PURCHASE, N.Y. — Xavier McDaniel played 5 1/2 seasons for the SuperSonics in Seattle and a half a season for the Suns in Phoenix, Ariz.
Seattle, Phoenix. To New York basketball fans, these are frontier outposts. And to New York basketball fans, McDaniel had a frontier reputation. He was X-Man, with a big gun, a big mouth and a scarred knee.
Now, he is theirs. The Knicks gave up Jerrod Mustaf, Trent Tucker and two second-round draft picks to acquire McDaniel Oct. 1, and New Yorkers welcomed him as a savior, which indeed he may be. His numbers -- career averages of 20 points and seven rebounds -- superceded his reputation.
His talent fits nicely into the New York renaissance. There is a new coach, Pat Riley, who won four National Basketball Association titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. There is a new backup center, Tim McCormick, acquired from the Atlanta Hawks for Maurice Checks. There is a new point guard competing for playing time, rookie Greg Anthony from UNLV.
There is X.
"Pat Riley asked me, 'How do you feel?' And I said, 'You couldn't know how I feel unless you could see inside of me,"' McDaniel said. "Right now, I feel like when I first went to the Sonics. For so many years, you feel that bond. I don't know why, but that's the way I feel now."
He says he is ready to stay in New York for the rest of his career. Play hard every night, just as he always did. Push his teammates, just as he always did. Provide unmatched intensity, just as he always did. He is comfortable with his place, and candid about his past.
He makes New Yorkers wonder: Why has X been marked as a troublemaker?
"I'll tell you. Just to reflect on something I never really talked about -- that was about me and Dale Ellis," he said.
McDaniel, 28, has refrained from specifically indicting Ellis. But things have changed. He has a rap, and he must explain it. This doesn't bother him.
"As good a player as I was in high school," McDaniel said, "my coach let me know that I was just like that last guy sitting on that bench. No special treatment. College coach -- same thing, you got treated just like everyone else got treated."
Remember, when McDaniel was at Wichita State he became the first player to lead the country in scoring and rebounding (27.2 ppg, 14.8 rpg in 1984-85). He was special.
"So I get to the NBA," McDaniel said, "the way I think -- and the way I'm running my camps for kids -- is based on that same thing: Nobody is more special than anyone else. And when I see one player saying, 'You guys are not setting picks,' and that guy is basically doing the shooting, I feel that as a captain I have a right to step in and say how I feel.
"In Seattle, doing that, that's what triggered me and Dale Ellis. Basically, what I said to him was, 'Guys are busting their butts to set picks for you. You owe them. You're not going out here creating anything on your own.' That's how me and Dale Ellis got in a thing."
Such a thing. Just a week into last season, McDaniel and Ellis got into it at the start of a morning practice. Practice was called off. Later that day, they bumped into one another in the Sonics' office lobby. The trouble continued. Punches flew, and the fight spilled onto the street. Both are 6-foot-7 heavyweights in the 215-pound range, but McDaniel, with his shaved head and rippling physique, is more imposing. Word is McDaniel got the better of Ellis.
"In Seattle, Dale Ellis thought he was bigger than the team," McDaniel said. "I told Bernie (Bickerstaff, the former general manager) and (team president Bob) Whitsitt that if there was going to be one guy bigger than the team, I didn't need to be there anymore."
McDaniel was traded to the Phoenix Suns. Ellis was also shipped out, to the Milwaukee Bucks. Seattle solved its chemistry problem by pouring the formula down the drain.
In Phoenix, McDaniel never quite fit in the crowded Suns frontcourt. He spent his summer taking classes at Wichita State and working out, two hours a day, six days a week. One month ago, the day he reported to training camp in Phoenix, Suns Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons told McDaniel he had been traded to the Knicks.
McDaniel laughed. "Cotton's always making jokes," McDaniel said.
But Cotton was serious, and McDaniel was thrilled.
"This is one of the places where I wanted to go," McDaniel said. "I felt, looking at their small-forward situation, that's where I could help a lot. My rebounding, my defense, it was a good fit."
As for his right knee -- which prompted one coach to say, "He's playing on one leg," last spring -- McDaniel says all is sound. Indeed, since undergoing arthroscopic surgery midway through the 1989-90 season, McDaniel has been startlingly durable. He missed one game last season.