The little boy stepped into the gym nervous, tense, afraid. When the camp director dropped to his knees to give him a hug, the 8-year-old boy turned his head, unable to look at former San Antonio Spurs guard, Antonio Daniels, in the eye.
The basketball court stirred painful memories. In another gym, Dean Lara had been bullied, and not just once. Relentless physical and verbal abuse left deep emotional scars. He became quiet, withdrawn, and quit playing basketball, a sport he once loved. Eventually, Lara was hospitalized with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Crystal Lara took her son to Daniels’ basketball camp last summer, hoping for a spark of encouragement, an emotional lift. After one week, she got much more.
“He was a different kid by day five,” Crystal said. “He wanted to go back to playing basketball and playing sports.”
Daniels runs an unconventional camp. He teaches basketball fundamentals, offers life lessons, opens and closes each day with prayer, and attempts to improve the confidence and self-worth of his campers. One highlight: Daniels delivers an inspirational “Word of the Day,” which he sometimes draws from his 14 seasons in the NBA. He does not measure success in skill development but in personal growth.
“If you leave this camp and you are the same child as when you arrived,” Daniels said, “I failed you.”
The 16th annual Antonio Daniels Basketball camp begins June 12 at Cornerstone Christian School’s Warrior Arena. The first camp drew approximately 80 boys and girls. The camp in 2016 attracted 200. Dean plans to attend again. Crystal will make sure of it.
She watched her son change, little by little, throughout the week, right before her eyes. Daniels connected with Dean the first day. He bent over and made a promise: “You don’t have to worry. Nobody is going to mess with you at this camp.”
Crystal, 30, offers photographic proof of Dean’s change. On the first day of camp, she captured an image of Daniels embracing Dean, her son guarded, arms stiff at his side. On the last day, she photographed Dean with both arms around Daniels. “From those two pictures,” she said, “you can see the difference.”
Before he was drafted by Vancouver in 1997, Daniels considered a career in teaching. He enjoyed interacting with children and thought he could shape and influence young lives. During his four-year stint with the Spurs, from 1998-2002, Daniels opened his first camp. “The NBA gives you a bigger platform,” he said, “and a bigger responsibility.”
Daniels retired six years ago, but like a lot of former players, wanted to stay close to the game. For Daniels, who loves to talk, that meant broadcasting. A natural, he worked for ESPN SA Radio and in 2015 was named Radio Personality of the Year by San Antonio Magazine.
That same year, Daniels joined the Oklahoma City Thunder broadcast crew in the studio. He also serves as an analyst for SiriusXM NBA Radio.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s right in my wheelhouse. I have always loved to speak but now I get to analyze something I am passionate about. This is just enough to keep me around the game.”
Daniels brings his verbal gifts to camp. Once, he delivered an impromptu “Word of the Day” about an absent camper, who was battling cancer. Daniels told the children and parents how easy it is to take their health for granted, and that they should appreciate their ability to run, play, and exercise. By the time he finished his message on “appreciation,” parents were in tears. They told Daniels it was exactly what they needed to hear.
“The No. 1 thing I enjoy most about the camp is the feedback,” Daniels said. “And the respect. I’m not an NBA player anymore. I haven’t played since 2011. But the way the kids and their parents hone in and laser focus on the message, it does wonders for me. To meet kids years after they went to camp and tell me a ‘Word of the Day’ or something a counselor said that really and truly impacted their lives, there is nothing better to hear than that.”
After last year’s camp, Crystal stayed in touch with Daniels. A friendship formed. Good news unfolded at home and at school. Dean carried himself with confidence. He smiled. He became more outgoing and started playing basketball again – at the very court where he had been bullied.
Last week, Dean, now 9, cleaned up at the awards assembly at school. He earned a medal for making the A-B honor roll all year. He received a “Leader of the Week” award and another award for being “An Outstanding Teacher Helper.”
His writing and creativity were also recognized. “His teacher,” Crystal said, “gave him the award for ‘Most Likely to Write an Oscar-Winning Screenplay.’”
Dean just finished third grade and knows how to put words to an experience. What did last year’s camp mean to him?
“It meant making the impossible possible,” he said, smiling. “And although it was hard work, it was worth it.”