Credit: Bill Moore photo

An innumerable number of Black and Brown boys growing up in the inner cities of America aspire to become NBA players. Jesse Daniels, a 6-foot-3 dunking phenom out of Harlem’s Polo Ground Towers, was unquestionably one of them.

“Basketball was indeed my first love as a kid growing up,” said Daniels, who categorizes himself as a pick-up basketball player and not a street baller. “I felt part of a bigger spirit every time I played. Rucker Park and other basketball courts in the city became my second home.”

As a youth, Daniels was inspired by and mentored on the business aspect of basketball by the late Greg Marius, founder of the Entertainment Basketball Classic tournament at Rucker Park. “When I was 11, Greg gave me my first jersey from the Black Wall Street team in his tournament.”

For Daniels’ high school years, however, his mother, Donna Daniels, relocated with three of her five children to Upstate New York to escape the senseless violence in their neighborhood. “One summer, 2007 in the Polo Grounds, seven different individuals died in one week,” said Daniels, the eldest of the three siblings that exited Harlem. “So out of concern, my mom moved me and my two younger sisters to Pleasant Valley to save us from the environment.”

He starred at Arlington High School in Lagrangeville, N.Y., before enrolling at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. He tried out as a walk-on but was not added to Marist’s roster. Daniels then transferred to the University of Albany.

Instead of remaining at Albany, he returned to Harlem to hone his basketball skills playing at Rucker Park. “From there I played pick-up ball around the city and one day I got discovered by Nike Basketball who paid me to play in commercials,” Daniels recalled. “And over time I ended up playing on ESPN2 for a semi-pro Brooklyn Nets affiliated team called Team Tuff.”

It was those opportunities that landed Daniels a position as a basketball coach and personal trainer at LifeTime Sky, a luxury athletic club located on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Daniels established a successful basketball training and pro pick-up program at LifeTime, which led to other opportunities. Among those who came through LifeTime for runs are Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.

“In 2018 I hosted the Milwaukee Bucks at LifeTime for a week of scrimmages,” Daniels highlighted. “After practices, I would scrimmage with coaches and other team officials. That led to heavy consideration for me to join the organization’s G League team.” With the help of Morgan Stanley executives Jeffrey Gerson and Nathan Hersch, who Daniels says “have become brothers to me,” he traveled to Milwaukee for a tryout. While Daniels didn’t make the Bucks’ G League team, he lasted until the final round of cuts.

His compelling rise from a pick-up basketball player from Harlem to being on the cusp of becoming a professional player inspired a documentary short about his journey succinctly titled “The Jesse Daniels Story,” directed by Peter Porta. Daniels is also working with Susan Torres of Slam Dunk Bookings, LLC on further projects. He landed a spot in the upcoming film, “Boogie” with the late rapper Pop Smoke, about a basketball phenom growing up in Queens with dreams of playing in the NBA.

At 30-years-old, Daniels’ NBA dreams may no longer be a reality, but that hasn’t precluded him from thinking big as an entertainer and businessman. “My desire now is to one day be on ‘Undercover Billionaire,’” said Daniels, regarding the Disney Channel Series. He has left LifeTime Sky to focus on his own ventures.

“I find building multi-million dollar programs like I was able to do at LifeTime Sky more exciting now.” Somewhere, Daniels’ mentor Marius is smiling.