Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
Daniel Skillings Sr. wanted to make sure his son, Daniel Jr., was going to get it right. Skillings Sr. got raw with it. He grabbed his son, around 12 at the time and about as tall as he was, and took Dan Jr. to a blighted, cracked-pavement, trash-strewn dim street in Camden and made him pay attention.
Skillings Sr. pointed to a kid on the corner not much older than Junior and said that kid sells crack, he never met his dad, his sister is three years old and his mother sells her body. Dan Sr. stressed the kid can’t feed his sister, so he has to find ways to make money. Then, Senior told his son, “You will never sell drugs, you will never make the same mistakes I did.”
Daniel Skillings Jr. (above, in June) estimates he moved more than 30 times as a child. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Dan Sr. did a few stints in prison. He’s not proud of it. But he doesn’t run away from it either. He’s together and clean now, and working with his older brother, Michael, at Gameday Cuts in Lindenwold, New Jersey.
Dan Sr. couldn’t have returned at a better time, because Dan Skillings Jr. is blowing up right now. Five months ago, the 6-foot-6, 195-pound Roman Catholic wing who plays some point guard didn’t have a college offer—not one.
As July closes, Skillings Jr. has 26.
He endured 10 different school changes combined between grade school and high school, currently at his third, after spending his freshman year at Highland, his sophomore year and St. Joseph’s (Hammonton, N.J.) and these last two crossing the bridge to attend traditional Philadelphia Catholic League powerhouse Roman.
Between family and friends, he bounced around to about 30 different living arrangements growing up. He endured some unbearable verbal abuse, though he also received a healthy amount of caring and love—never in one home for any prolonged period.
What’s even more amazing is that Skillings Jr., 18, never really took basketball seriously until his freshman year of high school. The instability in his early life prevented that from happening.
As the 2021-22 season approaches, Skillings is arguably the city’s best high school player. A 6-foot-6, 205-pound wing with an even longer wingspan, Skillings is a slashing scorer who can defend the '1' through '4' and fill any of those slots offensively.
Temple and La Salle have offered. So have Georgia, Minnesota, VCU, Cincinnati, NC State, St. John's and Miami and a growing list of others. Villanova is not interested—yet, but that could change. Amauro Austin, one of the directors for the Philly Pride AAU basketball club — which Dan Jr. has played for since his freshman year in high school — has seen Skillings grow both on and off the court.
“Being around Dan, you would never know what this kid has been through, because he’s always smiling, he’s always well-kept and Dan is an amazing kid in so many ways,” Austin said. “Dan has really opened a lot of eyes and he has NBA scouts already calling, which is what he did this summer.
Skillings (above, with ball) averaged more than 19 ppg as Roman Catholic made it to the 2021 PCL Championship game. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“Daniel is the best rising senior in the city. He can really do it all. When I got him, he was already good, but very, very raw. He was very athletic, long, and was aggressive and had some skill. He wasn’t really taught anything. He’s an awesome kid who’s easy to work with. Danny plays hard, extremely hard.
“He doesn’t have a dream school and it’s a decision he and his family will make. I want Dan to go to a school that will wrap their arms around him. He’s beginning to get polished now. Last spring, during the pandemic, my 17U coach, Kenny Jackson, worked with him doing private workouts and taught him.”
Skillings was dedicated. He didn’t miss a practice. Austin and Jackson foresaw Dan breaking out. When St. Joseph’s threatened to close its doors in 2020, Skillings chose Roman and his Uncle Michael, Dan Sr.’s older brother, stepped into his life as his legal guardian.
In his first year in the Philadelphia Catholic League, Skillings averaged 19 ppg as a junior for a Roman squad that made it to the PCL championship game.
This June, Skillings Jr. played in front of college coaches for the first time and his play raised a lot of eyebrows. At Philly Live 2021 at St. Joe’s Prep during the week of June 21, his brand rose considerably. His stature grew more on the Under Armour circuit in stops to Atlanta, Dallas and Indiana.
That merited a late invitation for Skillings to the NBA Top 100 camp the last week of July in Orlando, Florida. Doing so interrupted his recruiting plans, however, so he hasn't gotten a chance to sort through his offers or plan any visits.
A simple dribble comes with a smile. A drive to the basket comes with a smile. A pull-up mid-range jumper comes with a smile. A three-pointer comes with a smile.
He does it, despite tolerating things a kid shouldn’t have to go through.
“Danny’s foundation comes from my dad, Pastor Mike Skillings, and our family and there were challenges when I got Dan,” said Michael Skillings, 48. “We gripped him up with a lot of things, because early on, his attendance was not good. He never had any stability, and we butted heads. He was a typical kid, who had a lot of independence at a young age.
“Dan adapted well, and his dad had a lot to do with that. I have five children of my own, but I wasn’t about to let my nephew out there on the streets. We worked on tightening up his grades and tightening up his attendance. We went from no one knowing Dan, until a big push this summer.
“Danny really started coming around his sophomore year. He gradually came around through time and began accepting structure. There is a passion in my brother’s voice when it comes to his son. Dan, my brother, has come a long way and I’m proud of my baby brother. They both have.”
Skillings (above) has more than two dozen offers to sort through coming out of July. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Skillings Jr. himself says the credit goes to his family. They are the ones who pulled him through. He was always “the new kid,” learning new areas and new schools, and being so much taller than everyone else, there were constantly eyes on him. Who wouldn’t be self-conscious?
“I blocked out the noise, I have God on my side and I pray every night, that’s always going to be a blessing,” Dan Jr. said. “I think the most challenging times were when my father was away and a lot of bad situations with my mother, bouncing house-to-house where I lived. It was probably like around 100 places (laughs), but it was really around 30 since I was born to when I was around 10.
“Don’t get me wrong, I had a great family and had a lot of love, but it was different schools, and I lived with my grand mom, then my dad got out, and I lived with him, then when my dad went back, I lived with my mom’s side, who are super involved.
“I’m with my dad again and I’m proud of my dad and what he’s overcome. When I was younger, I was a kid and acted like a kid. My Uncle Mike put a lot of rules down and I used to be a free and independent, but when I got older, I started to understand and saw where my Uncle Mike was coming from.
“But my dad is No. 1. I listen to him. He also taught me a lot. My dad may have made mistakes, but he would never want me to make those same mistakes. I know that. I had odds against me, but I learned from my family to put the work in.”
Skillings Jr. admits he still has a lot to learn about basketball. He says he’s in a good place in his life. He wants to make it to the NBA one day—not just for himself, but for his family. As early as he can remember, he would watch Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, dreaming he would be them one day.
“That’s all I want,” says Dan Sr., 40. “I can’t even watch Junior’s videos. All of the highlights everyone sees, I can’t see. I start crying, it’s too much for me. It’s easy for everybody else. It’s not easy for me. I can’t watch his games for too long, because I start breaking down. That’s because I’m so proud of him. I have a stable job and I’m good right now. From 2008 to 2013, it was me and Junior every day.
“No one else.”
Dan Sr. couldn’t get a babysitter, so he would take his son to Empire Beauty School working towards his barber’s license. Junior would pack his books, sit in a corner and do his homework, while Dan Sr. was learning his craft. That happened three, four times a week. He would get Junior up early and go to school. That’s how Junior discovered the importance of a work ethic.
“I’m proud of my son and everything he’s doing. He’s been through a lot,” Dan Sr. said. “I made mistakes, but my son is not one of them. I got that right.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.