Feb. 1996: Archdeacon on Chris Daniels - A tough lesson to learn

The class is called "Death, Dying and Suicide," and when it met Thursday morning in Room 230 of St. Joseph's Hall, one chair along the wall remained empty.

On this day, the lessons had jumped from the textbook and taken a seat next to everyone in this University of Dayton classroom.  Chris Daniels was dead.

The 6-foot-10 star of the Dayton Flyers basketball team had gone into convulsions around 4:30 a.m. Thursday in his small, wood-frame house - with its peeled paint and sagging porch on Lowes Street in the UD student ghetto - and by the time 911 was called and a rescue squad arrived at 4:54, he was in full cardiac arrest.

Eight minutes later - with teammate Darnell Hoskins and his girlfriend at his side - he was in the Miami Valley Hospital emergency room. He could not be revived, and by 5:31 a.m. he was pronounced dead.

Not only had UD lost one of its most prominent athletes, but in the words of associate professor Jennifer Davis-Berman - the therapist who teaches the "Death, Dying and Suicide" course - a "huge presence" in the classroom had been lost as well.

When Davis-Berman talks about her course - one of the most popular in the UD sociology department - she stresses it's really about life, not death.
She said when people come to terms with their mortality, they really begin to live. That has to do with telling people how you feel about them - now. About opening up and saying what you feel. About making the most of the moment.

And that's why Davis-Berman called Daniels a huge presence.

"He was very talkative in class, so uncensored and so human," she said. "It was refreshing to see someone 22 years old be like that. One day, when we talked about telling people how you feel about someone, he told us how much he loved his mother and what she meant to him. You don't hear college kids go on like that very often."

Instead of rolling their eyes, the other students, said Davis-Berman, were drawn to Daniels in times like that. And that may be why almost all of the 37 students in Davis-Berman's 10:30 class showed up Thursday.

Many were in shock and wanted to come to some kind of grip with their loss. They thought this was the only place they could do it. Not that it was easy.

Although there was laughter as many reminisced about the athlete everyone called Big Bear - "the cuddly type, not the grizzly kind," said assistant coach Pete Strickland - there also were tears.

Through much of the class, one young woman sobbed as Davis-Berman stood next to her rubbing her shoulders. Around them, the discussion touched on two of the same topics Flyers' coach Oliver Purnell brought up in his office Thursday afternoon.

They were the same two things I was left with a couple of months ago when I sat with Daniels for a 90-minute discussion about his life. He talked mostly about his mother - the person he said was "the hero of my life" - and second about his expectations.

He was a dreamer, filled with innocence and enthusiasm. Although he'd already been at UD four years - three playing seasons and a redshirt year - and never been on a team with a winning record, he was sure this year's squad wouldn't only turn things around, he believed it would go to the NCAA Tournament.

"I think it all was linked together in Chris,'' Purnell said. "After all these difficult years, he kept such a good outlook because of what he came from. It all goes back to his mom. She made him a solid rock."

Daniels' father - Warren "Hands" Daniels - had been the basketball star. After a successful college career, he had played for the Harlem Globetrotters. And yet the person Chris talked about was his mother.

"My father was out of the picture a long time," he had said. "My mom basically raised us as a single parent. She's the reason I'm here. I can remember she had a rule: We had to be in the house before the street lights came on. We'd beeline in, and from the bedroom we'd look out the window at the other kids still playing out on the street.''

Daniels said his mother had attended all his games in junior high and high school back in Columbus and nearly every home game at UD. She also was a regular in the stands at Bowling Green, where Daniels' younger brother, Antonio, is the Falcons' starting point guard.

"She wore out her car following me around," Daniels had said with pride. "I really mean that. The mileage thing rolled over on it. She makes the drive for every game of mine and my brother's and still manages to get back to her job in Columbus in the morning. When she was with her boyfriend last year, she had another driver, so it wasn't so tough.

"This year she's been by herself and sometimes she'd be so tired, she'd have to check into a motel for a few hours to sleep. But I could always look up and see her there. She's the first person I look for when I go on the court.'"

And Thursday morning, Alice Daniels was asked to come to Dayton one more time for her boy. It was the toughest drive of her life.

She met with Purnell and was consoled - as was her son, Antonio, who arrived on the UD campus with Bowling Green coach Jim Larranaga - at a special noon gathering of the African American Student Services department at O'Reilly Hall. Before returning to Columbus, she wanted to take Chris' basketball uniform with her.

"Chris was a momma's boy in the best sense of the word," Purnell said. "He was raised by a strong woman and the values she stressed he wore on his sleeve.

"Chris truly cared about others. He was nice to people. He was responsible. He was on time. He went to school. And that was all mixed with that wistful dreaminess and a real sense of humor.

"That's why we're all hurting so. It's not because he was a basketball player. It's because of everything else. He really left an indelible mark on us."

For, many that memory begins with Chris Daniels' smile. It was always there. In the classroom, the dressing room, often on the court.

Especially this year, where Daniels, a fifth-year senior, was having the best season of his college career. He averaged 13 points per game for the 11-10 Flyers and was second in the nation in field goal percentage (.679).

His best game this season was his 20-point performance against the University of Massachusetts' heralded big man, Marcus Camby.

Ironically, it was long after that early January matchup that Camby collapsed mysteriously coming off the basketball court. Although Camby is now playing again, the sight of the big man laying crumpled on the court rekindled memories of Hank Gathers, who collapsed and died in a game for Loyola Marymount six years ago, and Len Bias, the

Boston Celtics' top draft pick who died from a cocaine overdose.

Montgomery County coroner James Davis said the cause of death could not be determined from preliminary autopsy reports Thursday, but stated strongly that there were no traces of drugs or alcohol in Daniels' system.

"Chris' classmates all wanted some kind of answers today," Davis-Berman said. "And that's one of the things people brought up. Those who knew Chris best talked about what a straight arrow he was. How they'd all laughed at him when they saw him out one night. He was always drinking Kool-Aid."

Memories of Chris Daniels also brought tears Thursday. No scene was more poignant than that of Flyer teammate Maurice Beyina walking across campus in the afternoon drizzle - the rain mixing with the tears that rolled nonstop from beneath his glasses.

"There was nobody better than him," Beyina said, his voice creaking. "Not just basketball, I mean as an entire person."

"That's the thing I'd like to see come from this," Purnell said. "Chris Daniels can bring us all closer together. Black and white, male and female, athlete and non-athlete. He stood for a lot more than just basketball.

"He's already a rallying force for this team. And it can reach into this campus and this community. Chris Daniels left us with a lot of love."

And as nightfall approached, Thursday, you saw that love on that sagging porch on Lowes Street. There in a pastebord box, someone had left a lone pink rose.

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