'The Legend of Swee' Pea': Film Review

Courtesy of Dan Levin/Norshor Lights/1091
A first-person tale of self-defeat.
4/14/2020

Benjamin May's debut spends time with a basketball player, Lloyd Daniels, who once looked destined for greatness.

"He knows what he does, but he ain't got no clue who he is": The opening quote in Benjamin May's The Legend of Swee' Pea pretty well sums up the tone of a doc about a basketball player who let success slip away from him. Lloyd Daniels, who as a teen drew comparisons to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other greats, was so attractive to college coaches that he wound up sneaking into a university without a high school degree. But a drug bust before he played his first game was just one of many obstacles to an NBA career. May, a radiologist making his directing debut, spends ample time with his now middle-aged subject, offering a sympathetic but clear-eyed view whose intimacy compensates to some degree for less-than-compelling storytelling.

Daniels lost his mother at 4 and lost his father in the following years to grief and alcoholism. He lived shuttling between the homes of two grandmothers, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens. One of those neighborhoods steered Daniels down rough paths, and the boy aged out of high school without ever passing a class.

Yet while he was barely attending school, college scouts came courting, pampering him in ways that surely contributed to his later difficulty making responsible decisions. "He learned to take advantage of people that were taking advantage of him," says Las Vegas lawyer David Chesnoff, who would come to know Daniels intimately, coming to his rescue when college basketball abandoned him. Having signed at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas to play under coach Jerry Tarkanian, he convinced observers he'd soon be a star; before he'd officially started, though, Daniels was arrested at a crack house and kicked off the team.

At this point, the film has shown how ill-suited Daniels was to cope with being treated like the next big thing, but it hasn't really captured why people were so excited in the first place. We see nearly no footage of him on the court, and hear mostly vague (if effusive) talk about his prowess. The years after his arrest didn't help his skills: He cycled between professional opportunities and relapses, gaining weight. By the age of 19, he was back in New York and smoking crack daily. One day he tried to steal eight dollars' worth from the wrong dealers, and got himself shot several times.

The story briefly looks hopeful when, after a serious bout of rehab and a marriage to a supportive wife, Daniels signed with the San Antonio Spurs. Spurs star David Robinson, who says there was "nobody like him," is one of several interviewed here who attest to the fact that, even in a diminished state, he was a great talent. He describes him as "a kid in a man's body," a self-sabotaging charmer who made everyone root for him. Daniels' Spurs career was cut short when he backslid into drinking, and he played for six teams in the next six years.

Daniels is an enthusiastic chronicler of his own downfall, recalling in a raspy voice the points at which his story might've gone differently. These days, he coaches high school-age players. He seems to have quashed some of his more destructive habits; but May includes many voicemails in which Daniels tries to guilt the filmmaker into giving him money or doing favors. Being a self-sufficient adult seems never to have suited him, and if he'd stayed clean long enough to become famous, maybe money and enablers could have kept him afloat. Instead he's a "legend" among those who saw him on neighborhood ball courts and a cautionary tale for everyone else.

Production company: Norshore Lights
Distributor: 1091 Media (Available Tuesday, April 14, on digital and on-demand)
Director: Benjamin May
Producers: Benjamin May, Daniel B. Levin, Karl Hollandt, Annemarie Lawless
Executive producers: Carmelo Anthony, Joel Pitkin, James C. Hays
Director of photography: Daniel B. Levin
Editor: Giovanni P. Autran
Composers: Philip Quinaz, Sean Marquand

80 minutes