Storybook tale had rocky beginning

This is a story of what else can happen when a black teenager from Miami, Fla., a kid who looks like no one else in the neighborhood, shows up in a mostly-white environment and gets watched intently.

This is the flip side of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman saga that has played out so terribly in Sanford, Fla.

It features a then-18-year-old basketball player with a thick thatch of long, dreadlocked hair, three gold-capped front teeth bearing cut-out designs of a star, a question mark and an exclamation point, a jazzman’s goatee, a faint forehead scar from a hatchet accident as a kid and, on one forearm, a tattoo that reads “To My Dead Homies.”

And it brings him to a picturesque, brick-and-ivy Midwestern college campus with a preppy reputation and an often-conservative outlook.

Yet, in the end it became the storybook tale of the full-fledged embrace between Devin Davis and Miami University.

“I’m glad we found each other,” the now-38-year-old Davis said the other day as he walked into Millett Hall, where a large photo of him hangs in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame gallery in the arena’s foyer.

Davis had just come from the new business venture he has launched in Oxford, a place he now calls his second home after a 16-year pro career that spanned the globe.

The bouquet of dreadlocks is now gone, as is the golden grillwork, replaced by a white-toothed smile that shows itself often.

He wore a red t-shirt — printed up specially that day by his pals at Lebowski Tees and Design — that trumpeted his company, Oxford Mobile Hand Car Wash, and the promise: “Let the Detail Crew Come to You.”

“The customer calls us and we go to their home, their business, even if they’re at the golf course, wherever their car is, and we clean it inside and out,” Davis said.

In the process, he leaves you with more than just a polished vehicle. You get a refreshing glimpse of what can happen when people who seem to have little in common open their minds and their arms and find acceptance, understanding and even brotherhood.

Yet, that wasn’t how it started.

“Oh no,” Davis said with a laugh. “That first year or two I was here, if you had told me this was where I’d end up, I’d have said you were crazy.

“Totally crazy.”

Culture shock

Davis grew up in Miami’s Overtown section, a tough-edged, inner-city neighborhood known for its continuing crime problems, its deadly riots and for having one of the highest poverty rates in the United States.

He starred at Miami Senior High, a large, multi-ethnic basketball powerhouse in the city, but said some colleges shied away from him because of his background or his look. That group includes a coach from George Washington University who told him he would have to cut his hair if he was going to play for the Colonials.

He came to Oxford on a recruiting trip in 1993 with prep teammate Puncho Farquharson and both agreed to play for then-head coach Herb Sendek. But soon after he moved onto campus, the 6-foot-7 Davis — whose size and look drew everyone’s attention — began wondering what he had gotten himself into.

“I swear to God, before I ever stepped foot on the court and people knew I was a basketball player, I literally saw people come towards me on the sidewalk and suddenly cross the street rather than pass me,” he said with a laugh.

“The dreads, the gold teeth, they had never seen anything like me. It wasn’t so much I was a bad guy. I was just different than a lot of people here. And to be honest, a lot of it was just as strange for me. There is no place like Oxford where I come from.

“All my life I had lived in a minority area: the ghetto, poverty, drugs, killin’… I can remember back to the last riot (1989), I was like ninth grade. I remember the guy next door coming out and shooting up at the (police) helicopters. It was crazy.

“Even the little stuff, the things I liked to do or listen to, it was all different. It was just a culture shock for me and in the beginning I struggled with it. I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I was going to transfer.”

Then basketball started and though he had some bumpy times with Sendek, an intense coach known for X-and-O brilliance but not a warm-fuzzy nature, he found himself in the starting lineup.

“So I just tried to stay focused and do what I had to do,” Davis said. “I had come to school with a mission. Basketball was gonna take me somewhere.

“I wasn’t that good when I got here. I was just a rebounder and a defensive player, but for some reason God blessed me with that grind, that motor, to give it all I had on the court and I got better and better.

“And here I was just a freshman, playing 30 minutes a game, averaging 10 (points) and seven (rebounds), so in terms of basketball, I was happy. How could I be mad? How could I leave?”

Farquharson wasn’t getting to play much and after a season, he left for Tampa University. Davis, meanwhile, stayed and began to settle in.

His teammate — and roommate — was Jermaine Henderson and they became like brothers. And around campus he said some of the black professors reached out to him, none more so than the late Joe Cox, the art professor and assistant provost who had once played basketball for Miami.

Coach Charlie Coles, whom Sendek hired as an assistant before Davis’ sophomore season, became another confidante and would end up a lifelong friend, as would Cox.

Many students embraced him, as well, and some started showing up at games wearing black, mop-top wigs that mimicked his hair.

One of the most popular t-shirts on campus featured a dreadlocked basketball wearing sunglasses. On the back it said: “We’ve got a dreadlock on the MAC.” Later the school would put out a poster of Davis sitting in a barber’s chair. The message: “Miami basketball: A hair-raising experience.”

In the 1994 NCAA tournament, Davis scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds as Miami upset nationally-ranked Arizona at UD Arena. Afterward, Wildcats center Joseph Blair gushed: “Damn, that guy with hair … he can play”.

Veteran coach Lute Olson agreed: “The way Davis plays the game, he lifts that whole team to another level.”

During his four years at Miami, the latter two paired with Wally Szczerbiak, Davis helped Miami make two NCAA tournaments and play in the NIT twice. He was an All-Mid-American Conference first team selection three times.

He ended his career as the third-leading scorer (1,828 points) and third-leading rebounder (1,027) in RedHawks history. He’s among the top 10 in 13 career categories, including blocked shots, steals and starts (114).

One of the best-known and most-beloved players to wear a Miami uniform, he was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2009.

“No matter what, I ended up a guy who’ll always be in the history books here,” he said quietly. “That journey — to make it out of Overtown and end up in the Hall of Fame here — is pretty special to me.”

Saw the world

After Miami and a brief stint in the Continental Basketball Association, Davis headed to Lugo, Spain to play professionally. Once again it was a culture shock.

Before he played his first game, he watched a tape of the rival big man, Joventut Badalona’s burly 6-foot-9, 255-pound Tanoka Beard, with wide-eyed disbelief.

“The bulky guy fouled out and he started yelling at the refs,” Davis said with a grin. “The next thing, he grabs the front of his shirt and rips it off like he was the Incredible Hulk. I sat there thinking, ‘What is this?’

“Another time we go to play Huelva (in Andalucia) and we come out of the locker room and everyone in the arena is smoking. You’re coughing in a gym full of smoke and I just thought, ‘Oh my God.’ ”

But just like when he came to Oxford, Davis said he focused on the task at hand: “I was there for business — to take care of my family — and nothing was going to stop me.”

And it didn’t. He played nearly 10 years for various teams in Spain and got to love the country, so much that he now has dual citizenship. He also played in the Philippines and for teams in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mexico, Uruguay and two teams in Argentina, most recently for a club in Bahia Blanca in the Buenos Aires province.

When that season ended in March, he had surgery to “clean up” his left knee. By his count that was the seventh operation of his hoops career. He’ll be 39 in December and whether he plays again this coming season depends on his knee, he said.

If his basketball is finally over, he said he can accept it: “It got me an education. I saw the world, made some money, was able to take care of my family and meet a lot of people. And along with that I was able to show people it was possible to come from where I did and get an opportunity.”

Although he still lives part time in Miami — he has a 17-year-old daughter there, as well as his mother and other family members — he gravitated to Oxford after his surgery. He used to come back regularly in the offseason to spend time with his friends, especially Cox and Coles.

Both of those mentors died this year — the 73-year-old Cox in January and the 71-year-old Coles last month — and losing them has been unsettling.

Back in Oxford for Coles’ funeral, Davis decided to launch the mobile car wash business (telephone (513) 461-1405) that serves not only Oxford, but surrounding cities.

“By the end of August I hope to get an individual development camp for kids started, too,” he said. “I think I can help them with basketball drills and I think I’ve got something to tell them, too.”

Why he’s doing all this here — before doing it in Florida – is simple, he said: “I enjoy my school and the town. It became my home away from home. People accepted me and it all just worked. We learned from each other.

“If we hadn’t found each other, if I had ended up somewhere else, who knows what my life might be. I might not be standing here.”

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