By Noah Perkins
Sam Daghles still remembers the weekend trips to Lindbergh Park, off Balboa Avenue, as a middle-schooler in the early 1990s: the concrete court, the anticipation, the knobby elbows and grown men playing for contact.
Some things you don’t forget.
“Friday, Saturday, Sunday — it was the best (basketball) run in San Diego,” Daghles, a Madison High School and San Diego Mesa College alum, said. “Older men would come from 8 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. I’d sit on the sidelines, hoping to get in — it only happened if they had nine and I made 10.”
As a lanky high-schooler, Daghles took his pickup game on the road, going from gym to gym throughout the city in search of the perfect run.
“We used to go from rec [center] to rec [center],” he said. “Whatever gym was known for having the best runs that day, we’d be there.”
The “hoop jones” often led Daghles to Balboa Park and the famed Municipal Gymnasium, where local legend Kendrick Johnson — a high-flying Point Loma Nazarene guard, and later pro all over Europe — held court.
“Playing with actual men made me develop so much faster,” Daghles said. “It was battle after battle. Nowadays, kids play so much controlled-environment basketball, it doesn’t allow them to have that competitive edge we had back then. We hated losing. It was bragging rights.”
Those lessons learned on cracked concrete and beaten hardwood stayed with Daghles, 39, as he traveled the world as a professional ballplayer, then coach, and, now, basketball academy operator in his native Jordan.
“We were so battle-tested. I carried that with me in high school, college and professionally,” Daghles said.
Daghles first love as a kid in Amman, Jordan was soccer.
“Every kid in Jordan plays soccer,” he remembered. “Soccer is a street sport. I hated basketball.”
After immigrating with his family as a 9-year-old on Christmas Eve, 1988, to Michigan, and shortly after to Clairemont, Daghles found himself enamored with the schoolyard hype surrounding Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“The Lake Show’ and Magic, I remember that,” Daghles said. “There was so much hype around basketball the day after games, my attention shifted from soccer to basketball.”
Despite no organized background in the sport, Daghles showed enough aptitude to make the freshman team at Madison. Midway through the season, standing over 6-feet tall, and playing point guard, he was called up to the varsity — where he remained for the next three-and-a-half years.
“To this day, I’m thankful to the coaches for giving me that shot,” Daghles said. “I’m a testament of player development and hard work. I’m coming in as this skinny little kid. ‘Who is he – this Middle Eastern kid?’ I loved being at Madison High School, we didn’t have big names but [then] coach John Anella kept us together as one unit.”
The highlight of Daghles’s tenure at Madison came his junior year, when the overlooked Warhawks advanced all the way to the 1996, Division III, CIF championship game, before falling to the Walton brothers and University of San Diego High School.
“Nobody expected us to go that far,” Daghles remembered. “We were underdogs and I was an underdog. We weren’t big, but we were smart. Playing in a conference where we had to go to Lincoln High School, and other tough places, it made us who we are. In the championship game, we faced a loaded team. We didn’t have a chance, but that experience, playing varsity taught me about life — communicating with different people and toughness.”
Despite the deep playoff run, Daghles garnered little interest from Division 1 schools — with Holy Cross in Massachusetts being his only offer.
“Nobody thought that I could play college ball,” Daghles said. “I think they thought I was too skinny to play at the next level.”
Following graduation, a car accident further sidetracked Daghles’ basketball career. The accident resulted in a broken a hip for his father, limiting his ability to walk for a year. While Daghles rehabbed his own injuries, he had to take up work in a family-owned grocery store to help provide.
The following year, Daghles enrolled at San Diego Mesa College.
Over the next two seasons, playing under the constraints of junior college basketball — limited resources and roster shortages by way of academic ineligibility and injury — Daghles thrived as a 6-foot-6-inch point guard who scored, passed, rebounded and defended.
“He was a true leader,” Ed Helscher, Daghles’s coach at San Diego Mesa College, remembered. “His attitude was great; he worked hard on his game. He held the team together sophomore year.”
“I had the freedom and the greenlight to be me,” Daghles added. “I could make mistakes and learn.”
According to Daghles, San Diego State expressed interest in him as a redshirt walk on, but instead chose to spend his final two years of college at Division 2 Midwestern State.
“I went from the third best player on my high school team to the only player from that team to play college ball and then the only player to play pro ball,” Daghles said.
The dream for Daghles was always the NBA. Playing pickup games with overseas pros at San Diego State and University of San Diego in the summer after graduating from Midwestern State, widened the scope of that dream.
But going back to Jordan?
“I had no ties and no intention of playing professionally in Jordan,” Daghles said. “I didn’t think they had pro basketball, all I knew is they play soccer.”
Daghles hadn’t been to Jordan since coming to San Diego, some 15 years earlier. As it turned out, at least one person back home had been following his basketball career — the president of a newly formed team, Fastlink, which was sponsored by a telecom company and played in the first division of Jordanian pro ball.
“The president shows up in San Diego and takes me out for coffee,” Daghles remembered. “I left that meeting and told my agent ‘Forget about it, I’m not interested.’ He kept calling my agent day-in-day-out, until he convinced him to convince me.”
In Amman, Daghles found a league characterized by low salaries, a heavy reliance on foreign import players, and every team sharing the same gym in front of sparse crowds.
“Amateurish” is how Daghles described his first impressions.
In his first season, Daghles won the Most Valuable Player award and led Fastlink to an undefeated season and a championship.
“When Sam came to Jordan, he showed us the real meaning of working hard and being professional,” Zaid Abbas, a longtime Jordanian pro basketball player and member of the national team, said. “I saw the difference in the level between him and other players in Jordan — he pushed me and other young players to be better.”
“I think I helped make the league more professional,” added Daghles. “Players weren’t making a lot of money. I came in wanting a certain salary. I backed it up and created a buzz, other players started wanting more. I helped raise the bar and raise player salaries.”
From 2003 through 2015, Daghles bounced between the top leagues of Jordan, China, Iran, and the Philippines with brief stints in the NBA D-League and NBA Summer League.
“Back then , the D-League was brutal,” Daghles said. “The flights, the bus rides, bad hotels — it just wasn’t comfortable, especially coming from overseas where you were taken care of.”
Daghles also spent several years competing for the Jordanian national team, leading the country to its only ever appearance in the World Cup, in 2010.
After concluding his playing career in 2015, Daghles was named the head coach of the national team — a team beset by declining play and complaints from previous head coach Rajko Toroman about a lack of money and sponsorship.
“We were on such a low, there was only one way to go and it’s up,” Daghles said. “I know the culture, I know everybody in this region, I know the players in Jordan and what buttons to hit. I thought if we do this the right way, I can help bring Jordan back to its peak.”
In 2019 World Cup qualifying matches, Daghles led Jordan to a 5-3 record.
“As a coach, he fought for players’ rights and worked hard to teach fundamentals and make us better as individuals and as a team,” Abbas said. “As a leader he was unselfish, trying to help players outside the court as a big brother.”
In October, after two-and-a-half years, with Jordan on the inside track to qualify for the World Cup, Daghles resigned from his coaching position.
“Unfortunately, coaching in this country is very difficult,” Daghles said. “There are three different federations, each one was an obstacle. They didn’t want me coaching. They didn’t want to follow my guidelines. It was a fight — one step forward, 10 backwards. It was draining.”
Daghles’ current focus is working in player development, with Jordanians as young as 4, and up to the professional level, at a basketball academy he founded 18 months ago.
“On this side of the world, dreaming is sometimes scary,” Daghles said. “Basketball-wise, they doubt themselves a lot. What I try to impart is to put in the hard work. There is no cheating the process.”
Looking back at the past 25 years in basketball, Daghles said it’s his own hard work that he’s most proud of.
“I was lucky enough to compete against former NBA guys. I played against Stephon Marbury and Tracy McGrady and these big names,” Daghles said. “A kid that grew up in San Diego, that not too many people thought could play college ball that played professionally, that traveled the world and made a living — it’s beyond me.”
—Noah Perkins is a staff writer for a Japanese magazine Hoop Japan and freelances for several American newspapers.