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A return from nowhere

Good vibes travel long distances. In Lloyd Daniels' case, they started at the soles of his sneakers, shot up to the top of his shaved head 6 feet 8 inches later and out across the emptying gym at Clearwater Central Catholic High School. "I feel great," he said Wednesday night, speaking along the bottom end of a shout. "It's great to be back."

The Miami Tropics guard was ebullient. He had just helped the his team to a season-opening 98-87 United States Basketball League win over the Suncoast Sunblasters. He scored 14 points, the last five coming with just over two minutes remaining. Suncoast had pulled within four, but Daniels calmly drained a jumper and a three-pointer to squelch the rally.

A sweet and subtle moment for a player whose life has been anything but that.

In a way, Lloyd Daniels has lived an accelerated life, practically growing up in the public eye since the mid-1980s, when many called him the best prep basketball player in New York City history _ ahead of Lew Alcindor, Nate Archibald, Connie Hawkins, et al.

Then came the problems _ academic troubles that led Daniels to four high schools in three states, and drug and alcohol abuse. His recruitment by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (he was arrested while allegedly trying to buy cocaine at the school in 1987) sparked an NCAA investigation.

In 1988, he was cut by the CBA's Topeka Sizzlers, even though he averaged 16 points a game. He went on to average 27 points for a team in New Zealand before being cut, reportedly for drinking too much.

In May of 1989, Daniels was on an operating table in Mary Immaculate Hospital in New York after being shot in a dispute over $10 worth of drugs.

Lloyd Daniels was used up, people said. Another could-have that didn't and never would. His story stood as an indictment of an athletic and academic system that could result in such a monumental waste of talent.

Then a funny thing happened. Daniels realized that he was only 23 years old.

"I just woke up one day back in the city, and said "Lloyd, you can't be living like this,' " he said. " "God gave you a gift, and you've got to use it.' Everybody reaches a point where they have to decide what they have to do. And I decided that getting myself straightened out was a lot better than living the way I was living."

So he moved from New York City to try out for a Continental Basketball Association team in Albany, where "you can go to sleep and not have to hear gunshots." He wound up meeting Kendra Dunn, who told him that she would care for him even if he never threw another no-look pass in his life, and gave his outlook a once over.

Daniels has been clean for nearly a year, he said. He drinks orange juice at parties and is the first to leave, said Tropics general manager Kevin Koffman. Daniels extols the virtues of work and discipline like a catechism, gulping vitamins, swimming and lifting weights _ things he's never done before.

He isn't looking back _ he refuses to comment on his past troubles as well as the controversies he is linked to _ and he isn't looking too far ahead. The road, he said, is more important than the destination.

"I worked a lot with kids in Albany," he said. "And I saw a lot of rough little kids there. And I would tell them to stay clean, because no one should have to go through what I went through. I'm still young, and still struggling, but you have to keep working, because not everybody makes it."

"He's going to make a pass you never seen . . .'

Chess is a game that encourages prodigies, since it allows advanced problem-solving skills, which are sometimes present at an early age, to flourish. Directing a basketball offense is like a chess game, just speeded up. Daniels, say basketball insiders, is a prodigy in this particular game.

"He's gonna do some s--- you've never seen," Hall of Famer Nate Archibald said in Swee'Pea, and Other Playground Legends, written in 1990 by John Valenti and Ron Naclerio. "He's going to make a pass you never seen, hit a shot you've never seen, make a play you never seen."

Daniels was a Parade All-American his junior year at Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, averaging 31 points, 12.3 rebounds and 10 assists per game. He was highly recruited, despite a case of undiagnosed dyslexia which limited his reading to a grade-school level.

This was part of the problem, said Koffman. "According to him, when he was back in high school, they let him run practice. When he was playing in summer leagues, everybody let him do what he wanted just to get him to play on their team. He said "Everybody wanted to be Lloyd's friend, because everybody wanted me to play for them.' "

Ron Brown, who grew up in the Co-op City section of the East Bronx, went to Stevenson High School and coached at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, agrees.

"A lot of people saw him as a fruit tree, and they were just picking, picking, picking," said Brown, now an assistant basketball coach at West Virginia University. "Lloyd should have put a sign up that said "Hands off,' because when things are going right, a lot of people want to jump on the bandwagon, like they did with Lloyd. But once he was down, they dogged him."

But Brown doesn't absolve Daniels of blame. And recently, Koffman said, Daniels himself started thinking that way, too.

"He came and told us that he takes full responsibility for all the problems he's had in the past, and that he wanted to prove to himself that he could get his life together. I told him that we weren't going to baby him, we were going to treat him like an adult. Whatever he did, he would be responsible for. That's something nobody has really done with him, and he admitted he needs that kind of treatment."

He also needed a token of sincerity. So instead of picking him up as a free agent, the Tropics drafted him in the third round.

"That was the highest we could have drafted him, since the first two rounds were reserved for college players. And by sticking our necks out _ a lot of people said we were crazy _ I think we've given him a challenge. I don't think me, you or anybody knows how good Lloyd Daniels can eventually be. Just getting him out on the court is like therapy."

Daniels feels comfortable. He says he is still off his game, but is confident he can get back to top form quickly, especially playing with fellows from the home turf _ Ron "The Terminator" Mathias, and Shelton Jones, a Long Island native who played for St. John's University, the Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

"Everybody on this team is a friend of mine," he said. "That's how you win. I love to be around a bunch of guys who have fun together on the court. For a long time, I didn't know what I wanted out of life, but it feels good to be out here playing again. I'm just glad to be alive. If you were me, you would be, too."

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