The Xavier McDaniel Interview
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.”