Where Are They Now: Johnny Davis

Where Are They Now:Johnny Davis

From His Memorable Rookie Season Through His Stint with George Karl's Comeback Cavs, Johnny Davis Has Been an NBA Stalwart

by Joe Gabriele (@CavsJoeG)
4/30/20 | Cavs.com

Even folks who consider themselves pretty hardcore Cavs fans might not be too familiar with Johnny Davis. He played about a season-and-a-half – 115 games – with Cleveland, averaging 10.6 points and 4.6 assists per contest.

But Johnny Davis is quietly one of the most respected members of the NBA fraternity. He played for five different teams over 10 seasons – including George Karl’s Comeback Cavs in 1984-85, was head coach of the Sixers, Magic and Grizzlies and has been an assistant with the Hawks, Clippers, Blazers, Sixers, Nets, T-Wolves, Pacers, Raptors and Lakers.

Before his recent appointment, there wasn’t much the Association had to offer that Davis hadn’t seen. And for that reason, along with his cerebral, professional approach to the game and life in general, Davis was recently named to head up the National Basketball Retired Players Association – an appointment that takes on even greater significance during the COVID-19 crisis.

Born and raised in Detroit, Davis starred at the University of Dayton – leading the Flyers in scoring in three straight seasons – before being drafted by the Blazers. His rookie season was a memorable one – winning the NBA Championship alongside Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas in Rip City.

The Cavs acquired Davis in the 1984 offseason during what had been some dark days in the franchise. That ragtag group – which included World B. Free, Phil Hubbard, Roy Hinson, John Bagley and Davis and coached by a 33-year-old George Karl – started the campaign with a 2-19 mark and miraculously reached the Playoffs, giving Larry Bird and the World Champion Celtics everything they could handle in four bare-knuckle First Round meetings.

Cavs.com recently marked the day that 1985 squad clinched the postseason with a big home win over New Jersey. Johnny Davis drained two key three-pointers in that game – one that snapped a seven-year Playoff drought, featured the team carrying George Karl to the tunnel on their shoulders and later emerging postgame from the locker from a huge ovation from the Coliseum crowd.

And as we take a look at “Where Are They Now?” here’s a recent chat with the NBA lifer from his home in Asheville, North Carolina …

Former Dayton star Johnny Davis averaged double-figure scoring in eight of his 10 NBA seasons -- including the 1984-85 campaign with the Cavaliers.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Can you talk about your recent appointment to the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) and what it means to you?

Johnny Davis: I was just voted by the Board of Directors to be the Chairperson for the year 2020. It’s a recent appointment and one I’m honored to have.

It’s a position of servitude, and it allows me to give back to the game and help former players transition from being active players into the next phase of life. I take that honor seriously.

It’s been a whirlwind as you can imagine because of the changes and challenges COVID-19 has given us. But we’re a tight-knit organization. We have a great Board. It’s an honor for all of us, and we volunteer our time.

Right now, the pandemic is really affecting our demographic. We have 200 members over the age of 70 and the average age is 55-plus. So we’re really trying to keep our members informed with accurate information and trying to lend as much support as possible.

How closely do you work with the league?

Davis: Well the NBA and National Basketball Players Association all work together.

We almost consider ourselves a ‘waiting area’ so players can have something in place. Everyone wants a long career. And when you’re young and just starting out, you feel like you can play forever.

But the fact is that Father Time is undefeated – and time marches on. It’s a short career, no matter how long you’ve played. We’ve had some exceptions, of course. Kareem, Kevin Willis, Robert Parrish.

But for most guys, it’s three years and you’re pretty much moving into a new phase. And no matter how you long you play, it’s a short career. When you compare it to most other professional careers, at 20 years you’re just coming into your prime. In an NBA career, at 10 years – if you’re lucky – you’re done or close to it.

What’s the transition to retirement like for guys?

Davis: For a long time – most of your life up to that point – you’re defining yourself, and others are looking at you, as an athlete. ‘This is who I am, this is what I do.’

And one day, you look around and you’re not part of that. ‘What do I do now? Where do I turn?’ Some people ask: ‘Who am I?’ They don’t have that support mechanism. They didn’t prepare.

So when should you start preparing? Day One.

You don’t’ know how it’s going to end. And you don’t know when.

Hopefully, you’ve had a long, injury-free career. But you have to prepare for that transition.

And this goes across the board: When you prepare for something, you keep pressure out of your life. When you’re not prepared for eventualities, that’s when pressure closes in on you and you’re forced to ask: What do I do now?

And that’s what the NBRPA wants to do, is to help you prepare for those things along the way – along with the NBPA, who do a tremendous job as well and the NBA itself. The league takes very good care of their players as far as processing things as they’re going through in their career and where they’ll land afterward.

Let’s rewind back to the beginning. Before your stint with the Cavs, you starred in one of Ohio’s – and the country’s – basketball hot-spots: Dayton, Ohio. What makes Dayton so unique for college hoops?

Davis: I think one big thing is that they don’t have a professional team there, but they’re surrounded by areas that have an absolutely fanatical basketball base: Indiana, Kentucky, Cincinnati and Chicago are all within the wheelhouse of Dayton.

But to the people of Dayton – that is their team. In Dayton, the Flyers are not THE team, they’re OUR team. There’s a big different in those two words. If you don’t live down there, you don’t quite understand it.

When you come down I-75 and see that arena all lit up, you’re like: ‘Wow! This is Dayton, Ohio!’

And I think if the Tournament hadn’t been cancelled, I thought something special was brewing for the Flyers this year.

But they seem always to get into the conversation every few years.

It’s a great college campus with great basketball fans. That was a special time, and a special place to this day.

What are your memories from that rookie season on that title-winning 1977 Blazers team?

Davis: The first thing that stands out is how talented that entire team was, how unselfish they were as players.

But the main thing that stood out to me then was how talented Bill Walton was.

"We had more talent than people gave us credit for. And the main thing George Karl did was help team hold on to its belief. Some coaches at 2-19 figure let’s get ready for the Draft. But we didn’t have that approach. We said let’s get ready for he playoffs. We have everything we need right in this locker room."

When I played with him, I understood why UCLA was a perennial powerhouse. He elevated the play of everyone around him, he elevated all of us. He was so unselfish and so good that you had to raise you level and your unselfishness to play with him.

And another thing about that team is how many players on that team became successful in life -- basketball, business. I could go down the entire roster.

The very thing that helped us be successful as a team – being an intellectual, giving group of guys – made us successful in life. We realized that if you give to others, you receive from others. We knew that no matter what it was, you do what it takes to help the team.

After playing with a couple different teams after Portland, you come to Cleveland in 1984. What was going through your mind during that 2-19 start?

Davis: The team had been struggling for a while and George Karl had just become the head coach.

He was one of the youngest, if not the youngest coach in the league. And I remember that because I was 28, 29 at the time and he wasn’t much older than I was. As a matter of fact, I played against him in the latter part of his career.

That group, it was like a collection of castoffs from other teams. And when you looked at us, you thought this would be another example of Cavalier futility. And with our start of 2-19, we did nothing to dissuade that opinion.

Karl was finding his way as head coach, and I remember him assembling the group at 2-19. And he said: ‘We’re gonna make the Playoffs. We’re the only ones who believe we can change it and we’re the only ones who can change it. Let’s go out and get better as players and better as a team and at the end of the year, we’ll be in the Playoffs.’

We had World B. Free, who was a charismatic figure. Although really all you need to know is that he’s calling himself “World.” That, in itself, tells you where his mindset was. But what a great guy and what an awesome talent.

We had more talent than people gave us credit for. And the main thing George Karl did was help team hold on to its belief. Some coaches at 2-19 figure let’s get ready for the Draft. But we didn’t have that approach. We said let’s get ready for he playoffs. We have everything we need right in this locker room.

Where does that season rank in your NBA career?

Davis: Right near the top, behind the Championship in Portland.

And I rank it that high because of what we had to overcome just to be in the conversation for the playoffs. We spotted the field a 17-game lead and wound up catching it.

And we had an outstanding series against the Boston Celtics, who were the Reigning Champs at the time. I suffered an injury in that series, and I think if I’d have been healthy, we would’ve had a chance to topple them.

We had a legitimate chance to win that series. They had the edge in experience, but we didn’t blink at all. We gave them everything we had.

That team had a good blend of experienced players and young enthusiastic players and solid players who understood their role. And the leadership within the locker room was strong, and that allowed us to offset some of the challenges and obstacles.

We had guys who had won titles, so we weren’t afraid of the moment. We knew the work required and we went about that work. Guys that were previously unsung like Mark West and Roy Hinson flourished. They both were a load to deal with.

We had guys who knew how to play who were passionate and hungry to win.

And you have to give credit to GM Harry Weltman. It was kind of a unique mix of players.

Who would have thought that you could put an Edgar Jones with a John Bagley and a Johnny Davis and a Lonnie Shelton and make the playoffs after such a huge win-loss deficit.

What a cast of characters.

Even though you weren’t with the Cavaliers that long, what are your thoughts about the franchise celebrating its 50th year of existence this season?

Davis: Well the fact that the team has been there that long, and the fans have been supportive for that long says everything.

I was so happy to see the Cavs win the title with LeBron and that whole group. It was so well-deserved for the fans.

The Cavaliers also have, in my opinion, the perfect person overseeing the alumni events and alumni involvement in Campy Russell. He does a marvelous job in keeping us all connected and providing that family atmosphere for all of us former players who have participated in any way in that Cavaliers legacy.

He makes sure that we’re all included, he makes sure that that’s in place and intact.

Do you ever get back to Cleveland and what do you see for the team moving forward?

Davis: Right now, they’re in rebuild mode. But you see a lot of young talent on that team. And good things will come – again.

I’ve played on a lot of different teams over the years. I’ve coached a lot of teams over the years. But I have to say that the Cleveland Cavaliers organization ranks extremely high on the list, just in terms of how well they treat their players and how well they connect the players to the community.

They have great leadership at the top – from the ownership all the way through.

I recall that I was invited to participate in an event during the Playoffs a couple years ago. And you could feel the buzz all throughout Cleveland. Downtown was buzzing!

Cleveland is a sports town. Browns, Indians, Cavs. When you win, you can feel it – the fans make you feel it.

And when an organization has been around for 50 years, it means the city loves you. It’s a special team and special place.