NEWARK, Del. – Baron Davis was never supposed to be this guy.
Yet here Davis sits, less than two months shy of his 37th birthday, sitting on a trainer’s table inside a tiny locker room within the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center Friday night preparing for his first game with the Delaware 87ers against the Iowa Energy in the NBA Development League.
“I’m not gonna say I got bored with the artistic stuff,” Davis said. “But basketball, for me, is a real creative [outlet], and an opportunity to have some freedom, have some piece of mind.
“The more and more I worked out, the better I felt, and the better I was in my job … so, I was like, ‘Man, imagine if I have something left?’ I kept thinking to myself, ‘At least give it all that you’ve got.’”
That’s why Davis – now married with two children – is here. Nearly four years after crumbling to the ground after suffering a gruesome series of injuries to his right knee – complete tears of his ACL and MCL, plus a partial tear of his patella tendon – Davis is using the D-League to somehow try to get back to the NBA one last time.
At least in appearance, this version of Davis looks like the one we grew accustomed to during his NBA career. His trademark beard was a little shaggier than it used to be, and his hair a little longer, but Davis still was sporting his trademark wide headband, and his million-dollar smile remains unchanged.
The similarities end when he dons the uniform and steps onto the court. Almost everything else was vastly different from when Davis’ knee gave out on him at Madison Square Garden back on May 6, 2012 while playing for the New York Knicks in the playoffs.
Instead of NBA threads, Friday night Davis wore a special edition jersey created by UDance, a University of Delaware student-run charity, to help raise money for The Andrew McDonough B+ Foundation, which fights childhood cancer. (Davis’ jersey raised $150 in a silent auction – not surprisingly, the most of any player on the 87ers.) Instead of playing in front of close to 20,000 fans like he did throughout his NBA career, Davis’ return came in front of a listed attendance of 2,853. Meanwhile, there was nearly as much attention paid to the various play areas occupying children in an area adjacent to the court – most notably a pair of inflatable bounce houses – as to what was happening on it.
The fans that were focused on their flying children didn’t miss much. The game was a pedestrian affair that saw the Energy come away with a 114-106 victory in a typically fast-paced game for the NBA’s minor league.
Davis, who began the game on the bench behind 2014 Grizzlies second-round pick Russ Smith, did still some attention. He checked into the game to a big ovation with 6:44 remaining in the first quarter. He finished with eight points, four assists, three steals and two turnovers in 19 minutes.
“I survived … I didn’t die,” Davis said with a smile and a laugh. “I would say I definitely have got to get into a rhythm and, for a first time, I’m not happy with the result. But not bad.”
Not surprisingly, Davis looked his age on the court. While he still is capable of making picture-perfect passes – including a beautiful no-look alley-oop to Sam Thompson for a dunk in the second quarter – he lacked the foot speed to get into the paint and make plays. That left him to mostly sit on the perimeter and fire up three-pointers. Just like his days in the NBA, Davis didn’t hesitate to do so. But he struggled to make any, going 2-for-9 from behind the arc.
The one time he did score in the paint, however, he shocked everyone in the gym. After a steal, Davis broke ahead of the field, caught a pass, rose up and slammed the ball home with two hands.
“He looked good,” said Delaware Coach Kevin Young. “That dunk surprised the heck out of me, just like everybody.”
“I thought I was getting chased by a pitbull,” Davis said with a laugh. “I thought I was being chased by LeBron James coming to block it, and I didn’t want to lay it up. I just jumped and felt like, ‘Well, I’m up here, I might as well try it.’”
“Might as well try it,” could be the slogan for Davis’s D-League comeback attempt. Davis said that as he was working out at UCLA and preparing to come back, he had an offer to play in the American Basketball Association, and another to play for a pro team in Finland. But after holding his name in the D-League pool for two months, Delaware finally decided to give him a chance.
Looking around the gym Friday night, it was clear this was the proper place for his comeback – if only because the gym was full of players trying to seize an NBA dream that won’t die quietly. On Davis’ own team, there were two former NBA players: Rodney Carney, a first-round pick by the Bulls back in 2006, and Smith.
But no one in the gym understood the journey Davis is going through better than Iowa coach Bob Donewald. A former assistant coach with the Hornets from 2001-03 – the team’s final year in Charlotte and first in New Orleans – Donewald got to see a significant portion of Davis’s playing peak first-hand. Since then, he’s traveled around the world, spending time coaching in Brazil, Ukraine and, for the past several years, China, before coming back to coach the Energy in 2014.
That’s how Donewald found himself in a position to give Davis a bear hug at center court prior to the start of Friday’s game.
“I was fortunate enough to be with him with the Hornets, and we had some great years,” Donewald said afterward. “He and I were talking the last few weeks, and he wanted to come back, and he wanted to play. I find it great. I find it neat. I find it fun … he wanted to go out on his own terms, and good for him. Life’s too short not to, so why not? So when I gave him a hug, I just told him, ‘I’m really [expletive] happy for you.’ I didn’t know what else to say … I was really excited. It was neat for me, not to go against him, but to be here when he showed up.”
With the game behind him, Davis had something else very unfamiliar awaiting him Saturday morning: an early connecting commercial flight that would take him and his teammates to Des Moines, where they would play the Energy again Sunday. Davis finished that rematch with 14 points, two assists and four turnovers in 21 minutes.
But Davis claims to even be excited about this part of the D-League life, the one far away from the charter flights and five-star hotels that are the norm for anyone playing in the big leagues.
“I mean, hell, I’m wide-eyed right now,” he said. “I’m gonna take full advantage. I’ve never had a moment like this. I played in the NBA, and we fly private and stay at The Four Seasons and eat all kinds of good, delicious food, and you don’t experience it like this.”
It’s just one of many things Baron Davis is experiencing now he never would have expected to just a few short years ago.
“Of course it is [strange],” Donewald said of seeing Davis playing in the D-League. “We were playing in the NBA playoffs, and now we’re playing on a D-League floor. But life is full of twists and turns, and so is basketball. And here we are.”