FORT COLLINS — The Nike sneakers cost $125. No, he told his grandmother. I don't need those.
Dantiel Daniels said he'd rather buy three pair from Payless and pocket the extra $20. Maybe it was the dead body in the alley that shaped his perspective on what's important. Maybe it was bouncing between five elementary schools and two junior highs in metro St. Louis that changed his mind. Maybe it was his mom, working the graveyard shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. to make ends meet — then perfecting her Nintendo game during sunlight hours to compete with the five kids she raised alone.
"Zelda," Rosalyn Roberts says. "They were always beating me at Zelda."
Whatever it was, Tiel Daniels, a junior forward, is bummed Colorado State was snubbed by the NCAA selection committee and relegated to the NIT. But on the tournament bracket of his life, the tournament snub is roughly a No. 16 seed.
When you moved between rentals and homeless shelters as a boy, when your absentee father declines an invitation to attend one of your basketball games, when at your birth doctors said your growth would be stunted due to a medical condition, a tournament snub is nothing. A tournament snub is easy.
"I told him: They gave you lemons on (Selection) Sunday," his mom says. "Now you go make the best lemon meringue pie that's ever been made. And bring a napkin."
Perspective? Tiel Daniels leads the nation in perspective.
CSU hosts South Dakota State at Moby Arena on Wednesday. This is not where the Rams wanted to be, in the NIT. But Daniels knows this — playing ball on a full-ride scholarship, with teammates he calls "brothers for life," watching his mom cry when he graduates in May — is winning.
Tiel will be the first male on his mom's side to graduate with a college degree. She expects 20 family members will travel from Wentzville, Ferguson, where his grandma lives, and other parts of St. Louis to the commencement ceremony in Fort Collins.
"We're eating Ramen noodles to save up and watch that boy walk across that stage," she says. "You gonna be there? May 16! 7:15!"
After a pause, mom says: "That might be the best day of my life. I'm so proud of that boy."
Me, too, Ms. Roberts. Me, too.
"I can't imagine — if you knew what he's been through — putting myself in those shoes and coming out on the other side," CSU coach Larry Eustachy says. "He's witnessed things that very few people have witnessed."
Daniels was just a baby, not yet the tallest kid in his sixth-grade class, far from the respectful man he is now. (His mom tells him to drop the "ma'am" from "yes, ma'am," because it makes her feel old.) He was 8, maybe 9?
No matter. When the cops removed a corpse from behind their home, Tiel was old enough to know life doesn't come with a reset button, that this would be a tough road.
"I remember it's the Fourth of July, a lot of fireworks are going off. You can't really differentiate the fireworks and the gunshots," Daniels says. "Then the next morning there's a dead guy in the alley. Shakes you up a little bit. But that's where we were."
How did Daniels score a 3.0 GPA at his first university, Southern Illinois? Why does Eustachy call him "the most pleasant young man I've ever had?"
Mom, of course. It's usually mom. Rosalyn's house rules were simple and direct. One, Tiel and his three sisters couldn't go anywhere if she didn't approve. Two, being grounded meant no TV, video games or jump-roping in the park. "Just books," she says. Three, breaking mom's house rules resulted in punishment.
"He knows mama will still spank him," she says. "He's tall (6-foot-5), you know. I got a crook in my neck from looking up. But I said, 'Don't make me come up there, boy!'
"I have not had to come up there."
The coaches who recruited Daniels to SIU, Chris Lowery and Brad Korn, consider him one of their favorite players. "There is nothing Tiel can't do in life," Korn says.
All of his coaches credit Rosalyn.
"If you want someone to turn out perfect, just hand that baby to her," Eustachy says.
"My mom, that's my rock," Daniels says. "It was hard growing up. I was the only male in the family. If I can get here from there, I can get through anything."
Rosalyn raised a lovely 22-year-old who had so many doors shut on him. After a recent practice at Moby Arena, Tield holds the door for a lady coming through.
"He gets the big picture," CSU associate head coach Leonard Perry says.
His mom's 15 grandchildren will watch the NIT game. They will huddle around the TV and giggle when he's shown on ESPNU. They are unaware of the NCAA Tournament snub, only aware Tiel is always up for a game of jump rope when he comes home.
"They all love Uncle Tiel," his mom says.
He took life's lemons and made a pie. Bring a napkin.