Upbeat Johnny Davis looks forward to 50 years in NBA
By Conrad Brunner
Thirty-five years later, Johnny Davis knows otherwise. He played nine more years for four teams and coached 25 years with nine more -- and still is looking for that second ring.
Others might become frustrated. Not Davis. He has loved every minute of the chase and intends to keep it going.
"I still enjoy coaching today the same as when I first started," said Davis, now an assistant to Dwane Casey with the Toronto Raptors. "Certainly, the game has changed in the respect that the players now are so much more talented and gifted that now you have 7-footers who can stand out behind the 3-point line and shoot the ball consistently well. And you have smaller players who can go inside and play on the low block.
"You have this wealth of talent and from an athletic and strength standpoint it has evolved, the technology has evolved. Now there's the analytics part of it, which is a key component to most teams now whereas before it was based on scouting and intuition and maybe experience. Now you add the element of playing the percentages. … You just have to keep pace with it. It's exciting and when you go back to my rookie year of 1976 and you fast forward to 2011, that's a lot of basketball and I've seen a lot of changes that I would say for the most part are good ones."
A smooth 6-2 point guard, Davis played four seasons (1978-82) with the Pacers and was an assistant to Rick Carlisle in 2006-07. His acquisition, you might say, was the stuff of legend.
The Pacers had won the coin flip for the No. 1 pick but, when it became clear draft-eligible junior Larry Bird would return to Indiana State for one more season rather than entering the NBA, traded it to Portland for the third overall pick and Davis. The Blazers used the No. 1 pick on Mychal Thompson, a low-post scorer from Minnesota. The Pacers used the No. 3 pick on Rick Robey, a bruising big man from Kentucky.
Boston took Bird with the sixth pick.
Davis did his part, averaging 16.4 points and 5.4 assists with the Pacers, helping them reach the NBA Playoffs for the first time in 1981 under head coach Jack McKinney, who had been an assistant to Jack Ramsay in Portland during Davis' time with the Blazers including the championship season of 1977.
"You could tell you were in a basketball environment and I really enjoyed my time there as a player and I have a real special feeling for Slick Leonard and Davey Craig, guys that have been there a long time," Davis said. "I had an opportunity to play with George McGinnis, Alex English, Mike Bantom, just to name a few.
"It was a special time and we took a lot of pride in performing for the Pacer fans. Sam Nassi was the owner at the time and he was from California and even though our ownership was not from Indiana, the organizational support -- Nancy Leonard was part of the front office and Slick was the G.M. as well as the coach -- so there was a real family feel that also made it special."
After the Pacers were swept out of the first round by the 76ers in 1981, free agency took its toll, as a franchise in dire financial straits could not retain many of its core players. Davis was dealt to Atlanta in 1982.
"The year that I left going to Atlanta, that was the same year they drafted Clark Kellogg and he was a phenomenal young player," Davis said. "You also had a really good center in Herb Williams, so the nucleus and the talent that was there was really, really good. We also had Billy Knight there, who was one of the most prolific scorers I had ever played with, and so it was just a situation that if not for one or two things, who knows what could have happened there because we had started to assemble good talent on that team."
An indefatigably upbeat personality, Davis has served as an assistant with nine teams (Hawks, Clippers, Blazers, Nets, Magic, Timberwolves, Pacers, Grizzlies and Raptors). He was head coach in Philadelphia in 1996-97 (going 22-60 in Allen Iverson's rookie season). In 2003, he replaced Doc Rivers in Orlando and went 51-84 in parts of two seasons.
Few have put in more time, more miles, more of his life in pursuit of that second ring but the 56-year-old Davis doesn't even have the finish line in sight yet.
"I would like to ideally coach 15 more years," he said. "If I can, I would like to become one of the guys who can say I've been in the game 50 years, five decades. I enjoy it, I look forward to it. What fuels my passion is how it is evolving. It's artistic, it's beautiful in its own way. It's simplistic yet it's also challenging. Each year you get different players that come in and you watch a guy go from being a rookie player to being a veteran to sometimes even going into the coaching ranks. And you see sons of players and sons of coaches come in. Every year is different because you have different people walking through the door.
"I want to do 50 years and then maybe I'll consider retiring. I think I'll entertain that notion at that point. As long as I have good health and as long as I have the passion for it, there's nothing else I would rather do."