Practice was stopped. Viont’e Daniels walked with his teammates to the film room that November afternoon where they were told to sit and wait quietly.
Soon after, senior guard Malik Montoya entered and somberly informed the rest of the Federal Way High School boys basketball team he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
It broke Daniels heart. They had played together since second grade — Daniels wearing No. 24 because Kobe Bryant was his favorite player, and Montoya 23 for LeBron James. Both were overcome by tears right there, realizing they had been robbed of playing together their final season before it even started.
Coach Jerome Collins pulled Daniels aside.
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“He kept telling me, ‘You have to be mentally tough. Mentally tough.’ He just kept saying it and saying it,” Daniels said.
“It just triggered in my head that I got to do this. I got to do this for our team.”
Daniels was thrust into the role of team leader as the Eagles lone senior starter. He had the talent and the composed demeanor — one he likely gets from his father, who played at Army — but had never taken that next step Collins hoped he would.
Then Daniels scored 28 points in a 102-45 win over Stadium in the first game of the season. He took over when his team trailed for much of the first half against Gilbert, Arizona, which is the sixth-ranked team in that state, by hitting a pull-up 3-pointer, getting steals and finishing with 21 points to lead the Eagles to a 64-54 win.
“I think that gave him a degree of confidence,” Collins said. “Like I told him in the team hotel (in Arizona), ‘Just think of the stage you just performed. That means you can do that against anybody.’ And he’s just continued to thrive.”
In one season, Daniels has taken his game from third fiddle for Federal Way behind Montoya and Adrian Davis to The News Tribune’s 2014-15 All-Area boys basketball player of the year.
He’s done so with a smooth fadeaway jumper, a confident 3-point shot and uncanny rebounding and passing — and it is still being debated whether the 6-foot-3 Daniels or 6-9 Jalen McDaniels is the team’s best dunker.
Daniels averaged 21.2 points, six rebounds and four assists and led the top-ranked Eagles (24-2) into the 4A state quarterfinals without a loss to an in-state 4A team this season.
“I always had the skills, but it was a lot more mental,” said Daniels, who said he does not have a college scholarship offer. “I knew that my team needed me to step up.”
But Daniels certainly won’t call Montoya’s injury a blessing in disguise.
If this team runs, guns and dazzles without Montoya, just think of what Federal Way would be with him. He was a second-team All-Area selection last season after leading the Eagles in scoring at almost 20 points per game.
Montoya tore the ACL in a fall league semifinal game against Kentridge. He said it took him a few games this season before he finally decided he’d watch the team play.
He’s since sat with teammates along the Federal Way bench, supporting any away he can.
“At first, it was hurtful,” Montoya said. “It was hard not playing with my brothers.”
“Malik has been the Batman and Viont’e’s been the Robin,” Collins said. “When Malik went down, it hurt the team, but it also hurt Viont’e. He took it very hard. … But I have a saying — ‘You don’t achieve greatness without sacrifice.’ ”
For Daniels, that sacrifice included 4 a.m. first-week practices and shooting 700 jump shots a day.
Did he ever question whether Federal Way could still contend without Montoya?
“That never reached my mind,” Daniels said. “I wouldn’t let that happen anyway.”
Daniels sat in a desk directly in front of Collins during a film session this week. Collins, a head coach for 30 years, read a letter he received from Col. Jeremy Sloane, one of Collins’ former players.
“I’ve dodged missiles, I dropped bombs in combat, I’ve flown the red, white and blue F-16s of the Thunderbirds in front of billions of fans at shows across the world,” Collins read. “I’ve met two presidents and two vice presidents, I’ve briefed the secretary of defense and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff regularly about classified national security matters … but there isn’t a single thing I’ve done in my professional life that I didn’t learn in some way, shape or form on the court at Federal Way.
“The song in your head, classmates’ cheers, the bus ride, the walk into the Tacoma Dome, the silence in the locker room, the warm-up drills, the crowd, national anthem, tip off – remember those things big and small for the rest of your lives.”
Combine that with the season he’s had — Daniels is very likely to.
“I have been waiting to get here. It’s been a long four years,” Daniels said. “I finally got here. I just want to make the best of it with my teammates. It should be a fun ride.”