McDaniels' heart reaches out to injured, abused dogs

Posted: July 18, 2014

AT ONE POINT, the McDaniels household in Birmingham, Ala., must have seemed like a kennel.

Snoop, a small American pit bull terrier, paraded around the home, wagging his short tail, his pink tongue hanging down to his chin. Shawn McDaniels, mother of Sixers second-round draft pick K.J. McDaniels, was searching for homes for abandoned and abused animals.

It's what K.J. McDaniels lives for away from the basketball court. He finds classified ads for abused and neglected dogs on the Internet and adopts them and then tries to give them a home, a family to care for them. The task is not simple, by any means, but it's one close to McDaniels' heart.

He had a heart for the pups in massive dogfighting rings in Alabama and wanted to find a way to give them a proper home. The city's new swingman is trying to stop one of Philadelphia's bad habits.

"I started looking to give those dogs a second opportunity," McDaniels, 21, said in a recent interview. He is with the Sixers for the Las Vegas Summer League, but after spraining his left ankle in a Summer League game in Orlando last week, did not play against the Lakers on Wednesday.

"Everyone deserves those second opportunities. Everyone deserves a second chance. Giving those dogs a second opportunity to live their lives, it's the best feeling in the world to see them happy and know they love you, no matter what."

While at Clemson, he kept a pit bull puppy named Layla with him during the season. On his off-days or after games, he walked the pooch through nearby gardens and across the campus. Layla even rested with him as he watched game video. The dog kept the Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year calm and and quieter than his on-court appearance would suggest.

But his reserved nature and quality character traits are why Shawn McDaniels calls him her "best friend."

"He's such a kind, humble kid," his mom said. "I get more compliments on how wonderful and charismatic he is and his character than how good of a basketball player he is and that makes me really proud as a mother."

McDaniels grew up in Prichard in a chancy, hard-nosed area near Mobile, Ala., until age 3, when his family moved to Birmingham, the state's largest urban area.

Both cities were plagued by crime and violence; according to City-Data.com, in 2012, Prichard had three times the serious crime as the national average, while Birmingham had more than twice the national average.

But K.J. McDaniels' surroundings never affected his will to survive. He built basketball nets outside of his home, steadying the goal with old televisions and crates. At age 11, walking into a gym with his father, Kevin McDaniels, he decided he wanted to play basketball.

At 11, he already was 6-feet tall and still growing, and eventually started dunking on his outdoor court. His neighbors would yell at him in the wee hours of the night to "stop bouncing that ball." But it never affected him, and K.J. McDaniels surely isn't ashamed of where he grew up.

When the former Clemson standout says "it's a blessing" to be with the Sixers organization, he's not just showing his humility. He's telling the whole truth.

"We came out the mud," K.J. McDaniels said. "We're from down South and no one really makes it out. People told us we couldn't do a lot of things.

"There were a lot of drug dealers and crack houses. We've been down there and we've been through it: the drive-bys, the gang activity, the guns, the violence. We've all stuck in there, and we've been smart enough through it all. That's why I say it's a blessing to be here."

McDaniels was home-schooled before attending high school at Central Park Christian School in Birmingham. His mother would pull him away from the court in front of their home and make him work with her; she is a representive for a hair-care products company, covering the Alabama region.

He'd work all day and come home with a dollar or less after cleaning up hair and lifting boxes with his mother," Shawn McDaniels said, "That's where he got his work ethic from."

That same work ethic he brings to the court as a defense-first wing player has kept K.J. McDaniels sane. He said that several of his cousins were killed by gun violence; his favorite cousin, "Yako," was shot before K.J. turned 10.

That's when McDaniels turned to basketball, a decision that his father said worked out for the best.

"Mobile is kinda rough," Kevin McDaniels said. "It takes a strong family background, and it wasn't a lot to do there, so we moved to Birmingham. K.J. had it hard. He really had to work hard and it really worked out for him."

He is still wearing his hat.

Draped in red lights, his flat-brimmed blue cap was a reminder of his progress, to his courage and his resilience. K.J. McDaniels didn't hear his name called in the first round, but he never knew whether it would be called at all on draft night in June.

But when it did, a party erupted in the stands of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Behind the dark, shadowy seats in the upper levels of the arena, McDaniels strutted to the stage with a wide smile while hearing the cheers of his extended family.

When he came to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine days later, McDaniels couldn't take off his topper. He kept adjusting the cap. It never sat right atop his 6-6, 200-pound frame.

And McDaniels wasn't alone either time. He hadn't really been alone his entire life. Shawn, Kevin and his younger brother, Shawn Dylan McDaniels, accompanied him to his opening news conference.

Shawn Dylan McDaniels views his brother as a success. He has housed the dogs when K.J. was away, and K.J. has become someone the 6-foot sixth-grader looks up to.

"I'm very proud of my brother, he's worked very hard for this," Shawn Dylan said, his brother's new Sixers jersey resting in his hands, bigger than his body.

"He inspires me to do a lot; sometimes I go home and play basketball, like he did, with my friends outside on the goal in front of our house . . . I'm so proud of him."

K.J. McDaniels has found his new home, not only for himself, but also for his family, including his dogs. He said he's bringing his three dogs, including a Yorkie named Bentley, to Philly with him when he gets settled. Shawn McDaniels said he plans to work with the ASPCA, a venture she wants to join with him.

His love will always be basketball, but he will always try to help animals, specifically pit bulls, from being beaten and hurt in dogfighting rings. It started with Snoop, the cute pit bull that ran away when he commuted to Clemson. It continued with Layla, who kept him calm during the grind of the college basketball season. And now he's working for Bentley, for Shawn, Shawn Dylan, Kevin, Yako and more.

K.J. McDaniels survived Mobile and Birmingham, so a little rebuilding program with Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie is the least of his worries, he said. Philadelphia had better be a dog-loving city, because K.J. McDaniels is bringing some new bark to the Sixers roster.

"This is something that will go on as long as I'm on the earth," McDaniels said about helping injured animals. "My family has been there for me my entire life; no matter how far apart we are, they still have my back. It's family first. I let them know I'm doing it for them, because I know they know what we've been through and where we came from.

"I've been waiting for this day for a long time. It's been a long dream, a lifelong dream of mine," he said.


On Twitter: @TylerRickyTynes

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