“The Legend of Swee’ Pea” is thornier than a conventional sports biography, mainly because of the figure it chronicles, the basketball player Lloyd Daniels. Daniels’s life — starting with a difficult upbringing, getting passed through the New York City educational system, and drug and alcohol abuse — has had so many wild swings and second chances that it’s tempting to leave them unspoiled. It is not even clear that Daniels has fully resolved his troubles at the point when the film ends. (With a 2016 copyright, the documentary is itself a few years out of date.)
Daniels, who spent his childhood shuttling between Queens and Brooklyn, was a star high school player in the 1980s but never graduated. (A principal, Saul Lerner, says that Daniels probably “aged out of high school without a single credit.”) He got a chance to enroll at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, regardless, but was barred from playing after an arrest on drug charges before he joined the team. He was shot multiple times in 1989 and survived — and then made it to the N.B.A., where he played, at first for the San Antonio Spurs, in the 1990s. But David Robinson, who was his teammate for a time, and the coach John Lucas, among others, make it clear that his lack of discipline posed a problem more than once. It is also clear that, more than once, raw talent carried Daniels through.
“The Legend of Swee’ Pea” trails the player in recent years. He takes the opportunity to pay tribute to various mentors, including Lucas and, in particular, another coach, Jerry Tarkanian, who helped him through rough patches. Raspier-voiced than in footage from his teenage years, Daniels revisits the house where he was arrested in Las Vegas in a sting operation and reflects on the incident as a moment when he went down a wrong path. Even so, life hasn’t been straightforward for him. In the contemporary footage, Daniels is shown coaching youth basketball and is described as a successful family man. (He says his ex-wife, whom he indicates did not want to be in the film, did “a good job with my kids.”)
Throughout “The Legend of Swee’ Pea,” we hear voicemails that Daniels has left the director, Benjamin May. He asks the filmmaker for money and at one point suggests that May is trying to exploit him. These voicemails contrast jarringly with the more optimistic, reflective Daniels we see in interviews, in which he speaks frankly about his “nine lives” and his efforts at recovery.
As absorbing as “The Legend of Swee’ Pea” is, it might have been even better if May had pulled back the curtain more on his off-camera interactions with his subject. After all, seeing how Daniels approached starring in a film about his life is now part of that life story.
The Legend of Swee’ Pea