Xavier McDaniel: THE X FACTOR
The Xavier McDaniel Interview
By: Michael D. McClellan | Thursday, May 5th, 2005
The menacing scowl, shaved head and ripped physique were all a part of an intimidating package, one that helped usher a new, physical breed of player into the NBA. Some might argue that the arrival of Xavier McDaniel, circa 1985 via the league’s inaugural Draft Lottery, marked the beginning of the end of the NBA’s Golden Era, this at a time when offenses actually flowed the way James Naismith intended, and when 100-point games were a common occurrence for most every team this side of the Los Angeles Clippers. Isolation plays, these same naysayers are quick to point out, became all the rage during this period in the league’s evolution, providing a death knell to any semblance of movement in the traditional half court offense. Conspiracy theorists are quick to blame a whole host of other problems on players like McDaniel, from baggy shorts to the current Streetball phenomenon, and, perhaps worst of all, to an obsession with body art, gold chains and rap music – essentially all that is at the heart of North America’s urban hip-hop culture.
Regardless of what one thinks, Xavier McDaniel was much more than a gangsta-thug who played a role in opening the NBA’s door to rappers such as Jay-Z and Nelly. McDaniel – known as ‘X-man’, or simply ‘X’ to basketball fans the world over – was a groundbreaker in a more fundamental way, becoming the first player in collegiate history to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding in the same season. It was a headline-grabbing accomplishment, one that brought national exposure to both McDaniel and his school, Wichita State University, and one that set the stage for a long and successful NBA career.
The story, of course, doesn’t start here. It starts years earlier, in the south, where a young Xavier McDaniel had barely a passing interest in the game of basketball. Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, McDaniel subscribed to his state’s dual passions of football and baseball, playing both while dreaming of being the next Walter Payton or Reggie Jackson. Hoops were reserved for the playground, for pickup games that helped pass the time and keep McDaniel out of trouble. He caught an occasional NBA game on television, admiring the play of stars like Bobby Dandridge, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, but back then the league struggled to find a national viewing audience. Football and baseball, by contrast, were featured regularly on the three major networks. And basketball? It was usually tape-delayed, and played long after young Xavier had gone to bed. So he dreamed, as most kids his age, of making a fingertip catch to win the Super Bowl, or of hitting that bases loaded, bottom-of-the-ninth home run to win the World Series.
Height was another factor in McDaniel’s decision to play other sports. Only 5'-10" in the eighth grade – and rail thin – McDaniel was still years away from the chiseled frame that would intimidate so many players in the NBA. Today it is hard to imagine a skinny Xavier McDaniel, more Jimmy “Dyn-o-mite!" Walker than Mr. T, but back then he wasn’t going to dominate the low post. A stunning metamorphosis was about to occur, however, as McDaniel grew six inches by the time he entered A.C. Flora High School. He also hit the weights during this time, bulking up and adding much-needed muscle. The coaching staff saw a raw player with star potential. They convinced McDaniel to try out for the team, and he found himself not only playing competitive basketball, but also starting – and dominating – by the end of his sophomore season.
Still, Rough times lay ahead. McDaniel was a poor student, rarely doing homework and routinely falling behind in his studies. His grades were so bad that he was ruled academically ineligible to play basketball as a junior. It was a crushing blow at the time, but also a defining moment for McDaniel. He used the episode as motivation, both in the classroom and on the basketball court, remaking himself into a true student-athlete. Fueled by a mixture of anger and embarrassment, McDaniel returned for his senior season and led A.C. Flora to the state championship. He was the star on a team that produced four Division I college players, including Tyrone Corbin, who would go on to play for nine NBA teams in sixteen seasons. X averaged 18.8 points and 14.4 rebounds for the A.C. Flora blowout juggernaut, while logging barely more than two quarters per game.
McDaniel was suddenly a major college prospect, and he wanted to stay home and play for South Carolina. Unfortunately, the school had used its allotment of scholarships, leaving McDaniel without a team. There were other suitors, and McDaniel narrowed his choice to two of the most unlikely destinations – Memphis State and Wichita State. He visited both, and came away torn between the two. At the last moment, and for reasons unknown even to him, McDaniel selected the urban-based school half a country away. The decision proved to be a wise one: McDaniel had a stellar collegiate career at Wichita State, becoming the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in both scoring and rebounding in the same season. Only three others have done so since. He also led the nation in rebounding twice, and in the process was named a consensus All-American. By the time his college career was over, McDaniel had elevated himself into the upper echelon of the inaugural NBA Draft Lottery.
The 1985 NBA Draft was, in the eyes of many, a one-man show. Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing was the most dominating player to come out of college in many years, a franchise player capable of instantly transforming a struggling franchise into a perennial contender. As such, every team in the lottery wanted Ewing. He was the talk of the draft, and everyone else was considered a cut below the Georgetown All-America. Not that is was a bad draft; there was plenty of talent, but there were simply few can't-miss projections beyond Ewing. Karl Malone was taken by Utah with the thirteenth pick, behind such names as Jon Koncak, Joe Kleine and Kenny Green. McDaniel, for his part, arrived at Madison Square Garden on draft day wide-eyed and nervous, unsure as to when his name would be called. He watched as Ewing made his way to the podium to shake Commissioner David Stern's hand, followed in short-order by Wayman Tisdale and Benoit Benjamin. Finally, McDaniel’s angst came to an end, as his name was called by Stern on behalf of the Seattle Supersonics.
McDaniel and Ewing, practically strangers before the draft, forged a lasting friendship during the Draft Lottery. They remain close today.
“We’re like brothers,” McDaniel says, smiling. “He was the guy I turned to for advice when I signed my contract with Boston. We’re always in touch.”
The Sonics expected big things from its new forward, and McDaniel impressed almost from the start. He worked hard all summer, and played well when training camp began later that fall. Like his good friend Ewing, McDaniel’s preparation turned him into an instant success. He averaged 17.1 points and 8.0 rebounds as a starter during his rookie season. He was also named first-team All-Rookie and Basketball Digest co-Rookie of the Year, sharing the latter honor Karl Malone.
McDaniel quickly became a fan favorite. With his shaved head and intimidating scowl, McDaniel’s presence helped remake the pushover Sonics into a much more physical team. And while he rarely smiled during games, Xavier could hardly contain his joy when away from the court. Who could blame him? The man who grew up idolizing Dr. J was suddenly competing against him. The man who once fantasized about being Dandridge, Hayes and Unseld was playing in some of the same venues.
The Sonics improved during McDaniel's second season in the league, shocking the heavily favored Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. He turned in a 29-point gem in the deciding game. The once-downtrodden Sonics were now building on the foundation of McDaniel, sharpshooter Dale Ellis, and the versatile Tom Chambers. All three players would average more than 20 points-per-game during that 1986-87 season, a feat that they would duplicate a year later. He averaged 23.0 ppg and 8.6 rpg that second season, followed by 21.4 ppg and 6.6 rpg a year later. But when he finished with averages of 20.5 ppg and 5.4 rpg during the 1988-89 season, it became the opinion of some within Sonic management that the team had slipped. There were trade rumors – X was clearly one of Seattle’s most marketable players – followed by denials, as the Sonics stayed pat. A year later McDaniel’s numbers were up modestly, to 21.3 ppg and 6.5 rpg. Still, the team as a whole was spinning its wheels, unable to make major strides in the playoffs. Ownership demanded that changes be made. Chambers was eventually moved, and Shawn Kemp was drafted in the first round of the 1989 NBA Draft. McDaniel’s days in a Sonic uniform were numbered.
McDaniel played fifteen games for the Sonics during the 1990-91 season, before being traded to Phoenix. X proved less than a perfect fit for a Suns team that boasted Kevin Johnson, Chambers, Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle, and the following season found himself paired with good pal Ewing in New York. With a formidable frontline of Ewing, McDaniel and Charles Oakley, the Pat Riley-coached Knicks won 51 games before meeting Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The intense series went the distance, with Jordan & Co. prevailing in the seventh game.
McDaniel: "There ain't very many games that I said I couldn't get up and walk away from, but I was so sore after that one. It was so physical. It was a brutal war out there – the whole series was like that – but I felt like we should have won that series. We lost Game 1 in Chicago, but came back and took Game 2. Patrick had an unbelievable game. I just felt like we had championship potential, but we didn't get the job done when it counted. The Bulls won the series, and went on to win it all."
A contract dispute ended McDaniel's stay in New York after one season, and the unrestricted free agent was available to any team interested in his services. The Boston Celtics wasted little time making contact with the one-time rebounding king from Wichita State. The team liked his toughness, and desperately needed to fill the void created by Larry Bird’s retirement. McDaniel played three seasons for the Celtics, this at a time when the franchise was going through significant transition and tragedy. In addition to Bird’s exit, the remaining members of the Big Three – Kevin McHale and Robert Parish – were in serious decline. Reggie Lewis, the team’s newly anointed captain, would die of a heart attack following the 1992-93 season. It was a difficult three years for both McDaniel and the Celtics. He played hard, but the team was in constant flux. His skills were also on the downward slide, and in 1994-95 McDaniel registered career lows in games (68), points (11.3) and rebounds (4.4). Still, McDaniel’s contributions to the team remain admired by many. He was member of the last team to play in the fabled Boston Garden, and one of the last to play on the original parquet floor. He was a positive influence to the young players, both on and off of the court. He helped his teammates deal with the tragic death of Lewis, one of the most popular players in club history.
McDaniel played two more seasons following his stint with Boston, both with the New Jersey Nets, before retiring 20 games into the 1997-98 campaign. By then the league had become a far different place than it had been during McDaniel’s 1985 rookie season.. Dr. J was long gone, and both Bird and Magic were well into retirement. Michael Jordan was putting the capstone on a remarkable career, driving the Bulls toward a sixth NBA championship. Shorts were no longer short, tattoos were everywhere, and the players looked as if they had been transported from the NFL’s gridiron to the NBA’s hardwood. Hip-hop and gangsta-rap dominated locker rooms league-wide. McDaniel, of course, could be accused of starting any – or all – of these trends. He was tough, gritty, and ultra-urban. He played hard. He intimidated. He personified the street. But before you vilify McDaniel for any of this, remember that he played the game the way his idols had years earlier. Like Unseld, Dandridge and Hayes before him, X brought honor to his sport by busting his butt and battling under the boards, something that has been going on since the league was formed way back in 1946.
Celtic Nation is pleased to bring you this interview.
You were born on June 4th, 1963 in Columbia, South Carolina. Take me back in time – what was it like to be Xavier McDaniel as a child?
I’m the oldest of six kids. I have four sisters and one brother – Berline, Tracey, Wendy, Marva, and Carnlius. I’ve always been interested in basketball. When I was young I always played it, although I didn’t play organized basketball until about the seventh grade. Up until then it was always in the street. In the seventh grade I played for the Ben Arnold Boys Club in Columbia, South Carolina. That same year I got cut from the eighth grade team – the coach didn’t take seventh graders. You could go out, but he would tell you, ‘You’re probably gonna get cut if you’re a seventh grader, but if you want to go out for the team, then I gotta let you go out because those are the rules.’ [Laughs]. So he cut me, and I tried out with the Boys Club. That’s when I got my first MVP trophy – that was in 1976 – and I started playing from there.
I played organized baseball and football from the age of eight years old. Back then, basketball to me was just a hobby, because you either played baseball or football in the State of South Carolina. Basketball was just something to do in my spare time. When I was in the eighth grade I was only 5’10”, but I ended up growing from 5’10” to 6”7”.
You played high school ball at A.C. Flora. The school had one of the best records in the state during your senior season, with three players going on to play Division I college basketball. What stands out most about your high school career at A.C. Flora?
I went through some hard times in high school. I wasn’t doing my schoolwork, and I wasn’t doing the things necessary to be a student-athlete. I had a very good coach, and I thank God that I had him as a coach, because he could have been one of those coaches who kept his players eligible just to win basketball games. He told me that if I wanted to play on his team, then I had to do my schoolwork.
Basically I was on the team as a freshman, just playing scrub minutes, and then I was a starter as a sophomore. I didn’t play during my junior year because of my grades. I came back for my senior year mad, because I knew that I should have been a starter. I knew that I should have been on the All-Area Team, because at fifteen years old I was already a star in Columbia, South Carolina. Not being able to play my junior year motivated me, and was probably the reason I was able to have a senior season equal to any player in the state. I could match my stats up with anyone my senior year. I didn’t average a lot of points, but we had a lot of blowouts. We had Tyrone Corbin, who I think you’re probably familiar with. We always used to say that we wanted the game over in the first quarter, so a lot of times we would only play the first and third quarter. My stats were a little misleading because of all the blowouts. I averaged 18.8 points-per-game, and 14.4 rebounds-per-game, but, like I said, those numbers were only over two quarters.
We went on to win the state championship that season, and I was the MVP of the All-Star Game. I didn’t win the MVP award from the city – they gave that to another guy. He went to USC. He ended up being a good friend of mine, and whenever I see him I ask him if he still has my trophy [laughs].
We had a bunch of players go on to play Division I basketball. James Hillabran went to the University of Wisconsin. Robert Brannon played at Kent State. Tyrone went to DePaul. I went to Wichita State. Tony Ashley went to South Carolina State, and Tony Snooks went to Southern Illinois. Me, Snooks and Tyrone won it all during our senior season – as a matter of fact, Snooks is Troy Hudson’s stepfather. Troy played at Southern Illinois in the mid-90s, and now plays guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves. But we didn’t win the state championship my junior year. That’s the year we should have won it easily; we had a lot of blowouts, but the point guard got hurt and we only had one other point guard on the team. We didn’t have anybody to distribute the basketball. Same thing happened a year later. We started my senior season 0-3, basically because we were playing point guard by committee. That’s when we went and got one of my other friends from the neighborhood, and we said, ‘Look man, we need you.’ And after he joined the team, I think we ended up going 22-0. We only lost one more game after that 0-3 start, and we won the state championship.
Growing up, you idolized players such as Dr. J., Bob "Greyhound" Dandridge, Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Bobby Jones. Please tell me a little about each of these men – what parts of their game did you admire most?
You must have been doing your homework, because those are my men right there! As a player, I took a little something from all of those guys. Dr. J – I just wanted his jumping ability. Bobby Dandridge had the turnaround jump shot. Bobby and Big E [Elvin Hayes] both had that turnaround jumper. I started studying that shot, and I decided that I was going to master it. Bobby Dandridge used to shoot it when he was with the Washington Bullets and Milwaukee Bucks. The Big E – he used to get on that box, and then turn around and shoot on it. It was unstoppable. Wes Unseld was the rebounder. Him, and my man Moses Malone. Those were my guys as far as rebounding the basketball. They were the ones I idolized in high school and college. I can remember Moses telling everyone that all he did was rebound. That’s all he wanted to talk about. Wes Unseld was known equally for his rebounding, but he was also the master of the outlet pass. He would start the fast break. A lot of people don’t believe me, but if you go back and look, I was probably the second best outlet passer in the history of college basketball. I think Wes Unseld was the best, and I think I rank second best behind him. I could throw the two-hand outlet, or I could throw the one-hand baseball pass. And I could throw it on the money. Guys would break out, and I would hit them on the money. As for Bobby Jones, I admired his defense. I didn’t get a lot of credit for my defense, but I feel that I was a very good defensive player over the course of my career. For some reason I just didn’t get credit for my defense.
Like I said, you must have done your homework, because those are the guys that I’ve talked about. When it came to basketball, I just didn’t play it; I tried to sit back and study the game, too, and pick up as much as possible. And I tell people, my game is patterned after a whole lot of players. When Michael Jordan started shooting that turnaround jumper, people made a big deal out of it. But I was shooting that shot in college, and during my rookie year in the pros. Mike didn’t start shooting the turnaround jump shot until late in his career. He was a dunker first. Today, the Big Dog – Glen Robinson – uses it a little bit. Believe it or not, I first started shooting that shot as a kid. Over time, I was able to watch guys like Bobby Dandridge, and I was able to perfect it. I still tell people today, that if I have a chance to warm up, I can still make eight out of ten shots like that – as long as there’s no defense [laughs].
Another person who I borrowed from, but haven’t really talked about a lot, is Mike Mitchell. If you watch some of my moves, when I start one way and then step back, I picked that up from Mike. In college I just used to turn and shoot, but when I first entered the league I watched the way Mike Mitchell moved – and not only when I was guarding him on the court. I studied him from the bench. That was when he played for the San Antonio Spurs. And he just blew me away. He’d go right, and then they’d bump him and he’d stop, turn and go the other way. So one day I just went out and worked on that shot. That became a patented shot of mine. Before, I would just get it and then turn and shoot. Or maybe fade away. That’s what Bobby Dandridge and the Big E used to do. And then one day we just happened to be playing against San Antonio, and I was just blown away by what Mike Mitchell could do. So he helped take my game to a new level. From then on I was able to face up, and then have another move ready when my opponent started crowding me. I could act like I was going to drive, and then when they cut me off I could stop and take the shot. If you go back and watch some of the tapes of Mike Mitchell, and his turnaround jump shot, the way he would drive one way and spin back…if you cut him off going to the right, he would come back toward the lane and shoot the fade away jumper. If he was driving left and you cut him off, he would come back toward the baseline and shoot it. So I picked up that part of my game from Sam Mitchell.
Let's talk college. What led you to choose Wichita State?
I signed a letter of intent to play at Wichita State, and I stayed there for four years. I was almost set to sign with South Carolina, and one day I opened up the paper, and I saw where USC had signed six guys. They didn’t have anymore scholarships. At that time, I had struggled through two years of high school. I didn’t struggle because I didn’t know the material, I struggled because I didn’t do the work. Half of the time I didn’t go to class, and half of the time I didn’t do the work that was required. Like I said, my high school coach benched me during my junior year, and during the last half of my junior year I started to turn things around. By the end of my senior year I had pulled my GPA up to a 2.4, but USC used the excuse that I wasn’t getting my work done, and that if I went straight there I would probably flunk out. That’s when they started talking about prep school. And I was like, ‘Well, if you wanted me to go to prep school, then why didn’t you say that from day one? You knew my situation.’ Entering my senior year I had a 1.9 GPA, and the coaches at USC knew that. And if they didn’t want me to go to prep school then, why did they want me to go after I’d worked hard, done the work, and brought my GPA up to a respectable number? Just shoot straight with me. Once the school did that, I decided to go in another direction. My high school coach told me that I should have gone on some recruiting trips, because I had only take one recruiting trip, and that was to Ole Miss. I did not like Ole Miss, so I didn’t take any other trips. I was planning on going to USC.
Well, I went on some recruiting trips after I saw those signings in the paper. I went to Clemson on a recruiting trip, I went to Memphis State, and I went to Wichita State. This was in April of 1981. And when I went out Wichita, the coach asked me if I liked to dunk. I told him I loved to dunk. He asked if I could handle the ball. I told him I loved to dribble, but that my high school coach didn’t like me to dribble the ball a lot. And then he said that he liked a five-man fast break, and that if his big men could handle the rock they could keep it. And then he started showing me ally-oops, and I was just blown away. Wichita State just looked like a fun place to play.
I didn’t sign immediately. I went to Memphis State and did some illegal stuff from a recruiting standpoint – I’m sure it was a recruiting violation, but I didn’t have anything to do, and the guys took me to the gym and I played in a pickup game with the team. I didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t supposed to do that. The guys went back and told Dana Kirk, ‘ Man, this cat can play.’ Dana Kirk ask me if I was going to South Carolina. I told him that I hadn’t made up my mind. So they pursued me. For the most part, it all came down to my comfort level. Wichita State ran the ball. Memphis State ran the ball. I knew that South Carolina was out of the picture. And then rumors got out that I was going to Clemson, and then USC turned around at the last minute and tried to offer me a scholarship. It was tempting, because I’m a very big South Carolina fan – football and basketball.
It just got to the point where I had to make the decision. I didn’t settle on a school until a couple of days before my birthday, in June. Memphis State felt like a good fit. Wichita State was the same. And then one night I told my brother that I was going to Kansas. He asked if I was sure I wanted to go all of the way out there. The next day it was Memphis State. It just kept going back and forth, and then one day I just stuck with it. I told him that I was going to Wichita State. The next day I signed.
You were a consensus All-America at Wichita State. You were the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in both scoring and rebounding in the same season. You led the nation in rebounding twice. Of all these collegiate accomplishments, which means the most to you, and why?
When I tell you this, you probably won’t believe it. I know I made history with the scoring and rebounding titles, but it never really meant a lot to me because I didn’t win the NCAA championship. I believe that, one of these days, what I did in college is probably going to get me into the hall-of-fame. At least that’s what I think. I was one of 46 players to score 2,000 points in a collegiate career. I had over 1,000 rebounds. I don’t know where I rank now, but at one time I was the second all-time leading rebounder in college basketball history. I was second only to Wes Unseld. He had over 1,500 and I had 1,359. So I feel that what I did in college will probably get me into the hall-of-fame. But I didn’t win a championship. I won a Missouri Valley Conference championship, and a conference tournament championship, but I wasn’t able win the big one. Individual goals and accomplishments are okay, but they will probably mean more to my kids than they will ever mean to me.
I was talking to a friend the other day, and I realized that I’ve been out of basketball for eight years. Eight years! It also reminded me that I didn’t win a championship at the college and pro level. I’m happy with the way my career went – I put up some MVP numbers in NBA, even though I didn’t win an MVP award – but at the same time I’m sad because I didn’t win a championship. It doesn’t belittle what type of player I was, it’s just that I don’t have that ring to show that I was a part of championship team. I’ve got trophies from my time in the NBA – I was the league’s Player of the Month twice. I’ve got a lot of those types of things. I’ve got awards for my involvement in the community. And like I said, those things will probably mean more to my children. But for me, I will always choose team goals over individual goals. Those are more important to me.
The NBA instituted the Draft Lottery in 1985.You were the fourth overall selection in that draft, by the Seattle Supersonics. How has the draft changed since '85, and what were your thoughts about being drafted by the Sonics?
I was just happy, man. Patrick was sitting there – the chairs were in line, right there in Madison Square Garden, and Patrick’s name was called first. Wayman Tisdale’s name was called second. Benoit Benjamin was third, and I was sitting right there next to Benoit Benjamin. I was like, ‘Oh please call my name – please call my name.’ Because I didn’t want to be sitting there all alone. We all went in order. When David Stern called my name I was just thankful. I was thankful that I was able to do something for my family, and I’m not talking about me personally. People who know me, they know that I’ll come to the gym with some jeans and sneakers on. Nothing fancy. But it meant a lot to take care of my family, and to be able to do something that I loved. If my back and knees didn’t always hurt, I’d probably be doing it for free right now [laughs]. Playing NBA basketball was something that I would have done for free anyhow.
Still, basketball wasn’t always my first love. Baseball was my first love. Football was my second love, as far as actually playing, but it was probably my first love as far as watching. You know how they say, ‘I don’t like this record, but it grew on me.’ That’s how basketball was for me, because I was more of a football player, or a baseball player. If you would go to my neighborhood and talk to some of the people there, they would tell you that they thought I was going to be a baseball player. I was pitcher. I was a catcher. I played first base. I could play all of the positions, and I hit for power and average. But I ended up growing tall. So basketball kind of grew on me, and it grew on me to a point that I started loving it. Now I think it’s the best game. But as a kid it was just something to do. Down here, you had to play football. I promise you. There is no father who doesn’t have his son on the football field [laughs]. They play on Sunday, and the stands are packed – it looks like there’s an NFL game going on [laughs]. Football is loved down here. South Carolina went 0-11 in Lou Holtz’s first year down here, and there would be 83,000 people at the game. Every game.
You were an instant success, averaging 17.1 points and 8.0 rebounds as a starter during his rookie season. You were also named first-team All-Rookie, while Basketball Digest magazine named you co-Rookie of the Year. What are some of the things that stand out in your mind about your first season in the NBA?
I won the Basketball Digest co-Rookie of the Year with Karl Malone, and I won the Seagram’s NBA Rookie of the Year Award outright – I have a silver plate for winning that. And Patrick won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. I tell Patrick all the time to give me my damn trophy back [laughs]. He only played 50 games that year, and I played the whole season. Patrick and I are very good friends – we talk about once or twice a month – and when we talk I always tease him about winning that award. He’ll laugh and say, ‘Well, I put up numbers.’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, but you only did it for 50 games – I did it for 82 games, and that means I had 32 more chances to mess up.’ We joke a lot about that, but Patrick was a big superstar. He deserved the award, but I tell him that one of these days I’m gonna steal that trophy from him [laughs].
You came into the league during the Golden Age of Basketball, with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in their prime, and a young Michael Jordan on the rise. What was it like to face each of these players for the first time?
I had already played against Michael Jordan in the Pan-Am tryouts – we we were on the same team. So I was more afraid of Bird and Dr. J. When I went to Philadelphia, I was like, ‘Man, that’s Doc!’ So I asked the ball boy to go get Dr. J’s autograph. And then, in the game Doc goes up over me for an ally-oop dunk. It blew me away. Even at his age, the guy could still jump. He was probably a fifteen year veteran at that point in his career.
And then I went up against Larry Legend that first year. I said to myself, ‘Well, he can’t do anything more to me than he’s done to everybody else.’ Sure enough, he went out and torched me, too [laughs]. I remember a game, before Larry started having all of those back problems, and he was going up against Shawn Kemp. Larry had something like 40 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists. And he told Shawn Kemp, ‘I’m the best fucking player to ever play this game.’ And then he shot a three-pointer right in Shawn Kemp’s face. And I looked at Larry and thought, ‘You conceited bastard.’ But I looked forward to playing against guys like Larry, and James Worthy, because they forced you to be on top of your game. If you weren’t, then they were going to abuse you.
Today, you don’t always see the best players guarding each other. But when I played, I guarded Mike Mitchell. I guarded James Worthy. I guarded Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale. I guarded Charles Barkley, who was one tough mother. Now, a lot of times teams will try to protect their scorer. Back then, nobody could protect you, because guys were very skilled on both ends of the court. That’s the biggest difference between today’s kids and yesterday’s players. That’s the only thing – these kids today can play. It’s just that their skill level ain’t as good as the older players. If you watch a game today, you’ll see ESPN and TNT talk about how hot a player is during a game. And he may have only made 2 shots altogether. When I played, you were considered hot when you made six or seven shots in a row. You watch the ESPN highlights, and you think a guy was in the zone. You say, ‘Damn, he was killin’.’ And then you go look at the box score, and he was 7-for-25.
When I played, you didn’t have guys jumping directly from high school to the pros. That’s one reason we were more skillful. Dr. J, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson made an immediate impact on their teams, but they went to college before turning pro. There ain’t one kid coming out of high school to make that kind of difference, except LeBron James. And LeBron is a special case. Even Kevin Garnett struggled to put up numbers during his rookie season – he averaged under 11 points-per-game.
So for most players dreaming of the NBA, college is the best place to prepare. In the pros, you play so many games once the season starts that it’s hard to practice. Think about it: If you’re on an east coast team and you make one of those brutal trips out west, when are you going to have time to practice? The travel schedule is crazy. During the course of a week you look at your schedule and it says game, game, day off, game, game, day off, game. You don’t have time to practice. College gives you that time to practice and prepare. For the average player jumping from high school to the pros, it takes four or five years to really put it all together. And then you don’t know if the motivation is there, because they’ve already got their money. When I’m sitting around with my friends, drinking a cold beer and watching an NBA game on TV, I always tell them that I wouldn’t last as a NBA general manger because I wouldn’t draft a high school kid. I’d probably get fired [laughs]. Not that the kid couldn’t play. But nine times out of ten, he would stay with my team just long enough to sign a free agent deal somewhere else. Either that, or I’d be forced to trade him, like the Trailblazers did with Jermaine O’Neal. That’s a prime example. He barely played for Portland after coming directly out of high school, and then he moved on to Indiana and became an All-Star. My friends will say, ‘What about you, X? You played five years for the Sonics and then they traded you to Phoenix.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but they got something out of me.’ And they did. They got a lot out of me. They got over 8,000 points, and over 3,000 rebounds. What did Portland get out of Jermaine O’Neal while he was there?
During your second season in the league, the Sonics shocked the NBA by upsetting the highly favored Dallas Mavericks in the 1987 NBA Playoffs. You scored 29 points in the clinching game four win. Please take me back to that series.
They beat the hell out of us in Game 1. They beat us by 35 points that night. We went back and watched the film – Mark Aguirre was killing me. And when I say he was killing me, Mark Aguirre was the bully, and I was the nerd that he slapped around and stole lunch money from. So we changed our strategy. We put Tom Chambers on Aguirre, and I guarded Sam Perkins because I was a better trapper than Tom. Half of the time I’d be waiting on the trap, and Tom never would get down to help out. So we switched assignments, and we trapped Aguirre every time he touched the basketball. It took him completely out of the game, because he was so unselfish that he would just give up the ball. Once we realized that he was going to keep giving it up, and not even try to get around us or look to score, then we just kept doing it. So that forced everybody else to score. I think I had 28 points in Game 2, and I fouled out. Dale Ellis got fouled coming off the baseline and hit two big free throws to put us up with two seconds left. That gave us the split in Dallas.
I didn’t have a particularly good game in Game 3 – I think I was 4-for-14 from the field, but it didn’t matter because we won the game in a blowout. We had to make adjustments in that game as well, because Nate McMillan was having all kind of trouble with Derek Harper. Derek Harper was the other bully, beating up the other nerd. It was so bad that Nate couldn’t even bring the ball up the court. So they would pass me the ball, and I would bring it up the court and pass it off to Nate. I was used to dribbling. I could handle the ball. And that strategy did two things; it took the pressure off of Nate, and it put pressure on Mark Aguirre. Mark was a big man – 240 pounds – and he wasn’t used to pressuring the ball up the court. So that took it’s toll on him. Wore him down. I became a point forward, so to speak, and this was years before you heard people using that term. But it worked. Derek Harper had Nate so shook up. Nate and I took a look of the blame in Game 1, when the Mavericks kicked our ass, so it was good to turn the tables around on Mark Aguirre and Derek Harper.
I knew I was going to have a good Game 4, because I had a lot of bounce in my legs. I got to the arena earlier than normal – three hours instead of two – and I started shooting with one of the assistant coaches, Tom Newell. And I was hitting seven and eight in a row before I missed one. That was every time. I took close to 100 shots, and I probably made 90 of them. And I said, ‘Hold up, I’m shooting too fuckin’ good. I want to save some of this for the game.’ And I shot the hell out of it that night. The final score was 124-98, and it was one of the biggest wins in the history of the franchise. It was definitely the biggest win since the Sonics won it all in 1979. It was also a high-water mark in a way, because the team slowly started going downhill after that.
You were traded to the Phoenix Suns on December 7th, 1990. How hard was it to leave the team you called your own for more than five seasons, and what was like starting over in Phoenix?
It wasn’t a tough adjustment. Tom Chambers was in Phoenix, and he used to pick me up every day on the way to practice. The media would always start stuff, and write stuff, but me and Tom never had a problem. We may have had a problem on the court from time-to-time, but that’s only natural. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale used to have those type of on-court problems. You aren’t always gong to agree with what I do, and I’m not always going to agree with what you do. But me and Tom got along very, very well. When I got to Phoenix he just opened his arms to me. It just wasn’t a good fit on the court, because I was used to being a primary option – in other words, I was equal to Tom Chambers and Dale Ellis in our offensive schemes. The three of us averaged over 20 points-per-game in the same season. It worked because the coach did differentiate. While Tom and Dale might get the majority of the plays called, I was still free to do my thing. If I got the rebound, I could bring the ball up the court. Or if got open, I could take my shot. It the shot was there, and not forced, then I had the green light to shoot all night long.
When I got to Phoenix, they basically put me out there and told me to shoot jump shots. And that’s what I did. The rest of the time it was Tom and Kevin Johnson running screen-and-rolls. If you watch tape of the games back then, you’d see Tom and Kevin doing their thing on the screen-and-rolls, you’d see Mark West slashing to the basket, and you’d see Jeff Hornacek up top, shooting the three. Then, you’d see me in the corner shooting jumpers. That wasn’t my game. I wasn’t a spot-up shooter. It detracted from my strength – I was more of a slashing rebounder. I was better going to the glass and battling for the ball. Even at that, I think I averaged 15.8 points-per-game and over 7 rebounds-per-game. So I think I fit in well, but I felt like I was limited in what I could do. They didn’t want me to get the rebound, come up the court and take my man to the hoop. They wanted me to kick it to Kevin Johnson and let him go one-on-one.
I finished the season in Phoenix, but that was it for me. Pat Riley had just signed to take over the New York Knicks, and I think Pat Riley talked to Jerry Colangelo and Cotton Fitzsimmons. Basically, he told them that I would be a better fit in New York. So I guess they worked something out. I got back to Phoenix following a trip – my girlfriend and I had been driving, and we were going through some places where the phone didn’t work that well. Jerry and Cotton were looking for me. I explained that I’d just gotten back into town. They sat me down and told me that I’d been traded. I made a couple of phone calls, and then I jumped on a plane and flew to New York.
You played in New York during the 1991-92 season, winning 51 games and beating the Bad Boys of Detroit in the opening round of the playoffs. Next came a Game 7 loss to the Chicago Bulls. Just how intense was that series?
Very intense. There aren’t very many games that I’ve said I couldn’t get up and walk away from, but it was a brutal war out there. It was such a physical game. It was a series that we should have won. We went into Chicago, had a sixteen point lead, and lost Game 1. We jumped on them in Game 2, but we were able to hang on for the win. Patrick Ewing had an unbelievable game. At that time, I just felt that we had the best frontline in basketball. Ain’t no doubt about it, I would have taken Patrick Ewing over any center out there at that time. I loved The Dream [Hakeem Olajuwon] – he was a great guy. But I love Patrick Ewing. I’ve always thought of him as the best of his generation. And then we had Charles Oakley and myself. So I think we had the best frontline in the NBA. And we had other parts, too. We had Mark Jackson, Gerald Wilkins, and John Starks. I just thought we had championship potential. Even in training camp I could tell that this was the most talented team that I’d ever been on. Gerald Wilkins could shoot, but he could play defense. Mark Jackson – everybody talked about how slow he was, but he was smart and he played defense. Oakley played defense. Patrick and I played defense. And we held a lot of teams under their scoring average, but we didn’t get the job done against Chicago.
It was a disappointing season in a lot of respects, especially when you looked at talent on that team. I got caught up in a contract squabble in January of that 1991-92 regular season, and the team basically stopped playing me. They cut my minutes way down. We had a twelve game lead on Boston at that point in time, and management was sure that we were going to win the Atlantic Division. There was just over twenty games left, and I think Larry Bird and the Celtics went 20-for-21 over that stretch. They were hot, and they ended up winning the division. During this time the Knicks were forced to play me despite the contract issue. Back then we played five games against Boston, and they won all three in the Boston Garden. They won the series and the division, even though both teams won 51 games that year. I felt we should have won the division hands down, but Ernie Grunfeld and Dave Checkett let my contract get in the way.
I was the second player in NBA history to implement a contract buyout – Adrian Dantley was the first. When I bought my contract out, the Knicks just stopped playing me. My average dropped from 18 points-per-game to 13. The Knicks kept trying to work on another contract, but I told them I’d wait and try free agency. Anyway, I think that some of this was a distraction to the team – not to take anything away from Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, because they won the series on the court. It was just unfortunate timing.
From New York it was on to Boston, during some of the darkest days in franchise history. Following a 48-34 regular season, the Celtics lost 3-1 against the young Charlotte Hornets. Tragedy would strike later that summer, as Reggie Lewis collapsed and died from a heart attack. Please tell me about Reggie the person, and Reggie the basketball player.
Very good person. Me and Reggie would eat dinner together on the road. He was a great guy. I’d go to his room and talk to him, and we really got along great. My girlfriend at the time, Michelle, invited Reggie and his wife down to South Carolina for my thirtieth birthday party. That was in June of ‘93, and Reggie died at the end of July. He was a great leader – when they took me out of the starting lineup, Reggie stood beside me and lobbied for them to put me back into the starting lineup. That meant a lot, because it was my first year with the Boston Celtics and I was the new guy on the block. I told Chris Ford that I didn’t mind coming off of the bench – I’m a team player – but Reggie was my advocate. Reggie and I also worked well together; we had a play we called ‘2-Turnover-3’. If he went over the top I’d look to get him the ball, or if he went to the bottom I’d feed it to him…or he’d fade to the corner. It just depended on what the defense did. We had to identify what was going on, because it was just something that the two of us ran.
Reggie was just a great guy – a community-minded guy. He would get out there, and it didn’t matter what it was; if someone asked him to help with a worthy cause then Reggie would be right there in the middle of it. I just sat in bed and cried when I heard the news that he had died. It hurt a whole lot. And when I say I sat in my room and cried, I mean it. I cried for a long time.
One May 5, 1995 – ten years ago today – you played in the last game ever held in the fabled Boston Garden. What was it like to play there, and what was the mood like for that last game?
Let me tell you something: I loved the fans in the Boston Garden. I may not have always liked everyone who worked at the Boston Garden, but man, those are the best fans in the world. I love the Boston Celtic fans. They supported me like I was there my whole career. I don’t care what anybody says about the fans in Boston. People say they’re spoiled with all of those championships, but I wish that I had been able to help them win another title. And I hope that they end up winning two or three more before I die [laughs]. If you’ve never played for the Celtics you don’t understand. If you play for another NBA team you just don’t get what the fans in Boston are all about. I’d go to the games and they’d treat me great. I’d go out to dinner, or go shopping on Newbury Street, and the fans would just treat me like royalty. They’d know my situation. They’d say, ‘I don’t understand why you’re not playing, Mr. McDaniel. You work so hard!’ Or they’d say, ‘ Give Mr. McDaniel what he wants, and put it on my bill!’ It was like being a rock star [laughs]. Seriously, I got a lot of support. Basketball-wise, sports-wise, Boston is a great town to play in. I had a great time there. I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Jan Volk and M.L. Carr, but Dave Gavitt was a great guy. He’s the one who brought me to Boston. But in the end, it just didn’t work out as far as winning that championship. I think a lot of that had to do with the death of Reggie Lewis. It really hurt that franchise. It was a sad thing, but there is a saying that great people sometimes have to leave this earth a little earlier than others. I think that was the case with Reggie.
You played against Bird, and played with the two other members of the Big Three. What was it like to play with Robert Parish and Kevin McHale?
I love Robert Parish, man. He’s a character, and fun to have around. People will ask why he’s so quiet, and I just tell them that that’s his demeanor. But he’s the nicest person that you could ever want to meet. If you ever want to know where you stand with Robert you just go up to him and ask. If he thinks you’re an asshole, he’ll tell you that you’re an asshole. But if he really likes you, he will sit down and talk to you for hours on end.
Great competitor. I used to always mess with him about his stretching. I’d say, ‘How in the world can your old ass get down there like that? I’m ten years younger than you and I can’t get down there!’ And he’d say, ‘You’d better stretch, or you’ll feel it when you get old’. He’s a great guy [laughs]. A true professional.
Kevin McHale – he’s like me. He’s a clown, who likes to have fun. He doesn’t take anything serious unless he’s going to play basketball. Everything’s a joke. He’d ride the bicycle on Thursday and say, ‘I don’t think I’m going to practice anymore this week. I’ll probably come back on Monday.’ But me and Kevin are very similar – we don’t get serious about much of anything, unless it’s basketball. He’s done a great job with Minnesota, so I take my hat off to him. Robert and Kevin were great teammates.
Everyone who has played for the Celtics seems to have a favorite story about the great Red Auerbach. What was it like to meet him for the first time, and do you have a story that stands out?
Yes – When I visited Boston as a free agent. Red laid the numbers out on the table and showed me what they had. He said, ‘We know you’re worth more than this. But this is all we’ve got, Xavier. Being a Celtic is more than money. And now that we have our offer on the table, you ain’t leaving this room until we have an answer.’ I’ll tell you, I had to ask him to leave the room. I told him I wanted to make one phone call. I didn’t want to call my girlfriend. I didn’t want to call my momma. I told [agent] David Faulk that I just needed to call one person, because this one person will tell me if I’m gong to sign this contract. And I called Patrick Ewing. I said, ‘Man, Red Auerbach has got me cornered in this room. If you tell me not to sign it, and you tell me to talk to New York again, then I won’t sign it.’ And Patrick more-or-less said, ‘Look, the Knicks know the Celtics want to sign you. You need to do what’s right for you.’ So Red came back in and said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I told him that I still wasn’t sure, and he said, ‘Well, you’re not leaving this room, big fella, until we have an answer one way or the other.’ I thought about it for ten or fifteen minutes, and then I signed the contract. He shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome to the Celtics family. When you become a Celtic, you become a Celtic for life.’ He told me that the door would always be open as long as he was alive. Red’s a great guy. I’d always sit down and listen to him when he’d come to practice and tell his stories. He’d always have advice for me. I’d listen. He has a great knowledge of basketball, and he’s been a winner all of his life. How could you not listen to a guy like him? So it was cool. I had a great time with Red, and I had a great time meeting some of the older players that had played for the team, like Bill Russell and Bob Cousy.
Your coach with the Celtics was Chris Ford. Please tell me a little about Chris.
Very smart man, good coach. He was hired with the team in decline – the Big Three were no more, because Bird had retired. Reggie died after his first year coaching the team. It was just a bad time to be the coach of the Boston Celtics. He did the best with what he had, but things were starting to go downhill and the team wasn’t doing a good job of building back through the draft. They picked some guys that just didn’t work out. But Chris knows his basketball. He’s done well with other teams.
Let's talk life after basketball. What have you been up to in the years since retiring from the NBA?
I basically lived off of what I made those first few years. I didn’t do a whole lot of anything. I was careful with my money – you ask Robert Parish about me and he’ll say, ‘That cheap bastard!’ [Laughs]. But after basketball I just chilled. Then I got into buying homes with a friend. We’d fix them up and resell them. Then I branched out on my own. I started building homes – I’ve been doing that for about nine months now. I’ve got one house up and sold, I’ve got two more that are 95% complete, and I’ve got three more in the works. Of those three, I’ve got one of them already sold. I think I’ll do this another eight years before I retire again, which is when I can start collecting that little pension that the NBA gives us.
My company’s name is ’34 X-man’. I don’t really buy homes and fix them up anymore. I buy the lots, come in with a crew, and build them from the ground up. I go into neighborhoods where lots haven’t been built on, and I try to buy those lots. That’s when I come in with my crew. We do the foundation, and framing, and everything like that. I’m enjoying the hell out of it.
Final Question: You’ve achieved great success in your life. You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA. If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?
Work hard. Be determined. Never give up. It’s easy to give up, but it’s hard to be successful.