Plus, receive recommendations and exclusive offers on all of your favorite books and authors from Simon & Schuster.
The Story of Lloyd Daniels and Other Playground Basketball Legends
Table of Contents
About The Book
“[Daniels’s] story was quite powerful in an age before the Internet and social media and is a fantastic read for this generation’s basketball players, parents, and lovers of the game.” —(Ronnie Flores, Ball is Life)
In this updated edition of a lost classic of sports writing, authors John Valenti and Ron Naclerio chronicle the life of Lloyd Daniels, one of New York City’s most legendary basketball players.
Lloyd Daniels learned to hoop on the playgrounds of Brooklyn and Queens during the 1980s. “Swee’pea” they called him. His rep on the court traveled all the way to the Bronx, and across the country, earning him enthusiastic comparisons to the likes of Magic Johnson. Swee’pea was sure to make it to the big time and out of a New York City where drugs and violence had gripped many of its neighborhoods. And eventually he did, leaving the city’s asphalt courts for the shiny hardwoods of NCAA programs, minor pro-leagues, and eventually the NBA.
He took with him, however, a drug habit, a learning disability, and a reputation for self-destruction.
With Swee’pea, Newsday reporter John Valenti and celebrated New York City high school basketball coach Ron Naclerio brilliantly capture how an athletic phenom becomes both a product of his environment, and his own worst enemy. Supplementing Daniels’s enigmatic story are profiles of basketball successes like former NBA stars Kenny Anderson, John Salley, and Mark Jackson—and tragedies like Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Richie Adams, and Tony “Red” Bruin—who never made the league.
Timeless, gritty, and hard-hitting, Swee’pea is a classic tale that illuminates why so many of basketball's best players throw away multimillion dollar careers, and a journey back to a time when the humble playground courts of New York City were giving rise to some of the finest players in the world.
Blood was everywhere.
It had drained, crimson, into the corners of the torn and tattered shirt, as if it were trying to forever change the complexion of the fabric it had soaked through. Matted on the cloth and on the skin, it caked and congealed, gummy to the touch, and gave an eerie, surrealistic aura to the patient stretched out on the hospital gurney in the whitewashed emergency room.
It was two thirty in the morning and by now Dr. Daniel L. Picard had been up to his elbows in one mess or another for hours. Director of surgery at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Jamaica, Queens, he had been the primary surgeon on call for the better part of the night. And, in an area of New York City where treating the results of early-morning, drug-related street violence had long been as normal as the bandaging of minor cuts and wounds, nights were seldom quiet at Mary Immaculate.
Called to emergency fresh from working on another patient, Picard took little time disrobing, getting scrubbed, and exchanging his sweat-drenched, bloodstained outfit for a clean gown. Here was yet one more serious problem on his hands.
On a stretcher lay the six-foot, seven-inch victim, his size-thirteen feet dangling over one end of the emergency room hospital cart as if hovering at the edge of a precipice; eyes wide open, panic-stricken, like a mortally wounded fawn in search of some miraculous last-second reprieve from near-certain death.
Blood stained his coffee-chocolate skin. There was a bullet hole in the left side of his neck, just shy of the jugular. There were two bullet wounds in his chest: one just wide of his heart, the force of the other so sure, so brutal, that it had ripped its way across the distance of the cavity, exiting through a nasty opening in his back.
In its wake, the spent lead had left untold damage.
Picard caught his breath, drawing in hard as he considered the situation.
A major thoracic wound, he thought to himself as the fresh droplets of blood began to spatter his pristine gown. Tenuous red streams flowed across his surgical gloves. He had no idea who the patient was. Nor did he care. He knew just one thing.
“It’s extensive.” When you get shot, it always is.
On the table, twenty-one-year-old Lloyd Daniels, Jr.—the person countless basketball scouts had once called the best professional prospect from New York City since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known simply as Lew Alcindor—clung to life by a thread ever so much thinner than the strand of a well-worn playground net.
Already he had lost six pints of blood. He was almost dead.
The night had begun in rather unceremonious fashion. It had rained, poured actually, and Lloyd, bored and with nothing to do, had called one of his longtime friends and advisors, Ron Naclerio. A recovering addict, Lloyd was struggling to stay out of trouble, stay clean. Already he had been through inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation three times in an effort to beat an alcohol and drug addiction that had cost him a possible basketball scholarship to the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, as well as jobs as a pro with the Topeka Sizzlers in the minor-league Continental Basketball Association and a team called Waitemata in Auckland, New Zealand.
He had attended four high schools in three states before quitting his junior year at Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights, Queens, without a diploma. His troubled academic past had caused teams to bypass him in the 1988 National Basketball Association Draft—despite not-so-subtle hints from a handful of general managers that he might be a first-round selection.
Although word suggested Lloyd had been blackballed by the league, folks who had seen him play understood if only he might prove he could be responsible for his actions, if only he could stay clean long enough to at least earn an invitation to free agent–rookie camp . . . a job was all but his. Rules were often bent for stars.
“Yo, Ron,” Lloyd asked Naclerio, “want to play some ball?”
A junior high school teacher, as well as the basketball coach at Cardozo High School in Bayside, Queens, Ron had known Lloyd for more than five years. He was a de facto guardian, someone who spent time with Lloyd, went to games with him. They’d play ball, talk the talk. Ron, a basketball junkie barely in his thirties, was tuned in to the streets and to their kids. He had been an athlete, an all-America baseball player at St. John’s University, where his team made the 1978 College World Series. He roomed with future major-league star relief pitcher John Franco.
“Two-thirds of the world is covered by water,” the former center fielder would tell anyone who’d give him a listen. “The other third is covered by Ron Naclerio.”
He could be raw, coarse. But he understood an athlete’s mentality; knew how to deal with them and with their problems. In college, he’d once led the nation in stolen bases and was a minor-league outfielder with the Chicago White Sox organization before a string of ankle injuries sidelined his career. Lloyd’s relatives had grown so accustomed to him and respected him so much, in fact, they’d even given him a nickname. Lloyd’s white brother, they called him.
“Nah, I’m watchin’ the game,” Ron told Lloyd. “I don’t want to go.”
“C’mon, Ron,” Lloyd said, prodding. “Let’s go work out.”
Another time, another place, Ron would have gone. But he suspected Lloyd was again using drugs and they had fought just two days before, during a confrontation over those suspicions. Ron screamed at Lloyd and had come close to laying him out. He wanted to make it clear he would not tolerate such failure. Like so many others before him, he’d finally reached his breaking point. If Lloyd really wanted to succeed, if he really wanted to prove to the world he could turn his life around, he’d have to take the long-overdue first step. He’d have to prove he really could stand on his own.
“I’m tired,” Ron said. “I’m stayin’ home.”
A short while later, Lloyd left home for a gym on Long Island.
It was Wednesday, May 10, 1989. The NBA Draft was almost two months away; rookie summer camps, little more than three.
Lloyd wasn’t thinking about the NBA by the time he returned home to the green, single-family row house his grandmother owned on 203rd Street in Hollis, Queens.
His workout against a handful of locals had been relaxed—they hadn’t offered much competition—and, bored, Lloyd was still looking for something to do.
On the surface, it was a quiet, residential neighborhood. A neighborhood that, over the course of generations, had given life to the dreams of a host of notables—from 60 Minutes correspondent Andy Rooney, political humorist Art Buchwald, and political activist Rev. Al Sharpton to future FUBU founder Daymond John, Def Jam founder Russell Simmons, hip-hop megastar LL Cool J, and Reverend Run and his fellow members of Run-D.M.C. The fifty-fourth governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, and his son, Andrew, who would become its fifty-sixth governor, at one time lived in Hollis. So did the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young. Brooklyn native Mark Jackson, who went on to become an all-America point guard at St. John’s and the 1987–88 NBA Rookie of the Year with the New York Knicks, had ties to the neighborhood.
Still, when Lloyd was growing up there in the 1980s, Hollis and nearby St. Albans was an area with a more sinister, much less visible side.
For years Hollis had been a neighborhood in transition, one that day by day, block by block, was falling prey to drugs and to drug-related violence that skewed the community and disembodied lives. It was a crack neighborhood, crack cocaine being the latest inner-city scourge of the times. A neighborhood where dealers sometimes dealt from street corners down near Jamaica Avenue, Hollis Avenue, or Francis Lewis Boulevard; where dealers sometimes dealt from the very house next door.
A neighborhood where the quiet of any given night might be shattered at the unlikeliest of moments, gunfire erupting in the middle of an otherwise quiet street.
Lloyd Daniels was about to become its next victim.
Outside, it continued to rain.
Lloyd and his aunt Sherry, herself only in her twenties, settled down in the kitchen with a deck of cards, a bottle of champagne, and some quart cans of O.E.—Olde English malt liquor. It was hardly a good start to a long night for a man with an alcohol problem.
For about an hour, the game went on. Hands were dealt, jokes were told. Laughter filled the room, alcohol was consumed. Soon Lloyd, feeling good, feeling that old feel, walked out to the living room. The clock was nearing midnight.
“Grandma,” he said, “let me have one of them posters you got.”
His grandmother, in her late fifties, hardworking, looked him in the eye.
The posters, made when Lloyd was in Topeka, were an ad for Gaines Cycle Dog Food. They pictured Lloyd in a Sizzlers uniform and, at the bottom, he lay stretched out amid a gathering of sad-eyed puppies and their dog food bowls.
Around the neighborhood, where Lloyd was a folk hero due to his ability, where he was known simply by his nickname, “Swee’pea,” they were like gold.
“I’m not giving you any posters,” his grandmother, Lulia Hendley, said. “You’re gonna sell them to buy crack, you are.”
Lloyd protested. “No, Grandma. Grandma, I’m not.”
“Don’t con me,” she said. “I know what you’re doin’.”
“I ain’t, Grandma. I just want one.”
“Junior,” she said, sharply, warning the grandchild she’d always called Junior after his father, her eldest son, “if you don’t stop it, stop doin’ those drugs, you’re gonna get busted in the ass. You know that? You’ll get busted in the ass, the cops will pick you up, put you in Rikers Island, and you know you can’t deal with no Rikers Island.
“And you know you’re gonna be dead if you get shot.”
“Grandma,” Lloyd said. “Grandma, I ain’t doin’ that stuff no more.”
“You’d better not be,” she said. But Lloyd, hardly interested in her learned, sage advice, had already turned his back on her—headed out to the kitchen.
He still had that hunger. And, facing the temptation and feeling weak as any recovering addict could possibly feel surrounded by a neighborhood filled with the bad stuff, Lloyd picked up the phone around midnight and paged his friend Moe.
The next day, the newspapers and police were rampant in their speculation about Moe, whose name and pager number were found on a slip of paper in Lloyd’s bedroom after the shooting. In the days before cell phones became commonplace, pagers—used to alert someone to call you as soon as they could find a pay phone or landline—were carried primarily by folks who needed to be reached in emergency situations.
Doctors carried pagers. So did cops.
But in areas like Hollis, drug dealers and criminals carried pagers. They were their lifelines to their business clientele.
It turned out the number belonged to Kevin Barry, a man as far removed from the bad stuff as could be. Barry was almost forty. Still, it often seemed like he was from another time, back when life was far simpler. He believed in people. He believed they owed something to each other. And he believed in lending a helping hand.
Like countless others before him, he also believed in Lloyd.
He had met Lloyd not a month before. Ron introduced them. Immediately Barry offered support. He ran a small, independent school bus company. Lloyd called his bus, his ride, the Yellow Stretch. A man who had been friends with legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, having met Mike Tyson when the future heavyweight champion was just thirteen and having seen what D’Amato had done for him, Barry had been inspired to found a nonprofit organization called the Give a Kid a Chance Foundation. He ran neighborhood basketball games, took underprivileged kids to the movies. He taught them there was a way other than what they saw on the streets of New York.
He taught them that they had a future.
Barry took Lloyd to his house in Brooklyn. He moved out of his bedroom, gave it to Lloyd, hung a sign on the door that said, “Lloyd’s Room.” Slept on the couch. He bought clothes for Lloyd, found him a trainer to get him into playing shape. He and his sons shared meals with their new housemate. They shared their lives. Their hearts.
Barry was trying to teach Lloyd to read, was teaching him responsibility. Lloyd called him Moe, mainly because Barry liked to watch The Three Stooges.
Then, one night, Lloyd showed up at a club game at St. John’s. High.
“He was with a drug dealer,” Barry said, later. “He was zonked out of his mind. Ron read him the riot act. I told him, ‘You’re fucked up. You’re an asshole.’ . . . We had a big fight. I went home, put a poster of Len Bias on the wall”—Bias being a star at the University of Maryland who had died of “cocaine intoxication” just two days after the Boston Celtics had taken him second overall in the 1986 NBA Draft.
As Barry said, “When Lloyd got home, I pointed at that picture. I said, ‘Am I gonna be coming to visit you in a casket? Is that how this ends?’ ”
“He said, ‘No, Kev. I’m goin’ to make it.’ ”
Barry didn’t believe him, threw him out. That was Monday, May 8.
Kevin Barry was out of the house when Lloyd called the pager number that Wednesday. But he was in a forgiving mood and, deep down, he knew Lloyd needed him. So, when he got the message, he called Lloyd back as soon as he could.
“C’mon an’ get me,” Lloyd said. “I got to get out of here.”
“But I’m in Albany,” Barry said, trying hard to sound serious.
“How far’s that?” Lloyd asked.
“About four hours,” Barry said.
“Okay,” Lloyd said. “Can you come by and pick me up in twenty minutes?”
This time, Barry laughed. Even if Barry had been in Albany, Lloyd never did have a realistic conception of time. And even though it was somewhere around 1 a.m., Barry knew Lloyd needed him. Really needed him. So, without hesitation, without complaint, he hopped in the yellow stretch and drove from Manhattan to Queens.
For a while, Lloyd waited. But he had the urge. And so, when Kevin Barry arrived in Hollis little more than an hour later, Lloyd was nowhere to be found.
He searched the neighborhood in vain. Lloyd was gone.
As best as anyone could tell, Lloyd had remained in the house and continued to fight his temptation until near 2 a.m., when finally he decided to give in and wandered down to the corner of Hollis Avenue. There, according to relatives, he visited a local “businessman” who worked the corner. From him, relatives later told police, Lloyd picked up a little rock, the street name for crack—the smokable derivative of cocaine.
For years friends had told Lloyd drugs might someday be his downfall.
But as one acquaintance said, “With him it always seemed to be a case of where the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
So, when Lloyd returned to the house owned by his grandmother, he had the rock as well as the kind of company no man wants for friends, let alone enemies. Because no sooner had he closed the door than a white sedan arrived out front.
Two men got out of the car and stood at the front gate. Seeing them, Lloyd, who’d run inside to hide his crack vials, hide the rock, stepped outside to talk.
“Yo,” one man yelled as Lloyd stepped onto the lawn. “Gimme my stuff.”
“Ain’t got your stuff,” Lloyd yelled back. “Get out of here.”
“Yo,” the man said, again. “Gimme my stuff or the money. Don’t play.”
“I told you, man,” Lloyd said. “Ain’t got your stuff.”
Unsure of what caused the confrontation, relatives described to police a scenario that would later prove somewhat incorrect. They said Lloyd, streetwise and king of the street con, had slipped the man, described only as a black male in his late teens or early twenties, two one-dollar bills—instead of the two fives required to buy the rock, sold on the streets by the vial. Now the dealer, finding he’d been ripped off, wanted his cash. Getting no satisfaction, he signaled for his friend, who’d gone back to the car.
With accuracy, though, witnesses told police how that second man had pulled a gun, pointed it at Lloyd. With no money and too far from the door to make a safe run for it, Lloyd made yet another bad decision in a life filled with bad decisions.
He reached for the gun.
Bam! And his body recoiled with the shot.
Bam! And, again, his body recoiled with the shot.
Four or five times, no one seemed sure, the gun went off.
Three times, for certain, its bullets struck Lloyd.
Have you ever seen a man get shot? It is almost mystical. Fire spews out the gun barrel. Skin tears, lead explodes. Shrapnel splinters and punctures organs as surely as spilled acid eats its way through metal. Powder residue hangs in the air: warm, moist, yet chilling. Its stench is powerful, spectacular even—like that of rotten eggs. Everything moves in slow motion. The body tumbles as if in instant replay. Blood shoots forth as if to replicate the motion of an oversize rock dropped into a pool of water; first, droplets splatter outward to reach escape velocity, then follows a steady stream. Screams, if there be, echo inside the brain until, finally, in agony, they hit home. Register.
And then the man falls, his innermost possessions most likely no longer locked away in secrecy. Body and earth, fused by violence, momentarily one.
“I looked out the window and I said, ‘This joker’s gonna shoot Junior,’ ” Lulia Hendley recalled, later on. “I gets to the door, I heard the shooting. And Junior grabs him, grabs the guy. One shot hit Junior; then two more.”
“I was getting in the shower and my mother said, ‘Lloyd, there are two people out there for you,’ ” Gary Hendley, an uncle who also lived in the house, said.
By the time Gary Hendley reached the lawn after the shots, Lloyd was sprawled out, writhing in agonizing pain, his lean, lanky body folded and contorted.
The two men and the car, going. Gone.
“I heard four shots,” he said. “I ran outside and saw Swee’pea lying on the ground. I didn’t even see the bullet holes at first. I said, ‘Swee’pea, they ruined you.’ ”
Built like a bull and with shoulders like an NFL linebacker, Gary Hendley, with all the strength he could muster, pulled his nephew, already a bloody mess, down the driveway and in through a side door. He laid his broken body down in the hallway.
“My mom and my sister called the police and an ambulance,” he said.
“I was like, ‘Oh God, he’s shot,’ ” Lulia Hendley recalled of the moment, days later. Then, she said, she yelled, “He’s gonna die. Junior’s gonna die!”
As they loaded him onto the stretcher, still conscious, the hundred-dollar sweatsuit Kevin Barry bought him having been torn apart, its turquoise fabric soaked almost pure scarlet red, Lloyd looked at anxious relatives and then at another uncle, J. C. Daniels.
“I don’t want to die, J.C.,” he pleaded. “Don’t let me die.”
New York City is known for the strange twists and turns it puts on life and the awkward, sometimes bizarre angles it brings to the fates, and this day certainly was no different. By the following nightfall, across the river in Manhattan, the crowd would be letting loose with a deafening roar as Mark Jackson and the New York Knicks met Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in a playoff game at Madison Square Garden. But now, back in the operating room at Mary Immaculate, where the trauma team had assembled, Dr. Picard and his crew worked in virtual silence, save for the clattering of instruments and tools, as they fought to save the life of Lloyd Daniels.
There was a chance.
But honestly, Picard figured, it was a miracle his patient was still alive at all.
The average body has ten pints of blood and already Lloyd had lost 60 percent of that. His pulse was weakening, his breathing erratic. A bullet had punctured and collapsed his right lung. Another had barely missed his heart and embedded itself in his posterior chest wall. All around, blood spurted and seeped into the chest cavity.
This would be touch-and-go.
Around 6 a.m., as people in the neighborhood awoke, Lulia Hendley went outside to tear down the yellow police crime-scene tape drawn across her lawn from fence to house. She was angry. She couldn’t stand it any longer. When she finally regained her composure, she went back inside and called Ron Naclerio. Bad news, she said.
Momentarily, Ron wrestled with his emotions, fought back his tears. Then he called Kevin Barry and Tom Rome, the Manhattan attorney who represented Lloyd.
Just the night before, Ron and Tom had talked about Lloyd’s future.
They’d joked about the professional career waiting out there for him, waiting to be grabbed like a brass ring on some childhood merry-go-round. They’d joked about the movie that could be made about Lloyd’s life. A soap opera, they’d called it.
“All we need is one of two things to happen,” Ron told Tom Rome that night, amid laughter. “All he has to do is get killed or make the NBA.”
When Rome answered the phone that morning, Ron tried his best to salve his guilt by putting the best face he could on what had happened to his troubled friend.
“Well, Tom,” he said, “it looks like we can finally make the movie.”
- Publisher: Atria Books (July 5, 2016)
- Length: 416 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501116674
Browse Related Books
Raves and Reviews
"As a Brooklyn native, I've long been fascinated with the nearly mythical tales and urban legend of Lloyd Daniels. When he was merely a teenager, I was told that he had Magic Johnson's floor game and Larry Bird's jump shot. But as blessed as he was by the basketball Gods, he was equally burdened by the worst of what the city can offer. I read Swee'pea when it first came out in 1990, and am even more awestruck by its power, importance, sadness and Valenti's exceptional story telling when re-reading today. It is a required study for anyone who loves basketball and cares about young people, however misguided they may be."
– Alejandro Danois, author of The Boys of Dunbar
“Valenti is unspairing and critical of Daniels’s longtime squandering, but he’s also sympathetic.”
– Publishers Weekly
“This account of playground basketball in the 1980s receives a deserved new life.”
Resources and Downloads
You may also like: Thriller and Mystery Staff Picks
More to Explore
Our Summer Reading Recommendations
Red-hot romances, poolside fiction, and blockbuster picks, oh my! Start reading the hottest books of the summer.
This Month's New Releases
From heart-pounding thrillers to poignant memoirs and everything in between, check out what's new this month.