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The Sporting House

IN THE SUMMER OF 1986, LLOYD “SWEE’PEA” DANIELS WAS POISED TO BECOME A LAS VEGAS BASKETBALL LEGEND. BUT JUST ONE YEAR LATER, HIS CAREER WOULD BE DISFIGURED, AND THE UNLV BASKETBALL PROGRAM, WHICH HAD BEEN THE PRIDE OF THE CITY, WOULD BE ON THE ROAD TO RUIN.
DISCUSSED

The Las Vegas Invitational, “8 Million Stories,” School Allergies, Rebels Scarlet and Gray, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dreams of Becoming Legit, A Proud Poacher of Eggs, Powerful Boosters, Heartbreaking Answers, The Hem of Greatness, The Start of the Game

by Charles Bock
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Sporting House

Charles Bock
125 Snaps

Swee’Pea was his nickname, given to him on the playground courts of New York because of his uniquely oval-shaped head, its eerie resemblance to the baby from Popeye cartoons. But in Vegas I never heard him called anything but Lloyd. We said it with force, with a bit of awe. To us, he was Lloyd.

I first saw him in the summer of 1986. This was before he got busted at a Vegas crack house, before he got kicked off a college basketball team that he hadn’t yet joined, before everything started going to shit and he still was one of the most exciting high school players to come along in years. Summer tournaments were just starting to be a cottage industry, and the Las Vegas Invitational brought in summer-league all-star teams from all over the country, during the stretch of the recruiting season when college coaches were allowed to watch high schoolers play. Games ran from 10:00 a.m. until nearly midnight.

For the most part, the days were desultory, filled with undistinguished action: a backdrop of pounding dribbles, referee whistles, squeaking sneakers, a scoreboard buzzer going a bit too long. The bleachers would be half-filled, some players from the previous game guzzling Gatorade and changing into clean, oversize tees, a cluster of parents at once watching the action and checking to see if any college scouts were watching (and often, during lulls, comparing the merits of various hotel buffets).

But when the New York Gauchos—and specifically Lloyd Daniels—played, the bleachers were packed. In fact, bystanders stood in groups at the corners of the court, leaned against the brick walls. At first glance, the Gauchos seemed a ragtag bunch, wearing tight green uniforms the color of well-used pool tables. However, for me, who rapped along to “8 Million Stories” by Kurtis Blow and Run DMC and had all but memorized Rick Telander’s chronicle of New York City street ball, Heaven Is a Playground, the team’s grimy, lackluster attitude only added to my anticipation. Just what had come to us from the mean streets of New York?

I was among the fans checking the names on my folded Xerox of a roster, trying to figure out which dude had been labeled “Magic Johnson with a jump shot,” the street-raised hooping genius whose troubles—four different high schools in three states without graduating—had been chronicled in the New York tabloids, the one who’d once defiantly told a reporter, “I ain’t allergic to school. I just don’t want to go.” Word had spread that UNLV was eager to sign Lloyd—and during one of his last high school games, he’d been photographed wearing Nikes in Rebels scarlet and gray. Though the NCAA forbade brands from sending players sneakers, it was safe to assume UNLV had gotten them into his hands. Jerry Tarkanian—the Rebels’ head coach and ruler of the city—had even come down from his throne and was in the gym to watch the game, which didn’t happen just because he was interested in watching a high school summer league.

Among the tallest players on the floor, at about six feet eight, Lloyd was lanky. He wore a tee underneath his jersey; short shorts accentuated his angular legs. These days, LeBron James and Kevin Durant have conditioned us to accept huge players in the backcourt, handling the ball, taking charge of the team. At the time, though, basketball pretty much stuck to traditional positions. Lloyd, like Magic Johnson had before him, was the exception pointing into the future. Bringing the ball up court, he’d assume a distinct posture: his forehead tilting downward, chin tucked, eyes concentrating on whatever was happening directly in front of him, his elbow extended like a chicken wing, protecting the ball. His body would be slightly hunched; his head would bob as he moved, nodding along to some internal song. Then he would break the rhythm: a laser pass through an opening nobody else could see; a quick stutter that froze his defender just long enough. He’d cut to the post, take the pass, and in one motion spin and bank in a short shot. He’d push ahead on a break and flip a pass backward without looking, setting up a teammate for a dunk. You could hear the beat of a collective gasp before the crowd erupted into applause.

In the quarterfinals, the Gauchos played against a loaded California team whose roster included Chris Mills (who’d go on to spend a decade in the NBA) and Sean Higgins (who’d star on Michigan’s only National Championship team). Lloyd was an example of the difference between a prodigy and a genius. There wasn’t even a question about who the best player on the floor was. The Gauchos won the game and went on to win the tournament title.

One of my older brothers, Yale, spent that game sitting and talking with the coaching staff from the University of California, Irvine, where he was going into his sophomore year, making his way into coaching by working as the team’s student manager. I sat in the row behind him.

I was seventeen, getting ready for my last year of high school. Maybe five foot nine, a buck twenty, one of the five scrawniest kids at Clark High. But I was certain that when puberty kicked in, I’d be playing college ball. Nobody could tell me differently. In lieu of any kind of dating or social life, my days and nights were spent working on my game, preparing myself for destiny: dribbling figure eights and helicopters inside my garage, running sand hills out in the desert, doing calf raises while rewatching college basketball games I’d taped during the season. How crazed was I? Crazed enough that I’d memorized the order of sportscasts on the three local news channels so I could switch around and watch each of their UNLV game highlights, just in case one channel showed a dunk the others had missed.

My parents, because they possessed working eyes, had serious reservations about this chosen path of mine. However, I was in all other affairs unmotivated, sullen, and snotty, and the last thing they wanted was yet another fight with their poor lost child. Thus, when I was old enough to drive, my folks bought me a membership at the Sporting House in exchange for my coming downtown each evening to help them close up the family pawnshop. I soon became a fixture at the Sporting House, my dented,  ’70s-model Mercury Cougar—nicknamed “the Pissmobile” for its color and demeanor—pulling into the lot amid so many Beemers, Mercedes SELs, and shiny fiberglass Vettes.

The Sporting House was exactly the kind of athletic club you’d expect in our fair, twenty-four-hour city. It was tucked away on an industrial boulevard called Industrial Road, about a three-point shot away from the Las Vegas Strip, and was open around the clock. If that wasn’t Vegas-y enough, the place was owned by a snarling middle-aged restaurateur with a pompadour, a permanent tan, and rumors of Mob connections. To get to the Nautilus machines, free weights, stationary bikes, locker rooms, and the private area out back with nude tanning, you first had to pass the sunken, hardwood basketball court, the club’s de facto centerpiece—once in a while, you might spot Jerry Lewis or Bill Cosby at the restaurant after a workout, looking down through the huge glass window onto the action. Workday lunchtimes were filled with doctors and lawyer types, who yelled through an hour of full-court. Action picked back up after five, when people started getting off work, and if your squad lost, you’d wait an hour for another run. When the courts weren’t crowded, though, I was likely taking jumpers from around the horn, pull-ups from the lane, staring into the wall of mirrors while trying extravagant dribbling combos that almost looked like dance routines. I had a blind faith that this was enough to ensure my future, that I could make it on effort alone.

I’d read that Michael Jordan had asked the University of North Carolina’s trainer for baggy shorts because he liked the way they looked, and so I went to Miller’s Outpost and bought a few pairs of long surfer shorts to play in. It didn’t take long before the House regulars noticed my odd attire and started calling me Maui. That was my nickname—both because of the weird surfer shorts, for sure, and probably also because of the way I played: crazy dribbles, ridiculous no-look passes that rarely connected with their intended target, pulling up for jimmies from behind the pro three-point line like I was high. Or, maybe, because my dreams of becoming legit were obviously implausible. Maui.

*

As I write, greater Las Vegas has more than two million residents. Ninety-five percent of them will bend over backward to tell you how much the city has changed since the old days (which most of them weren’t even here for), how normal its suburbs and exurbs are now. In the ’80s, though, even before the hotels had started re-creating landmarks from around the world, the inhabitants knew how the rest of the country thought of Sin City: Sinatra eating poached eggs off the chest of some hooker. People were self-conscious about this, of course. In our fabricated wonderland, we longed for something of our own. But, unlike today’s inhabitants, I think we also embraced that outlaw image. Hey, my cousin poached those eggs.

Jerry Tarkanian and the UNLV basketball program gave us something successful that was ours and something that—like our city, like our way of life—operated on the fringes of rule and law. Or, rather, it had its own rules and laws. Tark came to Vegas in 1973 after a stint at Long Beach State, where he’d become infamous for his willingness to take a chance on players whom—because of grades, personality, or legal standing—other coaches wouldn’t touch. Vegas was the city of third-chancers and renegades and black sheep, so it made sense that Tark, with his hangdog personality and his bandit ways, would coach our team. His nickname was Tark the Shark because of the way he famously chewed on a soaked towel on the bench, and, I think, because he was shrewd and daring, a cardsharp, ready to take you for everything you had. His teams played fast and aggressive, the way a team from Vegas should, and within a few years of his arrival the Rebels made it to the Final Four. The newly built Thomas & Mack Center was quickly christened the Shark Tank. When the lights went out for pregame introductions, the student band would start playing the theme to Jaws, and a projected shark would circle the rim of the arena. It was all beautiful. Tark had constructed a powerhouse who was guaranteed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament and be in the running for the list of the top high school players in the West. Except the NCAA was after him, big-time. Tarkanian had been at war with the powers that be since his time at Long Beach, when he’d quipped about their hypocritical practices, using different versions of the line “The NCAA is so mad at UCLA for their rule violations, they’ll probably suspend Pepperdine for another two years.” The NCAA, in return, suspended Tarkanian in 1977—the year of UNLV’s first Final Four appearance—charging him with thirty-eight recruiting violations, suspending UNLV’s basketball program from postseason activities for three years, and ordering the university to fire Tark. He countered with an injunction blocking the ruling. By the time Lloyd came to town, Tarkanian’s lawsuit was on its way to the Supreme Court. Until that got decided, Tark was allowed to coach.

Common sense suggests that the Sporting House—like a number of Vegas businesses—had an unwritten agreement with the basketball program: We will do whatever favors we can to take care of our guys and keep UNLV winning. I say this because players, former players, alumni, recruits, and even the coach’s grown sons wandered in and out of there all the time. When a Rebel joined your pickup game, it was something of a badge of honor. You ran harder, threw crisper passes, tried to impress with your skills. And on weekend afternoons, the bulk of UNLV’s team held court, playing in high-flying shoot-outs that set the breakaway rims popping. We gawkers—and sometimes UNLV’s coaching staff—would sit on benches, fill the restaurant, which had a view of the court, and line the walkway.

Looking back, I can’t help but realize that most of the UNLV players were young black men, and most of the gawkers—most of the club members—were older and white. There were exceptions, but as a rule, the place, like the city’s power structure, was dominated by whites.

Vegas has a strong history of segregation. Paul Revere Williams, the architect who originally laid out the development that grew into the nearby suburb of Henderson—a thousand bungalows intended for workers on Hoover Dam—hadn’t been allowed to live in the housing development, the development he designed, because he was black. Sammy Davis Jr., visiting Vegas as a teenage performer, had been forced to sit in the balcony of the El Portal, a segregated movie theater that also happened to be the only movie theater downtown. Nat King Cole had been physically prevented from walking through the front door of the Tropicana’s casino. Indeed, until the ’60s, blacks weren’t allowed to gamble at any casino or stay in any hotel on the Strip, and instead were directed to the Moulin Rouge, a hotel and casino on what was known as the Westside, a predominantly black neighborhood. Supposedly, Sinatra had a hand in these discriminatory policies being rescinded, but the larger reason things changed involved revenue, not any kind of moral clarity by casino-owning mobsters. In the ’70s, North Las Vegas was something like Harlem in the ’30s, in the sense that most of the black population lived in a specific neighborhood where street names were just letters and numbers. The black hotel and casino workers would venture downtown and onto the Strip to their jobs. Well into the ’80s, it was rare to see a black person on the front page of the liberal Sun or the conservative Review-Journal—and if a black person made it there, it was usually for playing ball or committing a crime.

There’s no doubt that Vegas had more than its share of racial prejudices. I grew up hearing my parents called every anti-Semitic name in English. I also heard racist sentiments emanate from the other side of the pawnshop counter. My dad referred to untold belligerent cowboys as “shit kickers,” and my mom let off steam after heated arguments by using the Yiddish epithet for black people, Schvartz.

For sure, wasn’t racist. Since I’d gotten my license, I’d started driving to the north side of town every two weeks to pick up a new custom-made mixtape from the store where they sold harder-to-find rap records. Hell, I rooted for the Lakers, despised the Celtics, wore my too-long shorts. To me, black meant cool, it meant virile—things I wished I could be. When I look back, I see that my earnestness, however awkward, was born of a desire for connection. But it was also flawed. Certainly I knew—from PBS documentaries and a short story or two—that the historical fear of black virility and miscegenation had led to lynchings in our country. But did I connect that with my desires? I was aware, to some degree, of societal and financial marginalization based on race, how these core adversities had given rise to so much singularity and depth in black culture. But my teen point of view didn’t acknowledge a whole hell of a lot that might exist beyond these surfaces. It was a romantic take on a stereotype.

In eighth grade, our social studies teacher explained that the freeway system in Las Vegas was set up so that when the race wars came, fences could roll down off the side of the freeway to separate the north and west sides of town from the hotels on the Strip, thereby keeping all the gamblers safe.

That’s something I still think about every time I’m back and heading toward downtown on I-15.

*

“Your boy was here,” Charlie Skinner told me. His stepfather was the alleged mobster and Sporting House owner. Skinner, as we called him, was one of the rich kids from the nearby Catholic high school who made up the heart of the larger, loosely assembled group that spent its afternoons at the gym, hustling up full-court games, then bagging on each other over chicken wings and soda in the restaurant. Our abilities ranged. There were talents like the super-quick sharpshooter with white-blond hair who went on to star at the University of Arizona. A number of dudes could legitimately play: I am thinking now of a skinny kid with sensitive eyes and a wispy mustache who happily touched the ball to his knees before dunking backward. Then there were the rest of us. Skinner had some kind of medical condition that forced him to wear heavy metal leg braces when he played. We’d often match up against each other.

Skinner let me know the details of just how Lloyd had schooled everyone at the Sporting House the other night. Was it the next day that Lloyd showed up again? His assimilation was that smooth, that natural. He just started appearing at the House, and coming back, always wearing sweatpants, blatantly ignoring Vegas’s pounding summer heat, zipping in and out during the afternoon when a lot of us high school guys were playing, sometimes looking for someone, or seeming like he had something going on—Yo, yo, you seen my man Cliffie?—but just as often ready to ball, upbeat, with a boyish energy that suggested he was happy to be at the Sporting House, thrilled to be in Vegas, eager to impress, to make good. Yo, pick sides, let’s get it running. Did any of us know that Mark Warkentien, UNLV’s director of basketball operations, had signed documents to become the nineteen-year-old’s legal guardian? That the polite, skinny guy who was often at Lloyd’s side was a friend of his from 203rd Street back home, and whom UNLV was relying on to keep tabs on Lloyd? That UNLV had set the two of them up in a nearby apartment complex, had had assistant coaches bring over a television and dishes, and had also finagled a compact car for him from an advertising company owned by a powerful booster? (This booster was Sig Rogich, an aide to the first Bush White House, and who now has a Vegas middle school named after him.) Did any of us know that Lloyd’s mother had passed away when he was four, that he did not know his father, or that his childhood was spent shuttling between one grandmother in Brooklyn and another in Queens? Did we know that Lloyd could read at only a third-grade level, that he was dyslexic and had started smoking pot at nine, that everyone who knew him described him as both a sweet kid and something of a hustler, or that, in response to the question of who his biggest influence was, Lloyd gave the heartbreaking answer “Myself”? Dude was nineteen years old.

This was the summer of 1986. The plan was for Lloyd to attend a junior college in Long Beach in the fall, enroll at UNLV in January, and suit up for the 1987–88 season. A decent amount of this plan actually happened. But if UNLV’s coaches, boosters, support staff, and satellite accomplices were all synchronized, working to insure that Lloyd was comfortable and his future safely arranged, then Lloyd—who’d bounced out of two prep schools and between boroughs, and had few skills and little discipline when it came to everyday life—must have felt as if he’d been let loose in a new frontier. And this wasn’t just any frontier he was exploring. This was Sin City itself.

We knew none of these behind-the-scenes machinations. We were a bunch of teenagers, after all. So we did what we were supposed to do, as stupid, ball-obsessed teenagers: we shot around with him, rebounded for him, and made ingratiating remarks. We watched him play against other Rebels and talked with one another about how long he’d be at UNLV before he was in the NBA, and about how long it would take him to become an all-star, once he was there. And, understand, it wasn’t a question of if he was getting there.

I once watched as, on his way out of the club to run some errand, Lloyd nailed a shot not just from half-court, but from the raised-walkway platform. Lloyd had moves that none of us had ever seen, moves that reminded us he was from a different world, playing a different game: he had a move where, as the ball rose from the hardwood, he quickly bent his leg and, in a modified soccer move, dribbled with his knee, both perplexing and mesmerizing the defender. He also had a move where he froze you for a second, dribbled through your open legs, and simultaneously raced past you to meet up with the ball on the other side. And it wasn’t like he was pulling these moves off against scrubs—he was doing this shit to guys who went on to pro careers. A decade later, these tricks became nationally popular, spreading to pickup courts across the country thanks to And1’s mixtapes and subsequent television show. But I promise that not one person who was on the courts with him had ever seen them before. We started practicing them, imitating him. You gave someone a Lloyd. You did a Lloyd.

In Swee’Pea: The Story of Lloyd Daniels and Other Playground Basketball Legends, reporter John Valenti explains that as a child, Lloyd often stayed on the streets deep into the night, hanging out at a Brooklyn playground known as the Hole, as well as a lighted park in Manhattan, near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. Lloyd dribbled off the broken glass in these parks, learning to pass by throwing the ball off the chain-link fence, shooting in the darkness, off the backboard, until he could make ninety-seven or ninety-eight shots out of a hundred.

Maybe this is why Lloyd took pity on me—because he saw scrawny, outcast, bottom-of-the-totem-pole me at the Sporting House at all hours, putting in work, and it reminded him of a distorted version of his younger self. At least, that’s what I hoped, since I wanted to see myself in him. During one full-court run, I was on his team and played under control, hitting open jumpers, making a few smart passes. Who knows, I might even have slapped glass—OK, the protective layer of foam beneath—on a layup. Lloyd noticed, and even learned my name, sort of, not calling me Maui, but Challie, without the r, a hard, East Coast–y dialect version, thereby differentiating me from Charlie, which is what he called Skinner, whom, admittedly, Lloyd was a ton friendlier with. But I had so little confidence, had so few people encouraging me that, thirty-two years later, I still remember that dollop.

Then one afternoon I was on my way to the Sporting House when I saw, ahead of me, a blue Dodge weaving through traffic. I was in the left lane, about to head under the I-15 freeway, when the Dodge cut me off. It swerved again, jerking into the slightest opening in the neighboring lane, so it could pass one car. Just as recklessly, it swerved back. It was deranged. Then I recognized Lloyd’s large oval head. It was both a shock and logical, and also served as a reminder: this was someone I really didn’t know.

A lazy afternoon not long after that. The usual high school suspects were on the court, along with a couple of civilians, trying to scrounge up enough people to get a game going. And here was Lloyd, slapping hands, taking a shot from the track just outside the court. More talented guys began to trickle in: the blond star who’d end up playing for Arizona, the lanky forward slated to anchor the Rebels frontcourt. Obviously, the afternoon was shaping up for serious fireworks. I could see people lining up at the top of the key to shoot for captains.

I counted bodies, calculated.

If I got into the mix early, set up with the right teammates, who knows how long I could be out there. This was what I was always looking for, working for. A chance to show I could hang.

Showing up now: the affable junior college transfer with a habit of pulling up from five feet behind the free-point line. Now the point guard who’d just set the NCAA record for assists.

Lloyd asked if I was going to shoot.

“I have to get to work,” I said.

At my parents’ store, arriving a solid half hour before they needed me, I went into the back, where I sat at a little desk, read the sports pages, drank Mountain Dew, and cursed my cowardly self. I could not escape the way Lloyd had studied me as I walked off the court. His slight nod had felt like so much more, like he was rendering a verdict upon my manhood. That was the last time he talked to me. Because I wasn’t worth fucking with—and we both knew it.

*

On February 9, 1987, one month after he enrolled as a student at UNLV, Lloyd Daniels was arrested—for attempting to purchase a controlled substance—as part of a raid on a crack house in North Las Vegas. Video from the raid was televised, and it shows Lloyd, handcuffed, being led into a cop car. He’s wearing a gray UNLV sweatshirt and a red North Carolina State cap. His head is low. He looks sheepish and, it’s easy to infer, terrified.

It was like a bomb had detonated in the city. I remember a shock that seemed to hit a place deeper than basketball, and that, I think, cut to something fundamental about this city and its residents.

We felt a thrilling pride in the way our renegade town skirted convention; but the flip side of bravado is insecurity. I’d known this since I was a child, when my mother had ordered me: when any teacher or friend asked what my parents did, I was to answer that they were in sales.

When Lloyd was arrested, there was that dark thrum of anxiety. The fear that maybe those upstanding bastards were right. Maybe we weren’t cutting corners simply because the larger system was broken. We weren’t making a grand statement. Maybe we just couldn’t play by the rules.

Tarkanian immediately went into damage control, announcing that Lloyd would never play college basketball for UNLV. Lloyd didn’t serve time for the bust, but it sent his burgeoning career into a tailspin: he bounced from Vegas to a minor-league basketball team in Topeka, Kansas, then to one in Australia, where he didn’t last a season. By 1989, insisting that he just wanted to play ball and make it to the NBA, Lloyd had attended at least two rehab facilities and was living at home in Brooklyn. After scamming a teenager out of a hundred dollars’ worth of crack, he answered the front door of his grandmother’s home in Brooklyn and was shot three times, one bullet penetrating his right lung, the two others hitting the left side of his neck and his left shoulder.

I was in college when I heard the news. The next day I wore all black. My new college friends, most of whom had made the Division III basketball team that I’d been cut from, made fun of me when they heard why.

During the innumerable hours I’d spent pounding the ball into the hardwood at the Sporting House, it was true, I hadn’t recognized the absurdity of my dream about who I was going to become; nevertheless, day by day, I’d been inexorably moving into the person I actually was becoming. I still didn’t know who that person was. But even if I’d always realized, deep inside, that I didn’t really belong on the court with the best, I did not want to invalidate all the work I had put into the game, the heart I had invested in my ridiculous dream. Watching Lloyd had been a chance to touch the hem of greatness, to watch the reality of who I’d wanted to be play out. Only it wasn’t who I wanted to be, was it?

*

The man who bailed Lloyd out of jail after that original crack bust in Vegas, back in February 1987, was named Richard Perry. Turns out he’d been banned from college basketball because of his involvement with a point-shaving scandal. In 1991, Perry would be photographed relaxing in a hot tub with three prominent members of the Rebels team, which had finally—finally—brought Vegas its long-sought NCAA national championship. It was that front-page hot tub photo that broke the proverbial shark’s back. UNLV had grown into the dominant basketball power on the West Coast by then, its notoriety and swag infiltrating the pop-cultural landscape to the point where Tark was the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit and Tupac was sporting Rebels gear in music videos. However, there also were signs that Vegas—in a run of ten consecutive years as the nation’s fastest-growing city—had started evolving beyond its outlaw image: the FBI was supposedly chasing the Mafia out of the casino resorts; the great Old West gaming families were growing old or getting wrecked by scandal. UNLV’s new president, Robert Maxson, had designs on getting the school recognized as more than a basketball factory. Cutting off Tark’s juice was a step in that direction. Tarkanian agreed to leave following the 1991 season, effectively ending UNLV’s desert dynasty. In the ensuing quarter century, the school has made it to the round of sixteen once, and hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2007.

The story wasn’t quite over, though, because the Shark swam into the NBA’s fresh waters, accepting a job as the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. One of his first actions—a year after Sports Illustrated published a piece titled “Legend or Myth,” in which reporter Douglas Looney dismissed Lloyd’s chances of ever making it to the NBA—was to sign a married, sober, in-treatment Lloyd Daniels.

Balling with a scar down his right side, and at an estimated 65 percent of his former self, Lloyd began the season as a starter. While an admittedly unmotivated and overmatched Tarkanian was fired after sixteen games, Lloyd played the bulk of two seasons with San Antonio, even filmed a sneaker commercial for British Knights. In this sense, he made it.

But he was never the star we’d dreamed he’d be. It wasn’t only the bullets and crack that did him in. He didn’t do the weight lifting and conditioning necessary to keep pace with the game. Lloyd bounced around the NBA for the bulk of six seasons as a role player (represented the whole time by a Las Vegas lawyer named David Chesnoff, whom I vaguely remember from the lunchtime games at the Sporting House). In almost every successive year, Lloyd played in fewer games, and anecdotal evidence suggests he exhausted anyone who gave him a chance.

Then again, when you consider that he’s the only NBA player who never graduated from high school, and that he had bullets lodged in him to boot, this is still pretty goddamn amazing.

*

In 2015, The Legend of Swee’Pea premiered at the film festival DOC NYC. Directed by physician Benjamin May, the film looked back at Lloyd’s life and also caught up with him as a fifty-something man. Lloyd still struggles with sobriety, which seems to be part of why his ex divorced him. He coaches an AAU team based in New Jersey, named the Lloyd Daniels Rebels (the logo on the team shirts is taken from the UNLV squad). In footage of him coaching, it’s apparent that the teeth on the top sides of his mouth are missing. He comes off as simultaneously likable and damaged and angry—someone trying to deal, but not consistently able to cope. Lloyd is described as currently existing hand to mouth, living in motels and on friends’ couches. Halfway through the film, Lloyd calls the director and asks him for money. Says his former coach, John Lucas, an NBA player turned drug counselor himself, “Lloyd is running from Lloyd to Lloyd.”

But May also took Lloyd back to Vegas and brought him to the home of an aged, ill Jerry Tarkanian. This took place not long after Tarkanian was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame but before he died, in 2015. Lloyd’s love for Tark and his wife, Lois, is palpable. It’s obvious that—as for so many people before and since—his time in Vegas allowed him to ruin himself, but was also filled with as much hope as the man ever knew. It must have been a time when his dreams seemed within reach—or, even better, about to come true. When his real life was about to start.

The last time I saw Lloyd was in the late ’90s. I ran across him at the will call window of a Knicks game. I had moved to New York to write; Lloyd was with his wife. He looked healthy, in a designer sweater of striped colors. I introduced myself and mentioned being from Vegas, and noticed his wife tense up, as if just the name meant trouble. Quickly, I said, “I used to play at the Sporting House.”

Lloyd’s face brightened. He wanted to know about Charlie Skinner.

In later years, I’d be told that Skinner was still in Vegas, that he ran a business that had something to do with tabletop video poker. At the time, though, I didn’t know this, and told Lloyd I had no news of our mutual friend. I similarly had no reason to tell Lloyd that the Sporting House had long ago been sold to a national health club chain that had then unloaded it. I certainly didn’t say anything about the place’s most recent incarnation—I’d actually visited, once, pulling my rental car into that same parking lot, entering the old haunt. It had been a truly surreal experience: on the same spots where I used to practice free throws, and where Lloyd had worked bits of his magic, onetime Russian ballerinas were giving lap dances. Turns out, Club Sapphire advertises itself as the world’s largest strip club. I told Lloyd none of this, though. Instead, I wished him my very best, and each of us went off to watch the game. 

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