15-year-old Travis Daniels had spent most of his life in Eutaw, Alabama, a small town in the relative nowhere 25 miles outside of Tuscaloosa most widely known for its popular bingo hall, The Green Track. The fifth-youngest of seven children, Daniels never had a father, wasn’t raised by his biological mother, and by the time he reached high school, he was unceremoniously dumped into the system by his older sister who couldn’t take care of him any longer, though he harbors no hard feelings toward her or anyone else in his family now. Life may never have turned around for him were it not for that miserable day and his hard upbringing.
Daniels’ childhood, for all intents and purposes, was taken away from him. Or, rather, it was never given to him. Until a miracle growth spurt in high school made him the tallest person in his family, his life was all about what he didn’t have. With a mother in and out of prison, Daniels went straight to foster care when he was born. From there, he lived with his grandmother for over 10 years until she became too sick to properly take care of him, though it was on the public basketball court across from her home that he found his one escape and his all-time love.
Daniels then spent some time under the care of a cousin, and next his older sister. It was while living with his sister in ninth grade that the 15-year-old Daniels – barely over six feet tall then, a point guard in the limited organized basketball he was able to play – started the hardest and ultimately most important time of his life. Those struggles, though he didn’t know it at the time, were the beginnings of a long journey which eventually brought him to this point, a senior and starting forward for Mississippi State’s basketball team entering the final weeks of his college career, degree in hand.
Back then, Daniels had only a handful of people who cared about him, and even fewer who were able to actually help. In April of that year, nearly done with his first and what would turn out to be only year at Eutaw High School, Daniels was interrupted during seventh period by one of those people, his school’s guidance counselor Tamika Thompson.
She likely was unsure how to explain it to him, but she among the school’s staff was closest with Daniels and it was her job to tell him. Daniels’ older sister had shown up that afternoon, dropped off all of her little brother’s clothing and announced she could no longer take care of him. She had her own children to worry about.
A social worker had called Thompson to let her know that Daniels was to be moved to a group home as there was nowhere else for him to go.
“Don’t nobody want him,” Daniels recalled his guidance counselor being told. “We’re fixing to send him somewhere else.”
Now, Daniels, by all appearances, was the complete opposite of a problem child. His life certainly had far more than its fair share of problems, but Daniels himself stayed out of trouble. He was quiet. He was active in church, attentive in school and particularly fond of playing basketball whenever the older boys would let him join. So when he was faced with what was one of the lowest moments of his life, Thompson stepped up and informed the social worker that she and her husband would take care of Daniels as long they could.
The arrangement was never allowed to be permanent, and by August, Daniels was placed in group home and the second of three high schools his education would ultimately include. But the Thompsons, who Daniels considers now to be his godparents, got him through his freshman year and helped set him up for the road eventually getting him out of the system, out of the heartbreak his life had been for so many years.
But not until after more struggles. Daniels’ time in the group home was among the hardest he ever had to endure. He was housed, fed and clothed, but the emotional toll was steep on a growing young man who had never felt secure at any point in his life.
“I didn’t have anybody to talk to during those times and I’d get down on myself,” Daniels said. “I’d be like, ‘Man, why doesn’t anybody want me?’ But then I was so motivated. I was like, ‘I’m going to prove everybody wrong.’
“They’re going to need me before I need them,” he told himself. “I don’t do much to gain attention, but I guess I did things the right way. I prayed, too. I stayed in church a lot. I just prayed. I always stayed positive through everything.
“Some people, they were stressed, they went to weed and stuff like that. When I’m mad, I go to the basketball court. I swear, if I’m mad or I got a whoopin’ or anything, I just go out to the court. Basketball, basically, was my life the whole time.”
Basketball, at that point, was just an outlet. Daniels was a natural talent, but he never envisioned it as anything more than just a game he enjoyed playing. Until, while living in the group home, he hit a growth spurt. Daniels grew and grew and didn’t stop growing until the one-time point guard had reached every bit of 6’7”, tracking his rapid growth on the door frame at church.
The idea of playing basketball after high school was even crazier than the idea of going to college, but with the frame of a forward and the ball skills of a point guard, Daniels became a hot commodity, aided by the kindness of one local family. While in the group home, het met and was eventually adopted by a couple with experience in taking in those with nowhere left to go. That brought Daniels to Florence, Alabama and his third and final high school, where he helped turn around a struggling basketball program, earning him a spot on one of the top AAU basketball teams in the state. Daniels’ success there garnered him attention from colleges, the start of one of many dreams he’d always had but never thought would come true.
Those four years of high school were difficult, but they helped a struggling boy with a miserable past become a strong man with a bright future.
“Through that whole time, I was being motivated because I was a kid that never had a father, so I didn’t have that person to say, ‘Hey, let’s go work out, play basketball.’ What you see,” Daniels said, gesturing to his resulting present self, “is I watch and study people. I was always looking, like, ‘Man, I wish I had a father.’ I probably could be 10 times better than I am right now because I [would have] had somebody to show me the ropes. Through that whole time, I had male mentors, but they never were like father figures. Like, teach me how to ride a bike. Come to my games. I never had anyone to come to my games.”
It took until last year for that to happen when Daniels’ grandmother saw him play in a game for the first time, watching the grown-up version of her grandson who had once spent countless hours on the open court across the street from her house. Later that season, though Daniels didn’t know it at the time, his biological mother came to watch him play for the first time ever in a home game against Tennessee. Daniels didn’t see her in the stands with his former high school coach who brought her, nor did she approach him after the game. Daniels was later told by that former coach about their coming to watch him that day. Daniels played 15 minutes and scored two points in the game as Mississippi State won 71-66.
While Daniels never had big fan clubs at his games, his career continued to take big steps. From Russellville High School, Daniels went on to Shelton State Community College, where he appeared in 25 games as a freshman, then started in 28 games as a sophomore, helping lead the Buccaneers to a 23-8 record and an appearance in the NJCAA Tournament.
From there, Daniels was recruited to MSU by then-MSU head coach Rick Ray. After sitting out what would have been a shortened first season as a mid-year transfer, Daniels made his debut in the 2014-15 season, appearing in all 32 games and making 26 starts for the Bulldogs.
Then change, as it so often has, hit Daniels’ life again when Ray was let go. Another male role model was gone from Daniels’ world. And this time, someone unexpected took his place – Ben Howland.
Daniels still has the memory from early in his time at Shelton State of watching Howland coach UCLA against Oregon out on the west coast. Daniels hardly thought then that he would play major college basketball at all, let alone for the man with so many NBA Draft picks and Final Fours to his name
“I told him, ‘I never imagined you being my coach,’” Daniels shared. “It works in mysterious ways.”
So now, here they both are, Howland nearing the end of his first year at MSU and Daniels approaching the completion of his last. The two were as unlikely a pair to be coach and player as seemingly any.
It was a long, strange trip, indeed, for Daniels, and the journey will continue after his Senior Day on Saturday, his final home game at the school where so many of his childhood fantasies were turned into reality. The future is bright for a young man who never expected to have one, but the loneliness of a broken childhood, the nagging questions of developmental years gone wrong, still remain. Daniels is thrilled with where he is now, the opportunities he now has with the resources basketball gave him. But he is not yet content, not yet ready to rest and not yet able to stop wondering, ‘What if?’
“I’m not satisfied,” he said, “but I feel like I did everything the right way and I basically did it on my own. Just imagine if I had help … Every kid dreams to have a mother and a father, go play catch with dad. All that stuff. If I had that, then that would probably motivate me more, but I had to find ways. I’m not disappointed in myself. I graduated. I played for a division one school in the SEC. There are a lot of things I’m proud of. I’m not disappointed with how I went out.”
Regardless of his last game’s outcome, the record of his team or how many points he does or doesn’t score, Daniels has made sure of one thing as he goes out – he’s doing so as a winner, a man who beat the longest of odds.
“Where I’m from, most people aren’t successful, like I am,” he said. “I never saw myself being the first person to graduate from junior college, graduate from college, play on TV. It means something to my people back home. I guess it’s just like a dream to me, for real.”