Daniels turns inner-city struggle to on-court success

Chris Bullock

When you take a look at Sacramento State senior forward Sydonia Daniels on the basketball court, you see a lot of the physical attributes: the orange-tipped black hair, the physical demeanor in which she plays the game.

What you don’t see, however, is the pain and struggle she has had to go through to be able to get on the court.

Daniels is a native of Irvington, New Jersey, a town that at one point had the highest violent crime rate in the entire state (a rate of 715.3 per 100,000 people as of 2013; data provided via www.city-data.com). Growing up in an area like that would influence anybody to fall in line, and for Daniels, she admitted it wasn’t easy when she was younger.

“There was a lot of drugs, a lot of violence, a lot of things that set you up in a way to fail,” Daniels said. “And growing up, you always look at the people older than you, and that’s who you want to be. But when you grow up in a situation where your role models are drug dealers, killers, it’s hard to succeed, because you look up to them and be like, ‘Hey, I want to be like them,’ and you end up going down the wrong path.”

Fortunately, Daniels was able to find an escape through basketball. Her high school coach, Ray-Quell Cotton, convinced Daniels that she could do more for her family by going to college and continuing her education and athletic career.

Daniels graduated from high school in 2012 and went to Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Illinois for her freshman year of college. In her only season with the Eagles, Daniels averaged 10.5 points per game and eight rebounds. She excelled on the defensive end as well, blocking 83 shots (3.2 per game) and getting 25 steals en route to a 22-9 record.

After her freshman season, Daniels transferred to State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Missouri, where she started what would become a life-long friendship with fellow Sac State senior guard Adella Randle-El. According to Randle-El, her career wouldn’t have been the same if she hadn’t met Daniels, whom she calls Syd.

“My college career with her has been fun,” Randle-El said. “Syd [Daniels] is like a big sister. It’s nice to have someone who has always had my back.”

As a sophomore, Daniels averaged 6.7 points and five rebounds a game, leading the team to a 21-9 record and a berth in the NJCAA Championship, where they lost in the first round to Western Nebraska Community College.

After the 2013-14 season, Daniels and Randle-El were both recruited by Sac State head coach Bunky Harkleroad. The team was in need of depth, and both their styles just happened to fit Harkleroad’s system.

“At the time both ladies were recruited, we needed people at those spots,” Harkleroad said. “It was a pretty straightforward process. We also needed people with maturity, and they both fit the bill.”

According to Daniels, the change from New Jersey to California was quite the culture shock.

“Once I came to Sacramento, it was a huge shock,” Daniels said. “It’s peaceful, you don’t hear about violence, you don’t hear about drugs. I know it happens everywhere, but it’s not an everyday thing here.”

Daniels played in every game during the regular season in her first year (2014-15) and helped Sac State make it to the Big Sky Tournament for the first time.

This past season, Daniels played more of a role on the team as one of the captains, a role she took very seriously despite going through some personal tragedies of her own.

“During the season, I went through a variety of things from the mild to the extreme,” Daniels said. “I went through a lot of deaths in the family, a lot of murders. I had to find a way to stay strong within myself, because I’m a captain, and my teammates look up to me.”

Despite the trouble behind the scenes, Daniels finished second on the team in rebounds, posting a clip of 5.3 per game. Her strong presence on the boards helped Sac State make it to the Big Sky Quarterfinals.

Though her stats may not have been eye-popping, her leadership was not overlooked, a point that Harkleroad made clear will be missed next season.

“I really love the way she finished her career for us,” Harkleroad said. “She showed a lot of patience on the floor. When she wasn’t on the floor, she was a great bench contributor for her teammates.”

Randle-El wasn’t surprised at Daniels’ contribution, partly because she has always seen her as a leader.

“She has always been very motivational,” Randle-El said. “Even without speaking, she is very outspoken. Off the court, she is a very caring person. No matter what you throw at her, she will overcome.”

Though her college career may be over, Daniels doesn’t plan on leaving the court. A kinesiology major, Daniels wants to take her knowledge back to the streets and become a coach for inner-city children.

“A lot of people don’t realize when you grow up in an environment like Sacramento, you’re kind of blindsided by what really goes on with people who go through everyday struggles,” Daniels said. “It’s part of the reason I want to coach inner-city children. They go through a lot; they don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. … You almost have to use sports as a way to get out.”