Throughout the 1990s and beyond, the Seattle SuperSonics have been dominated by a man who can be recognized from only two letters – GP. But before Gary Payton left his mark on the city of Seattle, he was preceded by a one-lettered superstar: X. One of the most popular players in Sonics history, forward Xavier McDaniel was a high-scoring, high-flying star at forward for the Sonics from his selection with the fourth pick in the 1985 NBA Draft to his December 7, 1990 trade to the Phoenix Suns for forward Eddie Johnson. McDaniel spent a half a season in Phoenix, one in New York, three in Boston and, after a year overseas, two more with New Jersey. Out of all those NBA stops, however, Seattle remains the nearest to McDaniel’s heart. It’s, “home base,” McDaniel says, noting that he has maintained two homes, one in Seattle and one in his native South Carolina.
McDaniel, who retired after the 1997-98 season, recently returned to the spotlight when he appeared, along with fellow former NBA players Detlef Schrempf, Muggsy Bogues, Moses Malone, Bill Laimbeer and George Gervin in a series of commercials for IBM. The commercials, which used basketball as a metaphor for the demands of e-business, had McDaniel representing “Middleware” as the ‘unsung hero’ of the team. He denied that the role had any particular meaning to his playing career, though after starring as a 20-point per game scorer for the Sonics, McDaniel served as a valuable role player off the bench. “If you had to do your takes too many times, the players started getting on you,” he recalls of the experience. “But other than that, it was cool.”
Besides for the commercials, McDaniel has found a number of other ways to stay busy following his playing career. He’s recently been in South Carolina serving as spokesperson for a program called “A Better Way” while also working with a friend to renovate and resell houses. “And,” he adds, “crying because the stock market’s not doing good.”
Once upon a time, the only ones crying were McDaniel’s opponents. Playing collegiately at Wichita State, McDaniel dominated, becoming the first player to ever lead the NCAA in both scoring (27.average) and rebounding (14.8 average) during his senior season. McDaniel was a consensus first-team All-American that year and was twice named Missouri Valley Conference player of the year.
It was with great excitement, then, that the Sonics took McDaniel with the fourth pick of the 1985 NBA Draft. Fans attending a party at the Westin Hotel cheered the selection, despite the fact that the Sonics passed on hometown hero Schrempf, who had played at the University of Washington and was taken eighth by Dallas. McDaniel was an instant success, averaging 17.1 points and 8.0 rebounds as a starter during his rookie season. He was named first-team All-Rookie and Basketball Digest magazine named him co-Rookie of the Year with New York’s Patrick Ewing.
The following season, 1986-87, the Sonics teamed McDaniel and Tom Chambers with guard Dale Ellis and their high-scoring triumvirate of stars was set. All three averaged over 23 points per game that season, as the Sonics improved by eight games to a 39-43 record and made the playoffs. There, the Sonics stunned the world by upsetting the highly favored Dallas Mavericks as McDaniel scored 29 points in the clinching game four win. Seattle would go on to defeat the Houston Rockets before finally falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, four games to none.
At the time, it appeared that the Sonics – with McDaniel as one of the key pieces – had arrived as a championship contender. But while the team was better in 1987-88, winning 44 games in the regular season, they were dropped from the playoffs by the Denver Nuggets three games to two in the first round. McDaniel saw his own averages slip to 21.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, the beginning of a gradual decline. The following season saw the Sonics bump up to a 47-35 record and an appearance in the second round of the playoffs, but McDaniel’s role was slightly decreased and he averaged 20.5 points and only 5.3 rebounds.
The next season was truly the beginning of the end. While McDaniel picked up his play, averaging 21.3 points and 6.5 rebounds, the Sonics slipped to 41-41 and did not make the playoffs. After the year, Seattle selected power forward Shawn Kemp in the first round of the Draft. With Kemp the future starter at power forward and Derrick McKey the future at small forward, McDaniel’s place with the Sonics was no longer secure.
After the Sonics lost six straight games to drop to a disappointing 4-10 early in the 1990-91 season, it was clear to all involved that changes needed to be made. McDaniel was the first to go, being traded on December 7 to the Phoenix Suns for small forward Eddie Johnson and two future first-round draft picks. Ellis later followed him out of Seattle and the Sonics also traded for center Benoit Benjamin for three major in-season deals.
To McDaniel, the move was disappointing but necessary. “It was very difficult,” he recalls. “Our team just fell apart.” Despite getting the opportunity to go to a contending Suns team, McDaniel hated to leave Seattle. “I felt like I wanted to be a Sonic forever. I think any time you get traded, it is gonna hurt. But then you have to move on.” Though McDaniel has certainly come to terms with the trade, he is still disappointed by how it occurred. “I talked to Bob Whitsitt and he looked me in the face and said he wasn’t trying to trade me. . . . Management told me they weren’t gonna trade me and then about a week later I was traded.”
As he reflects back on his career in retirement, McDaniel has started to wonder what could have been. “I say, ‘Man, if it weren’t for Magic, maybe the Sonics would have won a couple more.’” Despite that fact, he’s grateful for the opportunity he did have to play in the NBA and with the Sonics. “I’m just happy God blessed me,” he says. “Just having talent and being able to play basketball.” McDaniel’s career was about far more than talent, however, and he addresses this when asked what he hopes fans remember him for. “That’s all I want to be remembered as. A person who played hard. A person who played for the love of the game.” McDaniel was that and much more in Seattle, where he is and will always be “The X-Man”.