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For Troy Daniels, this NBA season has been a 'roller-coaster ride'

For Troy Daniels, this NBA season has been a 'roller-coaster ride'

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This has been a season that Troy Daniels will never forget.

“No question about it,” he said Thursday in a phone interview from his Los Angeles condo.

The William Fleming High School and VCU graduate spent the first 4 ½ months of the NBA season playing for one of the league’s best teams — the L.A. Lakers. The backup guard was a teammate of the NBA’s biggest star, LeBron James.

He grieved with his teammates when former Lakers great Kobe Bryant died.

Daniels had no guarantees that he would still be with the Lakers come playoff time. So last month, Los Angeles agreed to waive him. He joined another contender — the Denver Nuggets.

But he played in just one game for his new team before the NBA season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was definitely a roller-coaster ride, this whole season,” Daniels, 28, said. “I went through a lot with the Kobe thing and being a part of the Lakers organization and then me getting moved from a championship-caliber team to another championship-caliber team. That was just a lot for me anyway.

“Then once the coronavirus thing hit, it’s like, ‘Wow, so much stuff happening this year. It’s kind of crazy.’ ”

‘Unbelievable feeling’

When Daniels was a VCU freshman, he had posters of James and Bryant on the wall of his dorm room.

Last summer, he signed a one-year, $2.1 million contract with the Lakers. Los Angeles became the sixth NBA team for Daniels, who made his NBA debut in the 2013-14 season.

But this was not just any squad. The Lakers are one of the NBA’s flagship organizations.

“It’s something that you always dream about as a little kid,” Daniels said. “For you to actually be there in the midst of those greats and being in that type of organization, it was an unbelievable feeling each and every day.

“The Lakers organization ran totally different than a lot of organizations as far as the way they catered to the players, the way the players have a say-so in everyday stuff that we do. … The type of media attention that you get when you’re with that organization is unbelievable.

“All the way to the chefs — the food was great. We’re having lobster and steaks after games. Staying over in different cities [after games] when other teams would just fly out that night.”

The Lakers boasted not only James but also Anthony Davis. They won 17 of their first 19 games.

“Game six or seven, we knew, … ‘We have something special,’ ” Daniels said. “Everybody at that moment was playing really well and we were getting along very well, but we also had two of the best players in the league. … That’s a recipe for another championship.

“To know that you’re a part of something like that is something that you didn’t want to take for granted, so everybody would come in every single day working their tails off.”

James set the tone.

“He’s the first person in the gym every morning, and he’s the last person to leave the gym every day,” Daniels said. “It’s unbelievable, the type of work that he puts in.

“If you had told me I’d be playing with LeBron James when I was a freshman at VCU, I would’ve told you you’re crazy. When you’re in that locker room and when you’re actually on that court playing with him, … that’s crazy.”

Daniels also got to know the personal side of James.

“He’s obviously a huge icon, but he’s also a fun, normal guy,” Daniels said. “He loves music, he loves to have fun and joke.”

Daniels clicked with the entire team.

“The bond that we created this season with the Lakers was something that I’ve never seen before,” he said. “We went to the movies together. We went to dinner together. We had a group [text] chat that we ran; we talked every single day. … We all felt like brothers.”

Down days

Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26.

The Lakers were on their team plane, flying back from a game at Philadelphia, when they heard the shocking news.

“A lot of people didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it,” Daniels said. “We got on our phones. … [Lakers coach] Frank Vogel came down the aisle and told everybody it was true.”

Daniels said that when he was younger, he always tried to learn what Bryant did to improve so that he could do the same.

“I felt like I was one of those chosen ones that could score the ball at a high level, and he was one of them, too,” Daniels said.

Daniels later played against Bryant in the NBA.

The days and weeks after Bryant’s death were tough on Daniels.

“I was always down when I walked in [the Lakers’ facility] after the tragedy happened,” Daniels said. “You’re walking in the midst of Kobe Bryant and everything he stood for. … Everything that was instilled in me, even when I grew up watching basketball — Kobe Bryant was the ultimate competitor. When you walked in, you felt that.

“It was just very down, even the whole city of L.A. You’d see Kobe jerseys hanging up, or people had jerseys in the cars in the windows.

“Every day it felt like a down moment when you’d come to the gym.”

Daniels is the father of a 4-year-old girl.

“I took it very hard maybe for like a week, … more so for him just being a dad,” Daniels said. “It really touched you in a different way if you’re a father. That’s what really hurt me the most, knowing that his daughter was involved in the crash as well.”

Daniels attended the public memorial service for Kobe and Gianna Bryant on Feb. 24.

“Everybody was feeling the pain for [Bryant’s widow] Vanessa and Kobe’s family,” Daniels said. “It was something I’ll never forget.”

Hard decision

Daniels averaged 4.2 points and 11.1 minutes in 41 games with the Lakers.

He appreciated that Vogel would talk to him about his role, and considers Vogel “a hell of a coach.” But he wished he could have played more.

“I could have been used a little bit better and in a little bit different way,” Daniels said. “As a basketball player and as a competitor and as somebody who works their tail off every single day, I feel like I’ve earned the right to say that.

“Obviously, I could have played better in the time that I got.”

Under NBA rules, if a player is cut after March 1, he can sign with a new team but would not be eligible to play in the playoffs that year for his new team.

In late February, Daniels’ agent checked with Lakers officials. He knew there was always the possibility that the Lakers could indeed cut Daniels after March 1 to make room on the roster for some veteran free agent who had been cut loose.

“[The Lakers said,] ‘We don’t know if we’re going to cut Troy or not. We love him, we want to keep him on the team, but there is a chance that could happen. And we wouldn’t want him to not be able to be on a playoff team,’ ” Daniels said. “So they gave me the chance to go out and find teams. There were five or six teams very interested … We found a team [Denver] that was ready to go and we went to the Lakers.

“I had the choice to leave the Lakers or I had the choice to stay. … I actually called LeBron, I called A.D., and I got their input. They basically said, ‘Make the best decision for you and your career.’ ”

It was one of the hardest decisions of his life, said Daniels.

“Nobody wants to leave the Lakers. Nobody wants to leave that type of organization, especially when you’re winning. You feel like you’ve got a team that can win a championship, so I almost stayed,” he said.

“But I made a decision to go to the No. 2 or No. 3 team in the [Western Conference]. It was just to have something guaranteed to where I know I’m good in the playoffs — because that’s where you make your name, that’s where you make your money.

“I’ll still be in the NBA, I’ll still be on a top-three team in the West, … and … I can get another $500,000 if I go to Denver. So I felt like it was a no-brainer at that point.”

On March 1, the Lakers waived Daniels. Later that week, he signed a $500,000 deal with Denver for the rest of the season.

Giving back

Daniels played in his first game with the Nuggets on March 9.

On March 11, the NBA suspended its season after learning Utah’s Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We were actually on the court, still playing [against Dallas]. I think our trainer got a phone call during the game and he said the season had been postponed,” Daniels said. “From that moment on, we were like, ‘Wow, we know [now] this is very serious.’ ”

Daniels was not among the NBA players who were tested for COVID-19.

Roanoke City Schools announced on Twitter this month that Daniels had donated $3,000 to help the school system feed children on the weekends during the pandemic.

“I’m always trying to give back to the community, back where I came,” he said. “If I’m not able to give my time, then I’ll try to give something else. … When I hear about a crisis in the world, I think about my hometown.

“Giving back to kids is something I like doing anyway.”

It remains to be seen when NBA teams will return to action. Would Daniels be worried when he has to get back on the court?

“To a certain extent, but I know the NBA and the [National Basketball] Players Association wouldn’t put us in harm’s way,” he said. “If there’s even the slightest chance somebody can catch corona again while we’re playing, then I know it won’t happen.”

Daniels has been visiting a gym three times a week to lift weights.

“They only let a few people in,” he said.

But his condo does not have a hoop out front, so Daniels has not been putting up shots.

Not that the 3-point ace is worried about losing his touch.

“I was born to be a shooter,” he said. “I don’t think that’s something you can lose.”

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Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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