and game balls and glass cases with Tark paraphernalia adorn the main dining room. A huge table is laid in the center of the room for dinner tonight, and every banquette is filled with Tark supporters: parties of six businessmen, each with a cellular phone blinking at his elbow, wealthy couples who visit each other during dinner and part with, "Don't forget to vote for my sister. She's runnin' for judge."
On this particular night, surrounded by friends, Tarkanian is howling. "If Maxson took a lie-detector test," he's yelling, "he'd get electrocuted ten times from Sunday. There's your quote. Ten times from Sunday."
"That's definitely true," Lois says, perplexed. "But he sure took Jerry in. Jerry trusted him completely."
Watching Tarkanian at the bar, nursing a glass of wine with a hapless smile on his face, that seems entirely possible—for about a minute. Then Matt Othick, a native Las Vegan. joins him at the bar, and Tarkanian starts recruiting him to be his twelfth man at San Antonio. Othick is a pure ball handler—the insurance Tarkanian needs in case starting point guard Vinny Del Negro or Lloyd Daniels stumbles—but he has other offers to consider. Suddenly I realize where Tark's nickname comes from.
"You go to Europe this year, Matt," he says, zeroing in, "and you're nothing. At the Spurs, you'll play, there's a spot for you, and you'll fit in with the guys and just love it there ...."
By the end of the meal, he has broken Othick down and they have a silent agreement. He signs with the Spurs a week later.
Tark has what he wants. Ebullient over brandy, he finally levels with me about Daniels when I tell him something Lloyd said to me: "If Tark had had me at the point in '87, he'd have won three straight."
"No doubt about it," he says, without batting a droopy eye. "Of course, you need luck in any sudden-death situation like that, but if he'd have stayed clean and not gone hardship, made the grades, no doubt about it: three straight. But that's what killed us, the grades. See, I never really thought he had a chance of making grades at UNLV for more than a year. I just wanted him for that one year. All he needed was a year of exposure and coaching. Just one year and he would've been snapped up by the NBA and left all that—drugs, getting shot—behind him. But he was just too young and out of it. Just too beautiful to be true."
Back in San Antonio, Daniels is trying to stay beautiful. Each morning at 9:00, he's on the court with an assistant coach, trying to squeeze a lifetime's worth of basketball fundamentals into a few months. Each afternoon, he's in the gym, lifting, or running up 15 degree hills in the 100 degree heat. And twice a week, he's standing in the bathroom of a lab in town, peeing into a plastic cup.
One afternoon before his drug test, he decides we should see his daughter, Aubrey, and we drive to his condo. It's in a luxury development overlooking a bi-level pool surrounded by two Jacuzzis that drain off into a shimmering miniature lake. Deserted at midday, it has an alpine feel, and it looks utterly anomalous for the middle of Texas. So does Lloyd: "Not bad for a kid from the 'Ville?" he winks, opening his door. "I could've had this shit years ago. Just wasn't ready, I guess."
He comes back out, holding Aubrey. "I just remembered my dream last night," he tells me. "She was in her crib, standing up with her arms reaching out. Weird. Chill. Whoo."
"Why was that so weird?" l ask.
"C'mon, look at her, man. She three months old. I kept saying to her, 'You ain't ready for this yet.' She didn't want to hear it, though. She just kept reaching up," he says, flashing me that huge goon smile. "Finally, I just reached down and picked her up."
The baby burbles, her face a sweet blank slate unscarred by the brutal odyssey her father has barely survived. Given the life he's led, it's odd to see the same innocence radiating from Daniels's face. It's an innocence I've seen before, back at the Blossom Athletic Center in San Antonio as Tarkanian watched Daniels slide a pass between two defenders. Two holy fools of basketball. At home on the court, lost in the world beyond it.
"First thought, best thought."
Ginsberg's line leaps to mind when I remember Lloyd Daniels on court at the Spurs' summer camp in 1992. It wasn't a thought so much as an intimation, one of those Eureka love-at-first-sight moments, but so strong, and so lasting: Lloyd was this bizarre 24-year-old manchild. Bald, wheezing after running half a court-length, he was a light-skinned, 6'7", pigeon-toed, slow-as-molasses point guard who seemed far more likely to be found in a silent film than an NBA court. When I say "light-skinned," I mean it. In the Spurs' silver and black uniforms, his skin blended almost seamlessly into the silver trim. When he smiled, which was very often and almost always for no discernible reason, you immediately recognized the lifelong pothead. This was a kid who started smoking at 10 and never seemed to lose that whim for the absurd that's common to cannabis devotees: It's what seemed—not to motivate Swee'pea so much as bring him back home. In much the same way sportswriters at the time knew but never wrote about steroids until it became The Hot Topic, it was well understood you could make an All-Star NBA team (and NFL and MLB squads as well) of full-time potheads. The difference between the NBA squad and the other two leagues was that their All-Stars probably would've been 80 percent illiterate.
That was Part A of my Swee'pea insta-intimation. Parts B through (pick a letter) were much more difficult to vocalize, categorize, and still are. If anything, it all became only harder to put together when he'd periodically show the on-court brilliance that made him such a legend at such an early age. Particularly when you'd watch him, a play or two later, slide back into his "Whoa, this a trip" space and semi-embarrassed stoner smile. That would be very much so if the play happened to involve Daniels playing "defense."
If I had to put a word on it, I'd call him a jaded ballplayer. All the stories on him, quotes from coaches who'd seen him from 14 on, comments from former teammates (and he played on some three dozen professional and semi-professional teams in his sadly modest career), all speak to this quality, which was genius in the truest sense of the word. Not so much for "the pass," or "the play," though that's how it would most often express itself, but for the flow of a game of basketball. Lloyd understood that more than anyone I've ever seen—or had until I saw Iverson. In a very real sense, he played his career in the shadow of that flow; if it failed to flow, he lost interest almost immediately. I think the same was true of Iverson, and that he was doubly damned because his flow ran at a rate of speed no one could remotely keep up with. The only time I saw it happen was in an All-Star game, when Iverson and Steve Nash somehow wound up in the West Coast back-court together. My all-time favorite 2:00 of sports. When Nash was taken out, you saw Iverson lose that stoner smile of his, and to lose interest almost immediately in the game—at an All-Star game at that.
Almost, but not immediately: The most impressive thing I ever saw Lloyd Daniels do on a court was after he'd turned the ball over at mid-court in a scrimmage. It was the beginning of a fast break after a top-of-the-key turnover; he'd tried to thread it through the last of two defenders, but it had been intercepted. The guy with the ball had clearly seen one of his three teammates still on offense open downcourt and was about to throw a pass over Daniels's head. Before the ball could leave his hand, Daniels was up in the air, four limbs spread to block every conceivable angle of the pass. Mind you, this is a huge guy who upon getting the ball would often collapse into a very small-seeming cocoon of dribble, where he'd spend second after second pounding the rock in place, like he was looking for loose change on the court. His game was all sleepy-seeming moves, passes coming out of nowhere, lay-ups out of the 1950s—I don't think Daniels ever dunked a basketball. Suddenly, very suddenly, this enormous man is three feet in the air, maybe more, arms and legs akimbo and covering a huge quadrant of the half-court space. I don't remember if the other guy even passed the ball; I looked over at Tark, whose mouth was agape, his panda-bear eyes wide open.
In retrospect, I think I missed the whole point of the story I wrote about Swee'pea and Shark. It was in a small section of an early draft that the editors at Esquire cut out for space, and began with a quote—I think from Dale Ellis, a teammate at the time. It was something to the effect of: Everyone in this league grew up with somebody better than them, who never made it. At the time, I thought it was a chance to meditate on the demands of professional sport, requiring character aspects (ability to compromise, play as a team, put individual brilliance and personal obstinacy to one side, etc.). Back then, my pet idea was to take the 12 most uncoachable and talented players in the NBA, trade them all to one team, put them on the floor without a coach, and let them sort it out themselves. If nothing else, it would make for great sporting events.
In this instance, however, the real story seems to have been about how athletes of this stripe may well have one ideal coach, maybe for only one particular season where it all comes together, where their genius can truly flourish. I think Tarkanian may well have been that coach for Swee'pea. First at UNLV, where he didn't get the chance because of that trumped-up crack bust (which Daniels wasn't even suspended for); as Tark says in the story, he knew Daniels couldn't make grades at UNLV and had wanted him for just the one year, the one championship, after which Lloyd could've gone to the NBA and put Brownsville and crack and all the bullshit of "amateur" sports behind him. And again at San Antonio, where Tark was fired after 20 games. As I recall, Daniels put in a few 20-point performances before the firing—this from a guy who didn't have an outside shot, or an inside game, or a big move to the basket, and who had the Admiral in the key at all times.
John Lucas, who replaced Tark, would seem ideal for Daniels to have flourished under. He not only had a drug legacy of his own, but a spell with Daniels, whom he'd counseled at length, and quite successfully.
But while Daniels's professional issues may well have stemmed from too much drug use—pot, not crack—they didn't play out on court as such (even if, to be sure, he could have used more conditioning and a more sober discipline on D). Daniel's problem was that he played as a lone wolf—a strange but true thing to say about a playmaker. At the time at least, Tarkanian had the highest winning percentage of all college coaches. For decades, his squads were amalgamations of lone wolves he somehow managed to confederate into cohesive teams. In retrospect, the big impediment to Tark succeeding at San Antonio may well have been David Robinson. Too good a citizen for Tark to coach successfully?
But if Nash and Iverson made for my favorite 2:00 of sport, the Running Rebels' 30-point murder of Duke in the NCAA final in 1990 are my favorite 40:00. I think it all may well have happened three years earlier but for Daniels's drug bust. Tark, it was clear to me in 1992, was 100 percent certain it would've happened. His heartsickness that it didn't was still palpable, and I'd give 10:1 that it still is.
Ivan Solotaroff is a journalist who has been published in Esquire, Village Voice, and Philadelphia Magazine, among other leading magazines. He is the author of a collection of essays, No Success Like Failure.
The Stacks is Deadspin's living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter's Alex Belth. Check out some of our favorites so far. Follow us on Twitter, @DeadspinStacks, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.