Photo courtesy of Visions by Jeff/Jeffrey Armstrong.
By David Cordova
When growing up in urban America, a lot of young minority males have two choices, stay on the right path or be influenced by the wrong crowd and suffer the greatest fall, whatever that may be. When you’re young, there are plenty of forces at hand that could lead you astray, but as a youth, the best thing to do is stay away from temptation and stay on the right course.
Sometimes, that may be easier said than done. Once you get in any legal trouble, there’s a feeling that never goes away, the feeling that you’re being watched at all times. The feeling that people are looking for you to fail once again. But then again, the question is, how do you come back from the mistake that you’ve suffered? How much of a better person will you become after?
Jawaun Daniels is a prime example of that. The 6-foot-7 Harlem native has seen plenty of highs and lows in his life, but still manages to persevere, both on & off the court. Last summer was one of the roughest times of his life.
The NCAA Live Period in mid-July is a time when high schoolers are auditioning for a chance at a free scholarship to college. During that time, instead of playing at the prestigious Nike EYBL Peach Jam with the New Jersey Playaz, he was sitting inside a Rikers Island jail cell. But a year later, he is in better spirits and surrounded by positivity.
But in order to understand him, you must first hear his story. When asked what motivates him to be successful with the game of basketball, he replied, “Just the grind, like being in the gym every day, just the grind about being great, like the process you gotta go through just to get to where you wanna be. That’s what motivates me.”
He first started out playing the game at the age of 12 with the Billy Bang All-Stars program. “I entered my first tournament, actually with Isaiah [Washington], I think that was the summer of 2010, we took every tournament from Nike Swoosh to Team Hunc,” says Daniels about his early days playing basketball.
Then in high school, he started out his odyssey, starting out at Bread & Roses High School in Harlem, which then ended up being a failing school that was later closed down. Then he transferred to Wadleigh High School, which is also located in Harlem. But in January 2014, he stopped going to school and didn’t finish out his sophomore year.
Then in the fall, he then went back to school and did well enough to gain transferrable credits, but then left school again. Seeking a change for the better, Daniels chose to move across the George Washington Bridge to live with relatives in New Jersey and attended Teaneck High School the following summer.
“I just felt like Teaneck had more opportunities and it was a bigger space to focus up and just really get on the grind and get to the next level,” says Daniels about the move to New Jersey, “My cousin, Ja’Quaye [James], he was there, so it was a great look.”
In the 2015-16 season, Daniels’ presence paid huge dividends for Teaneck, as he averaged 18 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game as he led the Highwaymen to a 29-4 record and a Group III state sectional title. Amongst many honors, he earned the North Jersey Player of the Year honors.
“I ain’t know how to feel about it, because I ain’t know how big that was, coming out to Jersey. That was actually my first year playing high school basketball,” says Daniels about his spectacular season. “So winning that [North Jersey Player of the Year] was tough.”
It seemed like everything was coming into place for Daniels. He was doing well academically in school and he was on his way to gaining looks from college coaches. And then, in one fell swoop, reality set in.
In the summer of 2016, Daniels was one of thirty-seven people that was arrested by the New York Police Department in a gang sweep. He then ended up being charged with gang assault and criminal possession of a weapon.
“I did 74 days on Rikers Island, one of the toughest, most notorious jails in New York City, and I overcame it, and I’m here today.” says Daniels about his ordeal. “I pled guilty to conspiracy and gang assault charges because I was hanging with the wrong crowd. But that was a mistake I made at the age of 16, and now at 18, I’m standing here in front of you with my life in a complete 720, I graduated high school and now I’m going to college on a full athletic scholarship.”
The saddest part about the ordeal was the day of his 18th birthday, when instead of celebrating his special day with family & friends, he had to serve it in prison. “It was real tough, honestly, I just wanted to be home. The whole time I was in there, every week, I prayed that I’d be home and as it got closer to my birthday, things got tough. Actually, we were on lockdown that day, I couldn’t make no phone calls, I ain’t eat, it was just a bad day.”
A couple of examples of sports figures that had legal situations at Daniels’ age were NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, who during his junior year of high school, was convicted of assault in a bowling alley and had to spend four months in a detention center before his conviction was later overturned. Then, there was former NBA star Caron Butler, who by the age of 15, had been in juvenile court fifteen times and then was sent to a juvenile detention center when he was 17, only to be granted leniency for good behavior.
The moral of those stories was that both of them struggled through adversity and was faced with a rough ordeal, going through an experience that a teenager should never have to go through. But when given a second chance to make something of themselves, they seized the opportunity and because of it, are now productive members of society and are heroes to many kids.
When asked about what that experience taught him, Daniels said, “It was a tough experience, it woke me up a lot, it opened me up to what reality really is, what the real world is. I honestly didn’t think that I’d ever go to jail, but going there made me a better person, it made me feel like, ‘I’m not untouchable.’ That’s the way I was moving, but I’m not untouchable, and everybody goes through ups and downs and you just have to be able to overcome all of that and overstep some boundaries, sometimes, to get where you want to be.”
When he came home from the ordeal, Daniels was allowed to return to Teaneck to finish out his senior year, but was not allowed to play on the team. Although Teaneck won another Group 3 state championship without him and advanced into the New Jersey Tournament of Champions, he was still on the bench providing moral support and cheering on his teammates.
However, the biggest thing on his mind was graduating, which he did this past June. “That’s just incredible, that was my main goal, graduating high school, I did it. A lot of people said I wouldn’t do it, a lot of people thought I wouldn’t be home today. Clearly, I needed my diploma to move on to the next level, but being home, I’m just enjoying it.”
From there, he went on a tear during the summer, playing at Dyckman for Northeast Basketball Club and for Team Dyckman during the New York vs. New York tournament. Every game he played, he was one of the main threats, if not the best player on the court. Although Dyckman lost to Gersh on August 5th in the finals, Daniels’ great performance throughout the summer could not be ignored, as he averaged 13.5 points and 5.7 rebounds, which led him to being named Nike Player of the Summer.
“That was tough, I ain’t gonna lie, that was real tough,” says Daniels on receiving the honor, “I appreciate Nike a lot, they gave me a lot of opportunities this summer.”
Now after all of the adversity that he’s gone through in the last, Daniels is now at peace, attending college at Central Georgia Technical College, a two-year school in Macon, Georgia, which is an hour south of Atlanta. All he is focused on now is doing his two years and moving on to a Division I school from there.
Although the worst is behind him, Daniels hopes that his past will be a lesson to many youth out there and that it will teach them to avoid the pitfalls that almost derailed him. His advice to kids out there, “Just keep grinding, everything happens for a reason, it doesn’t matter whether you get left back, whether you go to jail, whatever situation you’re in, just make the best out of it, and keep grinding, never stop.”
Highlights of Jawaun Daniels:
Courtesy of North Jersey Sports.
Courtesy of NJ Hoop Recruit.
Courtesy of NJ Hoop Recruit.