All but a Memory in the NBA, Baron Davis Wants Just One More Chance

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All but a Memory in the NBA, Baron Davis Wants Just One More Chance
Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

It has been more than a year since Baron Davis said he hoped to return to the NBA, six months since he told the world why and an equal amount of time since he dropped 44 in an L.A. pro-am game.

So, where the hell is he?

The subsequent silence might have led you to believe that his comeback followed a familiar arc: Retired player misses playing (or getting paid to play) and, his body healed from the time off, decides he left too soon. The comeback ends when the grind to get back in shape breaks him down again or he simply can't reclaim the skills that made him NBA-worthy in the first place. End of story.

Not to worry, Davis' reputation as somewhat of a non-conformist remains intact. ("Part of his DNA," says former teammate Ryan Hollins.) He was simply waiting for his second son, Luke Alden Brewster Davis, who arrived last Sunday. His comeback is not complete, but it is far from over. He has entered himself in the NBA D-League pool and fully expects to be playing somewhere for someone by the end of January. He doesn't care where because he is fully confident it will be the stepping stone to a return to the NBA.

"When someone asked me [when I'd make my comeback] before, I didn't want to answer," he says. "If I make it in the NBA or wind up playing overseas, I will be at peace. I know the NBA is the place for me because I have the game and now I have the confidence in my body. The last six years I was hurt and in pain and I wasn't myself. I'm moving a lot faster and better than I did then."

There always has been the intoxicating whiff of urban legend surrounding Boom Dizzle, aka B-Diddy, aka B-Dazzled, aka Too Easy. No point guard has ever made a successful comeback? Well, Davis specializes in firsts. He was The Beard well before James Harden. He was the personable young point guard New Orleans fell in love with well before Chris Paul. And while newbies might view Russell Westbrook as the king of dunk-crushing point guards, he has yet to turn one over the way Baron did on Andrei Kirilenko in the 2007 playoffs.

Photo courtesy of C. Gordon

So could he possibly recapture any of that, at 36, after a three-plus-year absence?

"I don't know that people know the shape he's in," says Hollins, who worked out with him between being released by the Memphis Grizzlies in late October and picked up by the Washington Wizards at the end of November. "He can still play a couple years in this league."

His NBA accolades may be modest—two All-Star appearances and one All-NBA third-team selection over 13 NBA seasons—but his status among players is reflected by what Clippers sources say a free-agent LeBron James told them in the summer of 2010: "There's no one I'd rather go to war with."

That, of course, was five-and-a-half years ago. Two years later, Davis, playing for the Knicks against LeBron and the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs, planted his right foot to complete a fast-break layup and felt his right knee buckle, tearing his ACL, MCL and patellar tendon. Just about every player, James included, averted their eyes as the Knicks medical staff wheeled their favorite soldier off on a stretcher. The damage was so severe that a source says doctors warned him he'd need extensive rehabilitation just to assure he could walk normally in his 40s.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
After 13 seasons in the NBA, Baron Davis doesn't want his last on-court memory one of being wheeled off after a devastating knee injury.

Davis, whose pride is as deep as it is quiet, drifted around in a haze, unsure if it was from the Percocet for his ravaged knee or suddenly becoming a ghost. He sat courtside at a Clippers game looking like the same ol' bon vivant Baron but with his stomach in knots.

"I was nervous," he says. "How would the players react when they saw me? When I got hurt, I gave myself amnesia. I wondered, 'Is this really me?' I didn't want to remind myself that I was a basketball player. Then you get trapped because dudes would see me and I could just tell they were thinking, 'I feel sorry for him.' It was a sad look. Then it would be sad for me, too."

Understand, he had accepted it was over and moved to the next stage of his life. By all accounts, he doesn't need the money and he's made enough movie cameos that he doesn't need the attention. But the award-winning film he did on L.A.'s Drew League—No Excuse, Just Produce—put him back on the court with a camera. Then it put him back in a uniform, but only to get closer to the action, just playing a few minutes here and there. But here he was laughing and joking again, as were the players around him. He began to imagine painting over what happened on that Madison Square Garden floor with some fresher, happier images. Then his 17-month-old son Kingman rolled a toy ball to him, and he imagined giving him a live glimpse of what his dad can do with a real basketball.

All of that sounds terrific, but he's reminded that no one has come back from such a horrific injury at his age after so much time off.

Is he at all worried that he's hoping to do the impossible? In the same way he has caught countless defenders off guard with his jackhammer crossover, he looks at you with widening eyes and teeth exposed in a Tyrannosaurus Rex kind of way. "No," he says, and laughs.

All of this takes place on a Saturday morning in mid-November on a bench in a Santa Monica community gym. He is finally willing to let someone outside of his circle watch him work out, an invitation he extended and abruptly withdrew two months earlier. Those within the circle have talked for months about how he is eating properly and working on his strength and flexibility and overall conditioning as never before, but there wasn't anyone in the league who had heard from him or anyone representing him.

Ric Bucher
Davis' (in white T-shirt) first steps toward recapturing his glorious NBA past are taking place in a most-unglamorous community gym in L.A.

Davis arrives looking to all the world like any other weekend warrior, pulling up in a black Prius that could use a bath; he prefers it for environmental reasons to the Bentley in the garage or his wife's Land Rover. He's wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and navy ankle-tight sweatpants, the kind of outfit that keeps old muscles warm and extra pounds hidden. He's carrying his gear in a nondescript canvas bag with the product tag still looped around the handle. He slips on a pair of Larry Bird socks—as in socks with images of Bird in his No. 33 Celtics uniform on them—and begins to pull a pair of white official NBA socks over them, then stops and flips them around so the NBA socks are obscured by Larry Legend.

Ric Bucher
Davis, wearing socks with Larry Bird's image, arrives to workouts dressed as a typical recreation court player.

Hollins accidentally runs over Davis' gear with his roller bag. "Hey, what are you doing, looking like some flight attendant," Davis barks while he stretches. "Flight Attendant. That's your new name."

Hollins, who played for the 2010-11 Cavs along with Davis, leans over and feigns punching him in the gut.

Davis doesn't flinch. "Solid," he says.

Dr. Patrick Khaziran, a sports rehab specialist Davis has been seeing for the last 18 months and practically every morning since he started training intensively, puts him through a 15-minute routine of balance exercises. Davis' six-days-a-week program consists of daily body alignment and range of motion work with Khaziran, followed by a spin class at SoulCycle that has become all the rage in Southern California. Then it's two hours of basketball and one hour of lifting and Pilates at the end of the day. "Our goal," says Khaziran, "is for him to feel on Friday the same way he does on Monday."

Davis' greater goal is to ring in the new year by resuming his professional career.

"I was laughing," Hollins says of his reaction when he heard Davis' goal two months ago. "I thought, 'He's not serious about this.' That first day in the gym, I was blown away. He was in better shape than when I played with him in Cleveland."

James Wright, another L.A.-produced point guard who has carved out a decade-long career between the NBA Development League and teams overseas, has known Davis since they crossed paths in high school. "I love him to death," Wright says, "But when I saw him when we first started working out and he said he was coming back, it was like, 'Uhhh, it's going to be tough.' But every day he'd say to me, 'I'm getting closer.' Then I heard about all the extra stuff he was doing, I was like, 'You're going overboard.' In his position, you have to go overboard. I've got a whole different respect for his game."

Wright admits this hasn't always been Davis' approach. "You're making all that money and dominating the league, you don't think you have to do all the extra stuff," he says. "That's what separates the Kobes and LeBrons, because they stick with the plan that got them there. But we don't all pick that up at the same time."

Rico Hines, former St. John's assistant coach, one-time Warriors player development coach and Davis' college roommate, directs the workout for Davis, Wright, Hollins and several other players with NBA or D-League time on their resumes: Austin Daye, Greg Smith and Frank Robinson.

If Hines has confidence in Davis, it's partly because he was with him when he tore the ACL in his left knee against Michigan as a UCLA freshman and bounced back to be the third pick in the 1999 draft. "Even when he was 150 pounds and skinny, he had a little pot belly," Hines says of Davis, last listed as 6'3" and 212 pounds with the Knicks. "He's just a big dude. He might've had extra weight but you never saw him huffing and puffing. I think there was that one year in New York he blew up because his back was really jacked up. He always worked on his game."

NELL REDMOND/Associated Press
A little more than a year after tearing his ACL at UCLA, Davis bounced back to become the third overall draft pick for the Charlotte Hornets.

Flyers taped to the Memorial Park gym door suggest the floor is slippery with the dust and detritus of an adult morning pickleball tournament, whatever that might be. Now the plan is to squeeze in a two-hour full-court workout before a crosscourt pickup run featuring a remarkable bevy of 5'9" 20-somethings whose inability to make a jump shot does not discourage them in the least.

It is an unseasonably warm day, but Davis alone keeps on the hoodie and sweatpants through a combination of shooting-conditioning drills and a series of full-court, two-on-two scrimmages. The first thing you notice is the refined three-point shot with a higher release and more economical form.

"I'm looking at a lot of the guys I came in with," he says. "Pass the ball, cut through, spot up. Get 10 [points] and six [assists] off the bench? I'd be in heaven. I don't have to start or save the world, be the guy I had to be before. I can just come in and be a key component. How many teams have a true point guard, a real playmaker coming off the bench?"

The competitive fire is clearly still there. When he loses a shooting contest, he snaps at Hines for miscounting. "You can get mad at me, but what's that going to change?" Hines says. "Nothing. Do what you need to do."

You are here to see more than that. You want to know if those elements that made Davis specialthe explosiveness off the dribble, the floor vision and the seize-the-throat-of-the-game shooting in the clutchare still there. There are definite glimpses. The in-out-in crossover that is so sudden and hard it puts Wright back on his heels and allows Davis to put a soft floater in over him for game point. Another time, he snakes by Wright, leaves the layup short but immediately bounces back up to tip it in. Then there's the defensive rebound where he turns his head before his feet hit the ground and throws a perfect pass over Smith's shoulder, leading him into an easy fast-break layup.

"You saw one of his worst days," says Hollins a few days later. "He's been getting to the cup at will. We'd been working out at a hellish pace. That's the great thing about Rico, he prepares us to play a whole game, not half a game.

Photo courtesy of C. Gordon
Davis' rigorous workouts impressed the handful of former NBA veterans who joined him on the court in Los Angeles.

"I've been blessed to play with some of the top point guards in the game. Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, J-Kidd, Kyrie and now John [Wall]. Baron is the most talented point guard I've ever played with. I can't say I've played with a better teammate, either. You couldn't find a better guy to play with or teach young guys. He can speak a language very few guys can. If you're trying to build a guy into a superstar, how are you going to do that without a guy who has played that role?"

Two of Baron's former coaches, Mike Dunleavy and Paul Silas, are certain he still could contribute even without an ability to attack the rim. "He's one of the smartest players I've ever coached," Dunleavy says. "That part of the game is never leaving him. Because of his size you could also throw him down in the post, and he's a terrific ball-handler, has vision and can get you into your sets. I'd have no concerns about bringing him in as a third guard and mentor to the young guys."

Connecting with young players, particularly talented ones, is what Silas would value in Davis as well: "The way he talks to players and can explain when to shoot and how to defend, not every veteran is able to do it the way Baron can."

He's also had his personality clashes, most notably with former Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who didn't return a call seeking comment. Hollins believes fatherhood has matured him.

The bigger question around the NBA remains: Is he really serious? The confusion surrounds Davis honing his filmmaking skills by interviewing various people on camera two summers ago and asking their thoughts about his intended comeback. TNT aired several clips. The reactions were priceless, as were Davis' responses to the reactions, but he was noticeably overweight—all of which left the impression with NBA executives that the comeback was a spoof. 

"He was as big as a house," says one assistant general manager. "If he was serious and you knew he was in shape, you'd have to take a look at him. There are just certain things he can do that a lot of guys can't."

Davis understands the confusion. "It was fun content," he says. Part of him was afraid to take it seriously. Steve Nash, then still with the Lakers, helped him with the project while struggling to get healthy to finish his career on his own terms. "Nash was still five steps ahead of me," he says.   

Last May, after the Drew League film made its splash at a number of festivals, Davis decided to go full bore. He flew around the country to work out with various friends in the league, from Matt Barnes to Chris Paul, to measure just how far away he might be. He put together a Drew League team and put himself on the roster from the start. During one game, Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson said to him, "Damn, dog, you still got it."

Perhaps because Paul had just lost to Thompson and white-hot Steph Curry and the Warriors, or perhaps because he worked out with Davis closer to the start of his intensive work, or perhaps because he doesn't want to create false hope, he struggled to answer if he thought Davis could make a successful comeback. "It's the toughest position in the league," he said to B/R. "You've got to get out there and play first. As great a player as he was…" Paul raises his eyebrows and shrugs.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
After following Davis' path to become the Clippers' point guard, Chris Paul thinks a return to the NBA for Davis wouldn't be so easy after three years out of the game.

Davis isn't seeking anyone else's vote of confidence. "All the Debbie Doubters and Negative Nancys are in the chat rooms telling me I'm too old," he says. "They're like, 'How are you going to guard Steph Curry?' I like my chances. Because no one can guard Steph Curry."

He laughs again, taking off the hoodie and his Los Angeles Clippers team-issue shooting shirt and flexes. His shoulders and trapezoids are clearly thicker and he slides his hand down a firm belly. "That s--t was a keg, then went to a honey jar," he says. "It's a couple of beers now. Now I've got to get that washboard."

A couple of weeks ago he reconnected with his former agent, Todd Ramasar, and Saturday held a private workout for the Dallas Mavericks. They supposedly remain interested, but as with everyone else, they want to see him play first. While a source close to Davis says interest also has been expressed by teams in Finland, Israel and Australia, where former Knicks teammate Al Harrington is currently playing for the Sydney Kings, going overseas would probably push a return to the NBA to next season. It also might make it difficult for him to keep up his maintenance work with Hines and Dr. Khaziran. Forging his way back through the no-frills D-League actually holds a certain appeal. He doesn't want to come back because of who he was. He wants to make it back because of who he is.

"I don't want a red carpet," he says. "You know me, I like being around the underdogs, anyway. When I'm ready to knock on the door, I'll be ready to stay for a while."

Then Boom Dizzle slides into his grimy black Prius and drives off, looking once again to all the world like a weekend warrior. Only now he no longer feels like one. Far from it. If he simply wanted to come back to walk off a court rather than be carried off, a stint overseas would've done the trick. Joining the D-League—something Hines wasn't convinced Davis would be willing to dois about giving the entire NBA ample opportunity to see what he can do. What he can still do. Maybe, just maybe, what only he can do. 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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