• Antonio Daniels has a modest philosophy to go with his big-time talent
On Monday afternoon, Antonio Daniels and his fiancee, Sonia Fuentes, served helpings of ham and turkey to many of the 5,000 men, women and children who enjoyed a free meal at the Rose Garden as part of the Trail Blazers' annual Harvest Dinner.
Daniels and Fuentes then hopped into their Mercedes and made the 20-minute drive to their immaculate, five-bedroom, 5,300-square-foot Forest Heights home overlooking Portland's west side.
The irony wasn't lost on Daniels, who grew up a block from the Windsore Terrace projects in Columbus, Ohio.
'It was so humbling,' says the Blazer guard, 'to see those people like that, some of those children.'
Daniels remembers growing up in a single-parent household, living on his mother's social worker income. Unpaid bills were a fact of life. There were times, he says, when 'our hot water was shut off, so we took water and put it in the microwave. Or the electricity was shut off, and we had to light candles.
'It hasn't been a situation where I have lived this type of life my whole life,' says Daniels, 27. 'It makes you very appreciative of what you have. I kind of live by the philosophy, 'Be humble and hungry.' I will always stay humble, but I will always be hungry to achieve more.'
Steve Smith's old digs are a nice roost for Daniels and Fuentes, 26, who will wed July 12 in San Antonio. But Daniels doesn't want to forget his roots. His mother, Alice Daniels, divorced his father Ñ a former Globetrotter known as 'Hands' Daniels Ñ when Antonio was 1.
'Mom raised me, my brother and two sisters,' says Daniels, the youngest of the siblings. 'I remember her going to night school to qualify for the job so she could support us. Everything I have learned, I learned from her and my brother.'
Chris Daniels was almost two years older than Daniels, but he wasn't a typical big brother.
'I can't describe to you how close we were,' Daniels says. 'As close as you will ever find two brothers. We talked all the time about everything. We never got into arguments or altercations, ever. Anything he did, he brought me along.'
Chris Daniels grew to 6-11 and played his college ball at Dayton, where he led the nation in field-goal percentage as a senior. His younger brother was a different body type Ñ 5-2 as a high school freshman, 6-2 as a senior, 6-4 by the time he reached Bowling Green, about a two-hour drive from Columbus. Antonio Daniels was an even better player than his brother, a slasher and defender with crazy hops and quickness.
The brothers were both headed to the NBA. 'That's all we talked about,' Daniels says.
Loss of a brother
It was just a normal early morning on Feb. 8, 1996, when Daniels was awakened by a visit from his college coaches. Neither said a word, mostly staring at the floor. He figured something was up, but what? Then the phone rang. It was his mother, telling him Chris was dead, the victim of cardiac arrhythmia.
Daniels dropped the phone.
'I heard her voice on the other line, screaming, 'Toni, pick the phone up,' ' he says.
Daniels sat on the floor of the shower of his dormitory for nearly an hour, locked in a daze. Then, with a heavy heart, he picked himself up and set out to begin the rest of his life.
Six days later, after the funeral, after some soul-searching, Daniels chose to play in Bowling Green's game against nationally ranked Eastern Michigan.
Switching from jersey number 10 to 33 Ñ Chris' number at Dayton Ñ Daniels scored 21 points, including the game-winning layup with four seconds to go in a 72-70 victory.
'The ball was inbounded to me, and I drove, and out of nowhere, the defender fell down and I just laid it in,' he says. 'My mother swears to this day my brother tripped the guy.'
After his brother's death, Daniels underwent extensive testing for potential heart problems and was given a clean bill of health. Nobody else in his family has experienced any trouble.
Daniels says Chris is never far from his thoughts. He has three tattoos in honor of his brother and has worn No. 33 throughout his career, though this year he will switch back to No. 10 since Scottie Pippen has dibs on 33.
'The craziest thing is when I dream about him, and it's so real,' Daniels says. 'I wake up, and it is so hard to grasp the concept that he is not here.
'The hardest time for me,' he says, 'is happy times Ñ when I graduated from college, when my sister got married, when I get married Ñ that he can't be here to share these times. It hurts me deeply that Sonia will never get a chance to meet him.'
Sonia Fuentes is the brightest new light in Daniels' life. The pair met seven months ago in San Antonio, introduced by a mutual friend.
'He was kind of interested,' says Fuentes, who was working as a loan officer for a financial corporation at the time.
'Yeah, very much so,' he says.
Did they hit it off right away?
'Yeah É' she says.
'No, not initially,' he counters. 'Think about the first couple of dates.'
'Well É' she says.
'When we finally opened up and got to know each other, it was smooth sailing from there,' Daniels says. 'I can't wait for the wedding. I'm at a point in my life where I know what I want, the people I want to surround myself with. She's definitely one of them.'
Earning his spurs
Daniels, the No. 4 pick of the 1997 draft (by Vancouver), was traded to San Antonio after one season. The Spurs won the title in his first year there. Though he played little that season, his game began to develop. Veteran teammates such as David Robinson, Avery Johnson, Terry Porter, Steve Kerr and Mario Elie were instrumental in his growth as both a player and person.
'There was so much I had to learn,' Daniels says. 'Those guys showed me how to play the game, how to be a professional, that the way you interact with people is just as important as basketball. It wasn't just basketball maturity for me in San Antonio, it was maturity as a person.'
An altercation last summer, less than two months before his trade from the Spurs to Portland, opened Daniels' eyes to his own celebrity. After a summer league game, an opponent accused him grabbing him in a chokehold, leaving a 5-inch scratch across his neck. The opponent filed a police report, and the incident made news in the San Antonio media, though charges were dropped.
Daniels says the other player threw a ball off his back three separate times.
'I'm an inner-city boy, and once it becomes physical, you defend yourself,' he says. 'But I grabbed him for only a split second, guys around us pulled me off immediately, and I left with Sonia. Then it's the lead story on the (television) news that night.
'His only motive in the whole thing was money. If there was a scratch on him, it wasn't from me. When somebody has dollar signs in his eyes, there's nothing you can do. It was embarrassing because that's not the type of guy I am.'
Daniels was popular with fans and media in San Antonio but had his moments with coach Gregg Popovich, a former Air Force captain who runs his program with discipline.
'It was difficult,' Daniels says. 'I felt like I was his whipping boy at times. He even used to joke around about it. But he helped me grow a lot, to deal with a lot of different things.'
Daniels says his respect for Popovich grew over the summer because the coach kept him informed of trade possibilities and tried to get Daniels on a team for which he wanted to play.
'That doesn't happen in most organizations,' Daniels says. 'The player usually doesn't get those kind of options.'
Daniels became expendable to the Spurs for several reasons. They are trying to clear their roster of salary so they can make a push for a top free agent next summer. Daniels is in the final year of his contract, and Popovich didn't want to have to worry about a contract negotiation. And the coach thinks that new guard Emanuel Ginobili from Argentina will be a better player in the long run than Daniels, never more than an occasional starter in San Antonio.
Daniels says he's excited about being with the Blazers. He says he wants to get involved in community activities, wants people to get to know him. He says he's a spiritual person who has never had a taste of liquor, drugs or cigarettes.
'Never have, never will,' he says. 'You see the crazy things people do with stuff in their system. I just won't mess with it.'
Daniels has a degree in elementary education. 'If I weren't a basketball player, I'd be a teacher,' he says. 'I enjoy doing things with kids. I like to sit and laugh with them, not lecture them. Let them get to know me as an actual person.'
This season, Daniels says, he intends to let the people of Portland do just that. The Harvest Dinner was a good first step.