The D-League Days of Ricky Davis
Grantland really likes NBA basketball. We like it so much that bingeing on LeBron James off-the-wall dunks and Marcin Gortat “Dream Shake” Vines sometimes doesn’t cut it. We need more. That brings us to D-League Week, an examination of the innovators, also-rans, has-beens, and oddities of the NBA’s minor league. Hope you enjoy.
Search for “Ricky Davis” in YouTube and the first thing you’ll find is a clip of the former 12-year NBA swingman attempting to cap a triple-double by rebounding off his own rim late in a 2002 home blowout.
One version has more than 600,000 views, more than double the second-most-watched video.
That video, in case you were wondering, shows Davis hammering a breakaway between-the-legs dunk straight off the back of the rim, getting his own rebound, and converting a windmill mulligan with such alien ease you’d think he was putting a box of Froot Loops back in the cupboard.
Fair or not, the now-infamous triple-double gambit — highlight and lowlight of a 17-win, pre-LeBron season in which “Wrong Rim Ricky” tallied a team-high 20.6 points per game — in many ways came to epitomize the Ricky Davis Experience, which is what I’m calling his imaginary band.
Ask a casual NBA fan to invent five tracks for RDE’s first EP, and you’d probably get something like this: “Ballad of a Shameless Gunner,” “Paul Silas Would Ship Me to Mongolia If He Could,” “Cornrows and Muttonchop Blues,” “Ricky, What the Hell Are You Doing?” and “Ricky, That Was Incredible.”
From 1998 to 2010, Davis suited up for six teams, an average of one every two seasons. His most recent NBA employer, the Los Angeles Clippers, waived him halfway through the 2009-10 slate. Davis was 30 years old.
So when word broke in November that the Erie BayHawks — the Knicks’ D-League affiliate — had selected Davis with the 93rd overall pick in the league’s annual draft, the reaction was about what you’d expect: muted nostalgia mixed with dismissive indifference.
Just another twilit roundball wanderer desperate for one last swim in the spotlight; a paragon of one of the NBA’s shakier and shadier epochs, looking to prove he still belongs.
Those were my prejudices, anyway. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone. And yet, there was something strangely compelling about a guy who’d banked at least $40 million and spent three years hopscotching the basketball globe, discovering strange lands and even stranger people, saying, ‘Yes, I would like to spend these next six months in North Dakota and Tulsa and Hidalgo and hope against every shred of logic and precedent that some team — any team — will lower me a ladder back to the show.’
That was the Ricky Davis I wanted to talk to. I’m not sure I found him.
It was Super Bowl weekend in Portland, Maine, where the BayHawks were in town to face the Red Claws, Boston’s D-League team. Davis and the rest were holed up at a Holiday Inn Express atop a small bluff along 1-95, overlooking about four square miles of malls and patchwork shopping centers in South Portland, about five miles from the namesake neighbor’s bustling downtown.
I arranged to meet Ricky in the hotel lobby in the early afternoon. Save for Kentucky-Missouri droning low from the lobby television, the room was silent. Not a lot of tourists this time of year, even on weekends.
At three, the rightmost elevator dinged and out he stepped, dark gray hoodie and almost-matching sweatpants loosely shrouding his 6-foot-7 frame. He asked if it’d be OK to make some tea real quick.
I’d had more than a few people — mostly reporters and writers who’d covered him through the years — tell me how good a guy Ricky is in person. They were not lying. There’s an easy affability to his demeanor, as if the years have been kinder on spirit than the body Davis has spent the better part of the past three years trying to right.
We began by talking about this season — how he and the guys were dealing with the then 8-18 record, the demands of the daily grind. His answers were honest, if not terribly detailed. But then I broached the subject of the D-League itself. “How many NBA fans know that a full 129 of its players have spent time here?” The focus suddenly turned taut.
“There’s definitely more recognition, especially over the last few years,” Davis said. “More guys have been getting called up — guys that were either trying to get healthy or trying to get better. And it’s tough to get into to begin with, you know?”
I started in on my follow-up, only to have Davis cut me off, saying wry-smiled but measured, “I think they should pay the guys more, though.”
We talked about playing overseas (best time: France; best competition: Turkey; most difficult adjustment: China), about his best NBA stretch (Boston, where he nearly won Sixth Man of the Year), about his dunk on Steve Nash (“probably my best ever”).
It’s at this point that I brought up the would-be triple-double. Davis’s first reaction is to chuckle and bow his head sheepishly, like a lothario reminded of a long-ago conquest. But the attendant justification makes it impossible not to sympathize with the motivation, if not the actual method.
“That was about my fifth or sixth game getting close to a triple-double. I was always one rebound or one assist away,” Davis recalled. “So, somebody yelled at me from the bench, ‘Ricky, you’re one rebound away!’ There’s two minutes left in the game, and I can’t get a rebound. We get down to the last 35 or 45 seconds or something, and I’m just thinking, How can I get a rebound? I say, OK, after the free throw and the inbounds, I’ll just do my thing — get that rebound.”
“Probably wasn’t fun having DeShawn Stevenson come after you, though,” I offered.
“It was probably a selfish thing,” Davis responded, before adding in as matter-of-fact a manner as possible: “But I really wanted that triple-double, man.”
On LeBron’s early struggles during the 22 games the two shared before Davis was traded to Boston in late 2003: “I just told him to be solid, don’t worry about it. But he had a good head on him, you could tell even then.”
On whether he’d start a team with LeBron or Kevin Durant: “I’d probably go with LeBron. Although Durant can score, man. He’s been a lot more efficient this year.”
On his favorite coach (not named Paul Silas — that’s a joke): “Pat Riley. Good guy, great leader, always in tune with what’s going on with guys and out on the floor.”
On his plans after this season: “Stick it out this year, maybe go overseas next year, depending. Maybe play somewhere for a year or two, then get into coaching.”
“Coaching?” I asked.
“I’ve always wanted to coach. I think I’d be a good coach.”
My final question was about his summer plans. Would he stick around in Erie awhile? Scope out the scene abroad?
“Nah, I’ll go back down to Texas. I have a farm there.”
“Yeah, 17 acres. We have horses, cows, German shepherds, everything.”
“What brought you down to Texas?”
“I don’t know. About five or six years ago I decided that I wanted some land. So I bought some land. Maybe it was growing up in Iowa that did it.”
I thought about Ricky Davis waking up at first dawn, holding a cup off coffee on a white wraparound porch, watching his horses whinny and trot through a grove of cottonwoods, trademark mischief’s smirk on his face. This thought pleased me.
I thanked him for his time, suggesting that maybe we connect for a minute or two after the game, assuming the credentials I requested came through, which they should …
“Do you need tickets or anything?”
“No, no, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Worse comes to worst I’ll just buy one.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. Thanks, though.”
The Red Claws play their home games at the Portland Exposition Building, a century-old 3,100-seat bandbox that doubles as a high school gym. It’s just before 6 p.m. on game day — a Saturday — and the waiting crowd has already leaked out the lobby doors and onto the sidewalk.
For a city and a region not exactly known for deep basketball roots, Portland’s fan base — equal parts family-friendly and millennial magnet — is both engaged and enthused. By tipoff the foldout bleachers will be 90 percent full, while scores of people rove around the souvenir tables and makeshift concourses ringing the court.
As Erie’s lone captain — a surreal sight in its own right — Ricky meets with the trio of referees at center court before rejoining the layup lines. On one of his turns, he slams the ball just above the left elbow, catches it mid-270 spin, and throws it down. The legs look good. “The best they’ve felt in years,” he confided earlier.
As has been his role for most of the season, Davis comes off the bench, although this doesn’t stop him from leading the team’s raucous chant following the starter intros. Already you can tell that Davis has embraced his place as elder statesman — the wily uncle whose pranks and polemics all the kids look forward to at Christmas dinner.
More than four minutes in, and the BayHawks are already down 12-0, bludgeoned by Portland’s combination of size (Daniel Orton and Vitor Faverani anchor the paint) and tough-nosed perimeter D (Chris Babb, a muscular guard out of Iowa State, looks NBA-ready in this respect). Erie head coach Gene Cross quickly calls a timeout, and Davis — trademark headband no longer burdened by braids — rushes up to point guard Lewis Jackson, pointing back to the court in a flurry of fast instructions.
Finally, at the 4:34 mark of the first frame, and with the Hawks down 28-16, Davis enters the game. His first touch — an attempted pocket pass from just inside the left wing — results in a turnover. But the team already looks more cohesive at both ends of the floor, owing in part, I surmise, to the fact that Davis doesn’t stop talking. Back-door screens, baseline cutters, open teammates: He sounds them all, eyes wide and bouncing buoyantly on the balls of his feet. Aided by a few soft jumpers of his own, Davis has the Hawks right in it until the Claws use a final second-quarter flurry to extend the halftime lead to 59-48.
Ricky wouldn’t see the floor again until the end of the third quarter. In the interim, I can’t help but conflate the arena’s ancillary entertainment — the crowd launching plush basketballs from the stands into a center-court lobster trap, a two-man cross-court race to strap on football pads — and the currency of freewheeling whimsy the NBA never wanted Davis to spend.
Though his ambiguous answer to my earlier question about future plans might suggest otherwise, Davis, who had a cup of coffee with these same Red Claws in 2011, is clearly enjoying himself. And while he would produce one time-machine highlight — a breakaway dunk halfway through the fourth quarter to give the Hawks their first and only lead — it was in the extra perimeter pass and savvy defensive rotations that Davis yielded the purest picture of an older, wiser basketball being.
With 1:22 left to go and the game still well within reach, Cross subs Davis out for the final time. The Red Claws would eventually prevail, 108-103.
I make my way down into the arena basement, hoping to get a quick take from Davis. Save for a small gaggle of trainers, security, and a pair of local reporters, the halls are empty enough to hear the muted banter behind the walls.
After a few minutes the door swings open and out walks Davis, beaming a smile that suggests the loss is all but forgotten. Citing a plus-minus number I never actually bothered looking up, I ask him whether it was tough coming out after helping the team claw back from a double-digit deficit.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” he says. “I was playing some of my best ball of the season, I think. It’s tough not to be in there.”
I leave it at that. We exchange some final pleasantries, shake hands, and off he goes — the basketball embodiment of the old Hunter Thompson passage: a high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, too rare to die.
The next guy to exit is Micah Downs, 6-foot-8 Gonzaga product and 27-year-old sweet-shooting journeyman and, through three games, Erie’s newly minted leading scorer. I ask him about coming back to Portland, where last season he was named to one of the league’s two All-Star teams, the Future Stars.
At that point I mention Davis, wondering aloud whether his perspective has changed as much as his approach, using that night’s many passed-up jumpers as cases in point.
“He’s making the right basketball plays,” Downs says. “He’s a scorer, a guy who can get his shot, but when your look isn’t there you have to hit the open guy, and that’s what he’s doing.”
Copy and paste that quote into the Google search box, making sure to add a “+ ricky davis.” No results.
You could argue that the sheer specificity of the quote would render it so, and you’d probably be right.
Me? I like to believe not even Google gets Ricky Davis anymore, that this basketball clown turned courtier — a player who, had he first arrived NBA-side five years later, would’ve claimed a Twitter million for every horse he now owns — has finally broken the Internet.
That Ricky Davis is not just rewriting his own legacy, but doing so in a way the world simply can’t compute.