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Last Chance, High Hopes

updated 11/09/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/09/1992 01:00AM

ONE BULLET CAUGHT HIM IN THE NECK, just missing the jugular vein. Another ripped through his right lung. A third slammed into the left shoulder. Only then did the two men who had demanded the crack he had stolen earlier that night slop shooting. Crumpled in a heap outside his grandmother's home in the St. Albans, Queens, section of New York City lay Lloyd Daniels, all 6'7½" of him, the player many had called the brightest basketball talent from New York City since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Back then, on May 11, 1989, as six pints of blood—the body holds 10—leaked out of Daniels, darkly staining his turquoise sweat suit, it looked as if he had clinched a place on the roster of coulda-shoulda-beens who threw away their shot at NBA stardom. But something in Daniels didn't want to die. Making what doctors called a miraculous recovery, Lloyd was back on the court three weeks later, a slug still in his shoulder—as it is to this day. Just as incredibly, it wasn't long before he was also back drugging and drinking. The player renowned for his 360-degree vision on the court seemed to be driving blind off it.

"People don't understand that drugs and alcohol is one of the strongest things in the world," says Daniels, who at 25 still has the baby face that earned him the street name Swee' Pea—after the Popeye character. But today, following numerous rehab attempts and relapses, he has discovered more powerful forces in his life: his new wife, Kendra, their 7-month-old daughter, Aubrey, and "the man upstairs." And there is also, against all odds, the NBA. This month Daniels begins his rookie season with the San Antonio Spurs, the first of a two-year contract. He will be tested for drugs weekly. "You know, I feel great when I wake up in the morning now," says Daniels. "I don't have to lie to nobody."

Or steal or deal. Which is how Daniels survived as a child in the drug-infested Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York. As detailed in Swee'Pea and Other Playground Legends by John Valenti, with Ron Naclerio, Daniel's mother, Judy, died of cancer when he was 3. His father, Lloyd Sr., deserted him after her death (father and son have recent renewed contact with each other). Passed back and forth among relatives, Daniels, an only child, was mostly forced to fend for himself. At 10, he started smoking pot. Five years later he was selling. And then he discovered a new meal ticket—basketball.

His precision passing and outside shooting—plus his penchant for getting into trouble—took him to four high schools in three states. By the end of junior year, when he decided to drop out entirely, Daniels was being courted by dozens of top colleges—even though he was almost illiterate.

Daniels signed on with coach Jerry Tarkanian at the University of Nevada—Las Vegas (first spending a few months at a junior college to earn the minimum college credits). But he never played. Instead, in February 1987, he was arrested at a Vegas crack house. After a plea bargain, Daniels was sent to three months of rehab and fined $800. UNLV asked him to leave.

But there were plenty of semipro teams willing to give Daniels another chance. From 1987 to 1991 he bounced from club to club with only a brief hiatus to recover from his '89 gunshot wounds. When he was cut from the Albany (N.Y.) Patroons in the fall of 1990—for being overweight and out of shape—Daniels finally heard his wake-up call. Patroon coach George Karl told him to forget about basketball and focus on his life. "It was an awakening of the spirit, man." Daniels recalls. "As they say, God just came and he said, 'Hey, Lloyd, I want you to walk the straight line.' "

Encouraged by Kendra Dunn, an insurance-company benefits specialist he met in Albany on Nov. 24, 1990—the reason his jersey now bears the number 24—Daniels embarked on the road to recovery once again. Starting in August '91, he went through the three-month rehab program run by former NBA player John Lucas in Houston. When his former mentor, Tarkanian, became coach of the Spurs and pushed to sign him, Daniels was ready. (His contract is reported to be near the NBA minimum of $140,000 a year.)

As promising as his future could be, Daniels prefers not to think about it. Instead he tries to focus squarely on the present. Today means boot-camp-tough conditioning—and then pushing Kendra, 28, at the health club during her workouts. It is also church and movies and proud parenthood. Tomorrow, and the temptations of life on the road, will arrive soon enough.

Daniels is ready. "Every morning," he says, "I wake up and feel this bullet, and I look in the mirror and say, 'Lloyd, just thank God that you re alive." Then I look at my baby. What more could I ask?"

PAM LAMBERT
JOSEPH HARMES in San Antonio

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