Suns Throwback: Walter Davis
by Matt Petersen

With the present Suns’ players enjoying their offseason, decided the summer time is a great chance to catch up with former players and staff for a weekly #SunsThrowback edition of Phoenix basketball history. How does it work? Basically we get their memories going just enough to do what they do best: tell us their most memorable stories from their playing days.

This week's guest is former Suns All-Star and Ring of Honor member Walter Davis, who talks about how he honed his jump shot as a kid, the ABA influence in North Carolina, and why his game flourished after college.

On how he honed his game as a kid in North Carolina…

Walter "Sweet D" Davis

In the summertime growing up and being involved with basketball, I’d get up and practice by myself for three hours. I’d pick on thing to work on: shooting, dribbling, conditioning, something to work on by myself for three hours. Then I’d go home, rest, have lunch and then in the afternoon probably around 5:00 or 5:30, we’d play pickup games at the park for another three hours. That was a typical day for me in the summertime.

Right across the street from my home was a high school, which later on, because of bussing, became an elementary school. They had outdoor courts, four baskets, four courts outdoors. That’s where I’d go to work on my shooting and conditioning and dribbling on all that stuff.

On how he developed his jump shot…

I went to one basketball camp when I was 12 years old. Dolph Schayes, who played in the NBA a long time ago –his son Danny Schayes, eventually we were teammates with the Nuggets – he did the shooting camp. It was Campbell College in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Dolph Schayes did the shooting clinic. I just remembered some of the tips he gave that day. After that week I went home and started practicing them[1].

On the impressions made by University of North Carolina and UNC star Charlie Scott…

Barrier Breakers: Charlie Scott

It was never a question where I was going to go to school. I loved the Carolina blue. When I first saw Carolina play, they were playing hard. They played together. They were playing unselfishly. That’s the kind of team ball I loved to play. After I saw them on TV for the first time, I set that as a goal that I wanted to get a scholarship and play there.

[The UNC teams I watched] were  the Charlie Scott teams[2]. he was a swingman also. H ecould play two or three. He was very quick. He had a nice outside shot. He could take it to the basket. He was quick on defense, had good hands, good savvy.

On the early and local influence of the ABA and NBA…

We had a team there in Charlotte: the Carolina Cougars. They would play games in Charlotte. They would play some games in Greensborough and they would play some games in Raleigh. That was a big influence to go watch those guys play, watching North Carolina, watching the University of Davidson that was right there outside of Charlotte. We’d go to the Charlotte Coliseum and see those games live or watch them on TV. It was a big influence to watch those players and then go outside and emulate what they did out there on the court.

[The Virginia Squires] were popular. Charlie Scott[3] was actually the reason I went to the game because he was on Virginia’s team. Everybody left the arena talking about Julius Erving, this rookie.

[I looked up to] Dr. J, of course. I saw him for his rookie year with the Virginia Squires. I saw him play when they’d play the Carolina Cougars. I never saw an NBA game live, but on TV I’d watch Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell go at it. Bill Russell was one of my idols. I loved watching Jerry West and Oscar Roberston, two guys that I looked up to.

On his run with UNC to the 1977 national championship game…

Davis Jumper in 1977 Championship Game

We won 14 straight games until we lost that championship game. We did it without our center, Tom LaGarde who had just had a wonderful game against Maryland. Then the next day in practice, just a drill, not contact, no defense, just making a move tore his ACL. We were very worried after losing Tommy because he was having such a great year[4]. I still think if we had him we could’ve won that final game.

I played with a broken index finger. That happened in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. Phil Ford[5] had a hyper-extended elbow in the Eastern Regionals against Notre Dame. We had to play through that. It was a lot of tough games, a lot of close games, but somehow, someway we pulled them out until that last game [against Marquette].

On being drafted in 1977…

It’s totally different than what it is today. When I got drafted I was at my apartment just waiting. My agent just said ‘wait there by the phone to see who picks you.’ I remember getting the phone call. The Phoenix Suns picked me with the fifth pick in that 1977 draft. They told me who went before. Kent Benson went first, I think. Either Otis Birdsong or Marques Johnson went second and third. Then Greg Ballard went fourth to the Bullets. I went fifth to the Phoenix Suns.

That was the day right there, just sitting by the phone waiting to see who would pick me.

On his knowledge of the Phoenix Suns before playing there…

I knew Charlie Scott had played there. I knew Connie Hawkins was an all-star and had played there, ‘cause I watched All-Star games. But that was pretty much it. I didn’t know anybody on the team. I knew the coaches because coach [John] McLeod and Al Bianchi came down to Carolina to watch film of me and they wanted to meet me, personally. I remember coming down to the basketball office and them introducing themselves to me. That was pretty much all I knew.

On his rookie year and why it was so successful…

It was awesome. Our team that first year in Phoenix, we got Don Buse for Ricky Sobers. Alvan Adams was a great passer and Gar Heard…it was just like playing college ball. We liked to run. Everybody was unselfish and loved to pass, got along really good. Rodney Lee was there, the Kamikaze Kid. It was a fun, fun first year. I adjusted really quick to the pro game because of Coach McLeod and the guys I played with.

At Carolina, it’s a totally different game that we played. You’d have to make five passes to move the defense before a shot was about to go up. Only one guy on our team could make a move to get his own shot. We had to play unselfish, set picks and through our offense get an open shot. That’s the way it was in college.

In the pro game, a longer game, wide-open, 24-second clock, shots come up quickly. Coach said ‘if you can make a move, get your own shot. We’re going to run plays for you. We’re going to fast break.’ A lot of times I got open shots just running the floor and being in great shape[6].

On Alvan Adams the player and Alvan Adams the person…

Alvan was an outside post man. He could run. He could pass. He’d hit that 17-foot shot. He was a great player for me to pass with. All I had to do was run that play and move without the ball and Alvan would find [me].

We were roommates for a while, there. He had rules. When it was naptime, he wanted the room completely dark. Hold all the calls, no phone calls. He would get the tape we would use to tape our ankles and tape the curtains in the room really, really tight so no light would come through. I think of naptime for Alvan from 1:30, 2:30 to 4. No TV or nothing.

On playing with Suns All-Star Larry Nance…

The first time I heard about him, he played at Clemson. That’s in the ACC. Of course, my guys at North Carolina and the coaches would talk about this guy that could just jump out of the gym. He’s already 6-10, 6-11 and still had hops.

When we drafted Larry and he came here, everything they said about him was true. He had great hops. Good guy and just improved every year that he was with us. Great teammate.

On the best defenders he faced…           

Michael Cooper from the Lakers was tough defensively. T.R. Dunn was tough defensively.

Michael Jordan played great defense. His quickness, his length, his athletic ability, all those. That and he was taught defense by Dean Smith, so he had sound principles on the defensive end. To beat Michael, you really have to have help from your teammates. You’ve got to give a lot of fakes, you’ve got to get picks. You’ve got to get that pass right on the split money.

On the present-day players he likes to watch…

There’s a couple. I like Kobe Bryant. I like watching him play. He’s a throwback. I love watching Kevin Durant play. I like watching LeBron James. I like watching Dwyane Wade. He’s kind of slowed down a little bit from all the injuries and wear-and-tear, but I would pick those guys as far as my favorite guys to watch today.

[Bryant] has the outside shot, he has the mid-range shot, he could take it to the basket. He played good defense. To me, I can’t speak for everybody else, I like watching guys who can do everything, who are all-around players.

[1] The irony here is that Schayes played 15 years in the NBA and shot above 40 percent from the field in just one season. In his own 15 years in the league, Davis never shot below 45 percent and hit better than 50 percent in eight different seasons.

[2] Davis ended up following Scott’s footsteps in two places: North Carolina and Phoenix. Scott was a four-time All-Star for the Suns from 1972-75.

[3] Scott was nearly unstoppable in his ABA days. He averaged 27.1 points, 5.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game on his way to the ABA Rookie of the Year award and the All-ABA First Team in 1970-71. He followed by putting up 34.6 points per contest the following season before coming over to the NBA and the Suns.

[4] LaGarde was third on the team in points (15.1ppg), first in rebounds (7.4rpg ) and second in field goal percentage (59.3).

[5] Ford led UNC in scoring that season with 18.7 points per game.

[6] Davis was named the Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in 1977-78. His numbers: 24.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.4 spg, 52.6 FG%