Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 01, 2020 7:09 pm 
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A basketball prodigy's up and down saga

This documentary is about a legendary basketball prodigy who wasn't supposed to make it but did. He's still around, big and hale and hearty, it would seem. But he never had the multi-million-dollar career he seemed destined for. Lloyd Swee' Pea Daniels had everything going for him and everything against him. Ultimately he may have done the best he could with what he had. He grew up to be a phenomenal athletic talent. the darling of the New York playground basketball courts. But his mother had died when he was only four and his father was a depressed alcoholic. Of his two grandmothers the film only says they were of opposing personalities and philosophies. It seems the guidance was never really there. And he needed that badly because early on there was addiction - to drugs, alcohol, and the equally risky substance of too early fame with no accompanying sense of responsibility.

Lloyd grew up in dangerous parts of Eighties outer-borough New York in the era of the crack cocaine epidemic. He never graduated from the multiple high schools he didn't attend. He became a functional crack addict. But along the way, he was six foot seven and a magician with a ball, passing and shooting like the best. He became a legendary basketball player the scouts drooled over. When he went to a game with a high school team, you couldn't get into the gym. He was compared to Magic Johnson. He was possibly, at 16, as good as any teen player in history. But he couldn't stick with school, and was probably dyslexic. As Bobbito Garcia, New York playground historian tells the camera, Lloyd was all over the playgrounds (including the Village one at West Fourth Street across from IFC Center). He was seduced by the other drug, admiration. He also practiced at night, claiming it would sharpen his skills, saying, says a contemporary, 'If I can hit this shot at night, imagine what I can do when the lights come on.'"

Lloyd became a sports celebrity, but nobody took the trouble to help him get through school. Nor, clearly, did they recognize the need to address his addiction.

The Lloyd of today is threaded generously through this film. His big, rough voice and expletive-intense diction boom out at us, declaring his raw warmth. We see him coaching teenage boys, getting wildly excited in games, egging on his teen team, Lloyd's Rebels, in a tournament they eventually lose by only ten points in the final game. Young Lloyd himself joined the Gauchos at around fourteen, dropping out of high school his junior year. He later slipped into college through an NCAA loophole, entering UNLV, the University of North Los Vegas, to play on their basketball team, the Rebels, a contender for the top ten spot under coach Jerry Tarkanian. Lloyd attended some classes. But though it's not mentioned here, he could not read over the third grade level. That he was a good student, he hints, was an obvious myth.

Though Jerry Tarkanian loved Lloyd and took him under his protection, knowing he was at risk, Lloyd clearly didn't get the guidance he needed. Las Vegas was where he went badly astray. He was staying up all night smoking crack cocaine. Not long into this he was caught by the police in a crack house. The film shows the police footage - stunningly pristine looking images - of his arrest that night. There he is with his shaven head, wearing a sharp looking leather jacket. Lloyd today rides around with the filmmakers, by the building that was the crack house ending his college basketball career before it began. The strong man weeps, confronting the past.

Though "Tark," Coach Tarkanian, loved Lloyd he decided he could not play with the UNLV Rebels and had to go. His college scholarship also, of course, was gone. There was no evident awareness that this was an addiction problem, or of all the guidance Lloyd needed when he came to UNLV.

A Las Vegas attorney, David Chesnoff, thought Lloyd got a raw deal in this. He and his wife took Lloyd under their wing and gave the disgraced fledgling college basketball star a place to stay. Chesnoff, whom we also see today, though he feels they were too forgiving, too enabling, says he's happy to see Lloyd is coaching kids now. Then, Lloyd went to minor league, the CBA, Continental Basketball Association, which for a while was the best he could do. Of course his exceptional talents got him in. But he kept going up and down with addiction derailing his sports career, relapsing over and over into drugs and alcohol after a failure with a team, in and out of recovery programs.

Returning to New York after the Topeka Sizzlers, leaving Kansas, he returned intensively, as he tells it now, to smoking crack. (The timeline seems imprecise but Lloyd was perhaps twenty-one.) Then, into this already destructive and dangerous life there came something even worse, a head-on confrontation with violence that nearly ended in his death. Trying to run from drug dealers, Lloyd got stopped - shot point blank in front of his grandmother's house in Hollis, Queens. He took bullets directly in the chest. "They put four in me.. . I leaned back, and all I could think of was John Wayne," his colorful current account goes on. "I just remember the cowboy movie, 'Just don't close your eyes,' because if you close your eyes, you might not never open 'em up again." (Stylish, colorful little drawings help recreate the scene.)

Miraculously, the young ballplayer not only survived, but barely a few weeks after recovering from his hospitalization, gained admission into the NBA. There was a girlfriend who helped, Kendra Dunn. She quit her job - perhaps not the best decision - to help him and guide him into recovery. The near death experience helped motivate him to try, but, such is the nature of addiction, also made it harder to succeed by providing an escape from the reverberating trauma. Kendra devoted herself to keeping Lloyd sober, and they married. But we see only snapshots of her and she did not consent to appear in this film.

In the NBA Lloyd played for the San Antonio Spurs. A strong contribution to this film comes from the Spurs' then star player, David Robinson (who, incidentally, is 7'1"). Robinson affirms that Lloyd had enormous natural talent. But when he came to the Spurs, Robinson says, Lloyd was "a kid" who was "too immature to see how much he needed to learn." Tarkinian now was coach of the spurs. Lloyd thinks he took the job to take him in. He was "Tark's resurrection project." But things went badly with the team and Tarkinian was fired. We don't know why, but we see a warm reunion between an ailing (since deceased) Tarkinian and his wife and Lloyd staged for the film.

The new coach of the Spurs, John Lucas, wanted to hold Lloyd back, Lloyd notes - to keep him back for recovery. Lucas was a recovering addict and alcoholic himself, and says that he told Lloyd then, "I know me when I see me. And I see me when I see you." The film shows footage of Lloyd and Lucas back in the day in Lucas' recovery program. Lucas says when he arrived, he saw Lloyd was "trying to run things" on the team. He told him in blunt terms to stop.

In the event, Lloyd didn't last long on the San Antonio Spurs though his nearly two-year gig was one of his longest. He played on 6 different NBA teams between 1992 and 1998. (Wikipedia's article, Lloyd Daniels, shows he played on 31 different teams in his career, none for longer.) A title tells us: "Lloyd Daniels was the only NBA player to never graduate from high school." He also never graduated into the productive career and starring spot he once was destined for. It seems he never grew up but remained a kid, even though he remained, potentially, always a great basketball star.

That is the story, with constant glimpses of Lloyd today, this big, energetic, in-your-face, harsh-spoken man with missing front teeth who coaches talented black teen ballplayers. But director Ben May also is honest in providing hints of Lloyd's current dysfunctionality through recordings of phone messages where he seems to try to borrow money, also trying to seize control of the film, then turns angry, rejecting him with a "Fuck you, man," then making peace again.

Today Lloyd Daniels and Kendra are divorced, and she does the raising of the three kids, who are doing well in college and high school and live in New Jersey, as does Lloyd. He acknowledges that Kendra probably refused to appear in the film because she knows he is still drinking. He has acknowledged that even when first clean and sober after the near death gunshot experience, he remained "crazy," did not work recovery or go to meetings.

This is a raw, basic film. It's energetic, well-narrated, full of impact and its subject's conflicted, self-doubting but charismatic presence. It makes telling use of landscape shots, urban and western, to evoke contrasting moments of Lloyd's life. It could be tidier about some details like dates, and might have explored some important individuals in Lloyd's life like his wife and his grandmothers. The outlines of chronology could be clearer. But this remains sterling material, a vivid picture of greatness lost through addiction, a derailed life held together by sheer force of will. After all, this is a story worthy enough for a classic sports history book, Swee' Pea: The story of Lloyd Daniels and Other Playground Legends, by John Valenti and Ron Naclerio, published in 1990 and reissued in 2016 (see the authors' Daily News article signaling its re-release ). John Valenti, evidently a longtime friend and admirer, speaks in the film too, about visiting the hospital after Lloyd was shot. The operating surgeon said he should be dead. He's a surviror.

The Legend of Swee' Pea, 80 mins., debuted at DOC NYC Dec. 2015 and showed in at least nine other festivals, including Atlanta, Minneapolis and San Antonio. It releases on digital and on demand April 14, 2020.


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