Daniel Smalls grew up on James Street in the Central State Street neighborhood, a short walk from Central Park.
He always seemed to be good at basketball. An elementary school teacher, he recalled, saw him play and pointed to the game as his out, his opportunity.
He had far-away dreams of one day playing professionally in the NBA. What kid who’s ever picked up a ball hasn’t had those dreams?
Even for the best of players, such dreams are rarely realized. So, when the inevitable question came — what else would he like to do — the kid from James Street had a ready answer: He wanted to be an attorney.
Retelling the story recently he remembered the response to that dream: Yeah, but what else did he want to be?
“To many people, and I think this is an accurate representation for many of the people within the inner city neighborhood at least, becoming an attorney is as far fetched [as playing in the NBA], and it’s a big dream,” Smalls said.
“At a point I did believe that,” Smalls added. “But once I started surrounding myself with people who were motivated as well, and seeing that they just wanted more out of life, too, I just started to believe and know that I could be an attorney.”
After starring on the Schenectady High School basketball court and at local colleges, playing offense and defense, Smalls went on to a school without a basketball team for his law degree.
Smalls, now 29, graduated from Western New England School of Law two years ago. He soon took a job with the Schenectady County Conflict Defender’s Office, working a different kind of defense in a different kind of court.
While continuing his work with the conflict defender part-time, he recently opened up his own office, hanging a shingle at 514 State St. in the city where he grew up.
“It’s something that I’ve always been interested in and, at the same time, I think it’s something that’s important,” Smalls said.
At the conflict defender’s office, Smalls works cases in both Family Court and criminal court. In his private practice, he intends to take up more general law, from real estate to estate planning, as well as criminal and other law.
Smalls’ boss at the conflict defender’s office, Tracey Chance, described Smalls as a good attorney who works hard.
“Clients relate to him well,” Chance said.
In Family Court especially, Smalls said his own experience gives him a unique perspective on the system.
That’s because as a child the system once watched over him and his siblings.
Coming from a blended family of eight children, Smalls recalled spending time in foster care at the age of 4 or 5 before the family reunited.
Family visitations happened at the county building. A picture from one of those visits shows a young Smalls with four of his siblings and his grandmother on the first terrace step that is still outside the county building. He primarily lived with his mother growing up.
“It allows me to understand a little bit more what’s going on,” Smalls says of his own experience. “It allows me to kind of sympathize.
“I know as attorneys we’re kind of taught not to get emotionally attached,” he adds. “I think I do a really good job at it. However, we’re human sometimes.”
Smalls wonders if those early interactions help put him on the path toward being an attorney himself.
Basketball, though, is what put him on the path toward making that a reality.
After taking up the game in fourth or fifth grade at the Central Park basketball courts up the James Street hill, Smalls remembered first meeting Schenectady High’s coach Mark Sausville while still at Central Park Middle School.
Smalls recalled being in awe. He also recalled the coach giving him his first talk.
“This could be a vehicle for you, if you use it properly,” Smalls recalled Sausville telling him.
Subsequent talks with Sausville, as Smalls moved from the ninth grade team to varsity, centered around getting to class, getting good grades and respecting family, Smalls recalls.
Sausville, now the junior varsity coach at Scotia, remembers Smalls as smart and capable young man, but one who could also be headstrong.
“He’s overcome a lot,” Sausville said. “He’s a kid that just decided what he wanted to get out of life, what he wanted to do. He didn’t make excuses. He just went out and did it.”
Smalls graduated from Schenectady High in 2004, spending much of his time on the varsity squad at guard. A consistent player, Smalls could also turn it on at any moment.
He went on to SUNY Cobleskill, then Schenectady County Community College, playing basketball for both. At SCCC in 2007, Smalls led his team in scoring, winning Co-Male Athlete of the Year honors.
He finished out his undergraduate work and his basketball career at the College of St. Rose. Basketball helped fund all of his undergraduate work.
St. Rose coach Brian Beaury recalled Smalls — nicknamed “Biggie” — as a solid student, a great teammate and easy to coach.
Smalls also knew basketball was a tool to get him where he needed to be.
“He challenged his teammates. He held himself accountable and he held his teammates accountable,” Beaury said. “I see big things for Biggie Smalls in the future.
“Nothing would surprise me at all. He’s a guy that I could see being a leader in the community.”
Smalls also met his fiance Amanda at St. Rose. They’re planning a wedding for this summer. They have three children together, Daniel, 8, Noah, 5, and Christian, 1.
Now as a lawyer, Smalls is now trying to make his mark in the courtrooms of the city and county where he grew up.
“I’ve seen it. I understand it. Now I’m able to experience it from a different perspective,” Smalls said. “I think that’s great for people to see that.”
Reach Gazette reporter Steven Cook at 395-3122, [email protected] or @ByStevenCook on Twitter.
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