Sentimental Journey for Veteran Davis
Day in and day out, Davis’ fundamental approach to the game has been a shining example for Chicago’s young players to follow.
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Posted March 25, 2004
After eight calls from a road trip hotel room, Antonio Davis finally reached his wife Kendra and told her he had been traded to the Chicago Bulls.
In return, he was greeted with a click and a dial tone. She didn't mean to hang up on her husband; she just momentarily had what she calls an out-of-body experience. "My mind started spinning," recalls Kendra Davis. "I was like, oh-my-God-I-have-to-tell-the-kids...and just hung up."
The Davis family had been on pins and needles ever since they first heard rumblings of a possible trade last fall. "I read in the paper that John Paxson claimed he didn't sleep for a week, and I'm thinking, he wasn't the only one," laughs Kendra. "We were having vigils over here."
Those prayers were finally answered in early December as a blockbuster deal sent Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall and Lonny Baxter to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Antonio Davis, Jerome Williams and Chris Jefferies.
What made the trade so incredible for Antonio Davis was that, by pure coincidence, his family was already residing here in Chicago. After living in Canada for several years, the couple felt they wanted their eight-year old twins, Kaela and Antonio Jr. to finally attend school in the states. So Kendra moved back to her hometown Chicago suburb with the kids, while Antonio remained with the team in Toronto. "It was an experiment that failed," Kendra confesses. "We were all pretty miserable because Antonio is such a huge part of our everyday lives."
So for the first half of the season, the Davis family felt like they were living on an airplane, never letting more than four or five days go by without hooking up in various cities to reunite. "It was getting to the point where I couldn't take the kids out of school again. So we decided if the trade didn't happen, we were moving back to Canada," says Kendra.
Luckily for the Davis family, everything worked out perfectly. But the road to the NBA didn't quite fall in place so easily for Antonio Davis. As a youngster living in Oakland, California, Davis didn't even play basketball until ninth grade. Track and football were his first loves, but as he grew into the tallest kid in his class, Davis was highly encouraged to pick up the round ball. Although he quickly learned to love the sport, the NBA was never even a pipe dream. "I never thought I'd even have the opportunity to go to college," remembers Davis, recalling his single-parent upbringing. "But I thought if I work hard, I could maybe get a scholarship and save my mom a lot of money."
Because of his late start, Davis wasn't on anybody's radar screen during high school. But then he was invited by Los Angeles Lakers star Gary Payton's father to play on his son’s team in an AAU tournament in Phoenix. Davis showcased his talents in front of a lot of coaches who quickly took notice.
The first one to arrive at the Davis doorstep was former Bulls and current New Orleans Hornets Coach Tim Floyd, who at the time was an assistant with the University of Texas-El Paso. "Antonio was a late bloomer with a strong work ethic and a great base at home that we thought could develop into something special," Floyd recently explained at the United Center before a Bulls-Hornets game. "I don't think I ever got any closer to a guy that I recruited. I'm so happy for Antonio that things worked out so well for him."
Some players get upset when they’re traded, but in Davis’ case, the move to Chicago proved to be a blessing since wife Kendra and kids Kaela and Antonio Jr. were already living in the area.
But before the ink was completely dry on Davis's letter of intent, Floyd left to take the head coaching job at the University of Idaho. "At first I was very sad," admits Davis. "But, after I thought about it, I realized he was given a chance to do something he always wanted to do and I shouldn't be selfish."
Davis went on to have a respectable college career at Texas El-Paso under the guidance of legendary Coach Don Haskins. Then, on Draft night, the Davis household was packed with friends and relatives gathered around the television set anxiously awaiting his fate. As the first round fizzled into the second, everyone was disappointed except for Antonio.
"When they get to about the 40th pick, you're hoping not to be selected so that you have an opportunity to try out as a free agent with teams you think you have a chance to make," Davis explains. But while he was on the phone with his agent figuring out what teams he had his best shot with, his name was called. Antonio Davis was picked at number 45 in the second round by the Indiana Pacers. The selection made him proud of what he'd accomplished in such a short time, but Davis knew he would be a long shot at best.
Then, days after the Draft, a team from Greece offered him a contract. "I'm just a kid from Oakland," chuckles Davis. "I didn't know anything about Greece or Europe, for that matter." But after looking at the Pacers roster, he really didn't think he had a chance to make the team. So Davis left for his new promised land. At the time, there was only one American on the team...himself. And Davis had a hard time adjusting to the loneliness. "I found myself breaking down and crying a lot the first month or two. I just wanted to go home," recalls Davis. "But then I met a couple of Greek-Americans that showed me around and got me over the hump. Greece turned out to be a great maturing experience for me."
After two seasons in Athens, Davis went to Indiana’s free agent rookie camp and played well. But the Pacers wouldn't guarantee him a contract, while a team in Italy did. "They offered a lot of money on the table that I just couldn't refuse, so off I went," Davis says without any regrets.
The following year, the Pacers brought in a whole new coaching staff led by Larry Brown, and Davis was asked back to camp. The third time was the charm. This time, they offered him a three-year contract. Bulls Assistant Coach Pete Myers played in the same league as Davis did in Italy and often got together with Antonio and other American players to celebrate holidays overseas. "When I came back to play here for the Bulls, Antonio played for the Pacers," remembers Myers. "During the game I would tease him that he was elbowing me like he never knew me or something."
Davis's good fortune went well beyond his contract. "It was like, Antonio, you're not in Greece anymore," laughs Davis on joining the NBA. "I'm no longer washing my clothes and hanging them out to dry. It made me get up every morning appreciative of my situation." Davis also admits to being star struck, playing with guys like Dale Davis, Reggie Miller and Detlef Schrempf. But the biggest thrill was teaming up with Chris Mullin after growing up watching him while with the Golden State Warriors. "It took a long time getting used to that," says Davis, who is still very close with Mullin.
Just when he thought life couldn't get any better, Davis crossed paths with his future wife, Kendra. Actually, they crossed several paths, bumping into each other several times in several different cities. "I'm the type of person who believes that things don't just happen," Davis states. "When you bump into a beautiful woman, you don't forget her. And when you see her again, maybe God is telling you something." Of course, Kendra has a slightly different spin on their chance meetings, jokingly referring to them as more of a stalking. "Being from Chicago, with the Bulls winning all their championships, I became a Bulls fan, but I wasn't an NBA fan," admits Kendra. "I couldn't have named a player outside of the Bulls team. So being the wife of an NBA player wasn't exactly in my plans."
Satisfied with the Pacers, the Davis family had no plans to leave Indiana either. Life was good. Antonio had a new, long-term contract and a happy home life with his wife and two children. He was extremely close with his teammates, especially Byron Scott (current head coach of the New Jersey Nets). Scott and his wife, Anita, are the godparents of the Davis twins and were even in the delivery room when the children were born.
“There aren’t too many situations that occur out on the court that [Antonio] hasn’t seen before. He’s just a wealth of experience,” says Bulls coach Scott Skiles.
But speaking in terms of basketball, Davis wanted to play more of a key role with his team. So during his end-of-the-season meeting with Pacers' General Manager Donnie Walsh, Davis said he had proven himself and expressed his desire to come out of the shadows of teammates Dale Davis and Rik Smits. Walsh respected what Antonio had to say but told him honestly that they were going to continue starting the other players. However, if he found a team where he thought Davis had an opportunity to start, he'd look into it.
Welcome to beautiful Toronto, Canada. Davis got his wish and quickly proved he was worthy of being in the forefront, starting 78 games while averaging nine rebounds his first year with the Raptors. By his second year, Davis cracked a new starting lineup, as center for the Eastern Conference in the 2001 All-Star Game. He says leaving Indiana was the toughest decision he ever had to make, but he was determined to look ahead. "If you go into a new situation and you're thinking negative thoughts, you're never going to thrive and grow." For his tough blue collar work ethic, fans have been appreciative of him wherever he has played, and find Davis to be very approachable for an autograph or photo. "I've never seen him say no to anyone," says Kendra Davis.
After Davis’s five years in Toronto, the signs were pointing back toward coming home to the United States. Antonio and Kendra made the decision that their children's education had to come first and decided they would tough it out and move the kids back to Chicago. Then, Davis informed the Raptors organization of his home situation. "I didn't say I wanted to be traded," remembers Davis. "I just told them I've never been without my family for a season, and I don't know how I'm going to react to that. I don't know if I'm going to come in some days sulking; I don't know if I'm going to come in crying. I don't know how I'm going to feel and just left it at that."
Shortly after hearing the click of his wife's distracted disconnection, Antonio Davis sat quietly in his hotel room to collect his thoughts regarding his good fortune on becoming a member of the Bulls. "I just dropped to my knees and gave thanks. There's no way I could even have prayed for this to happen. There was probably a one-in-million chance of this. Yet here I am."
Since his arrival in Chicago, Davis starts every practice by staring at all the championship banners as he stretches out. Months later, he still can't quite get over his good fortune as he remembers competing against all those great teams. Now he's one of them. After ten years as a professional, this is the most settled he's ever been. "We always had three residences going at a time — a home during the season, a summer home and a condo. And we're always juggling paperwork and bills from house to house," says Antonio. "Now we just have one home, and it's just so simple. I get to see the kids before and after school."
Both children are huge basketball fans but have been taught that even though that's how Dad makes his living, everyone should be proud of his or her mom or dad regardless of what they do. "You have to validate yourself in your own way. You are who you are," explains Kendra. "Several times I've heard my daughter's friends say, 'Kaela, you didn't tell me your dad plays on the Bulls.' And she'll respond with, 'We've never talked about what our dads do for a living.' "
Their son, Antonio Jr., is still getting the hang of it. Once Kendra caught him bragging to his friends about what kinds of cars he owns. "I went out in the garage and reminded him, 'You have a Schwinn.' "
What Antonio Davis has is another great situation for himself. The only difference is he's now an elder statesman. "He's just a great mentor for our young players, beginning his career in Europe and working his way to an All-star," says teammate Scottie Pippen. "For guys like Eddy [Curry] and Tyson [Chandler], they should take a page out of Antonio's book." Bulls Coach Scott Skiles agrees, adding, "What Antonio brings is to lead by example. There aren't too many situations that occur out on the court that he hasn't seen before. He's just a wealth of experience."
Even in his short career, rookie Kirk Hinrich has benefitted from the presence of his senior teammate. "He's always encouraging, always giving pointers and instruction. A lot of veterans wouldn't let a rookie talk to him, but Antonio always makes himself available."
Davis's attitude carries over to his teammates at home as well, as he plays the role of husband and father. "I think that's what his real mission is in life. Being a good basketball player is kind of the gravy," believes Kendra. "Antonio would have me pack a bag and go on every road trip if he could. I've often said to him, 'I don't have an NBA contract. My job is here with the kids.’"
Luckily for Antonio Davis, now his job is, too.
By Conrad Theodore