Mo’ne Davis calls for the ball. She drains a three, holding her follow-through for a second longer as she and a teammate battle two others for most threes made during a drill. “BOOM!” the boys on the sideline shout. Davis, wearing white and chrome Nike Kobe A.D.s, scurries around the perimeter, releasing shot after shot. “They cheatin’!” Davis hollers, waving her arms and hip-checking one of her opponents. She pops three more in a row. “Oh yeaaaaahhhh,” she says, bouncing up and down, sensing victory.
Davis has been knocking down shots at Philadelphia’s Marian Anderson Recreation Center with these same boys—her teammates on the Anderson Monarchs, a youth recreational team—for the past eight years. The center’s gym, with its four rows of brown bleachers, its cream-colored wall tile and its green and white scoreboard, has long been home to the 15-year-old—since before she became an American sensation in 2014 as the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series; before she starred in Spike Lee’s Chevrolet commercial; before she couldn’t walk anywhere without fans approaching her for pictures.
Before all of that, she was first hooked on hoops, addicted to the squeaks and creaks of the hardwood. When she wasn’t out-dunking her cousin, James McLean, in NBA 2K jam contests (Tracy McGrady was her go-to player), Davis was getting buckets at the gym. Once, when she was nine, Davis scooped in a layup as a boy undercut her during a game. She flipped, crashing to the floor, the beads in her braids pounding the wood. Davis burst into tears but bounced up, wiped her face and sank two free throws. “She doesn’t back down,” says Steve Bandura, the Monarchs coach. “There’s no fear.”
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Six years later, Davis is the ankle-breaking, dime-dropping point guard for the Monarchs and still fearless as she develops into a Division I hopeful. Much like during her Little League run, she is the only girl on her team. She’s also the only girl in the Monarchs’ 18U league, for players 18 and under, in which she and her teammates compete against local Philly rec teams with kids two to three years older than they are.
While she focuses more on her jump shot than fanning batters with a 70 mph fastball these days, fame still follows her. But “Mo” is a typical teen: one who savors Eggo waffles (two a day), who is known to friends and Bandura as “Screen-face Davis” (a nod to her Snapchat addiction), who has a penchant for kicks (she owns more than 70 pairs, Jordan 11s being her favorites) and who won’t hesitate to debate anyone, anytime, anywhere who dares to say Kyrie Irving is not the best point guard in the NBA.
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Davis sits with her mother, Lakeisha McLean, at Perkins Restaurant & Bakery in Moorestown, New Jersey. Staring past a plate of applewood smoked bacon, French toast and hash browns, Davis doesn’t stop talking about the NBA except to ask for ketchup. She has thoughts on just about every player. She has actually met some, like last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Ben Simmons. “I need to sit down and I need to have a talk with him,” she says of the injured 76ers forward. “He can come back the next year and can win MVP and then Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons go back-to-back with MVPs, then ‘Trust the Process’ is going to start.”
As the conversation shifts to Sixers of the past, Mo shimmies her shoulders, mimicking Allen Iverson’s legendary 1997 crossover of Michael Jordan. “Who else do you know made Jordan go from one side to the other and still hit that shot?” Davis yells with delight. “Who do you know that could do that…besides me? Come on now!”
Davis is just warming up. Jamal Crawford? Perfect hybrid of street and organized ball. James Harden? Go-to guy for fantasy points. Russell Westbrook? MVP. The Spurs? Underrated. LeBron James? Best player (though Stephen Curry is her favorite).
“I got a couple people that I believe is better than LeBron,” McLean says.
“WHO?” Davis asks, turning her entire body to face her mother.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“No, no, no, I want to know this.”
Her mother smiles. She’s not winning this one.
“That’s why he’s at where he’s at—because you hatin’, Mom.” Then, a declaration: “LeBron is the GOAT of my time.”
Even at seven, Davis understood X’s and O’s. The Monarchs, the year-round travel team with which Davis also plays baseball and soccer, were running the three-man weave when Davis walked in for her first practice. Bandura told her she could watch from the side until the drill’s mechanisms became clear. But Davis hopped in, gracefully tracking the flight of the ball with her eyes, as if she had done this a hundred times before. “You could just see the wheels turning in her head,” Bandura says. She soaked up the game watching her older brother, Qu'ran. He chose her to be on his team for pickup games, no matter what. He didn’t let up on her, though. Once, she clawed from five points down to pull off an upset in an epic one-on-one battle. Davis, now 5’4” (“and ⅓!” she adds), analyzes offenses the way Philly kids dissect Meek Mill’s bars. When the floor general isn’t fooling boys (or grown men) with her dizzying crossover—like the way she spun Kevin Hart during the 2015 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game—she’s orchestrating the pass before the pass, knowing not just where to throw but why. “She’s like a quarterback out there,” says teammate Jared Sprague-Lott.
She doesn’t back down. There’s no fear. — STEVE BANDURA, MONARCHS COACH
Davis’ teammates seemed to respect her from the beginning. During a recent practice, players partnered up for a grueling drill in which one player lay on top of another, back to back, head to head, feet to feet, in push-up position. As the pair rolled over, the top player reattached himself in a high-plank position. Racing to five rolls, Davis didn’t collapse—neither did her teammates. “They want to make her better and they expect her to make them better,” says Cory Walts, Haverford College’s strength and conditioning coach, who works with the Monarchs.
Her teammates also trust her to take—and make—the big shot. Trailing by four in the last minute of regulation against Vogt Community Association on February 1, the Monarchs whipped the ball to Davis, who was hounded by a 6’3” defender. She pump-faked, and as the defender flew by her, she took a step to the left and drained a three “like it was nothing,” says Bandura, whose team escaped with the 53-43 overtime win.
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Davis caught the ball on the wing as her Philly Triple Threat AAU girls team faced the Lady Runnin' Rebels last spring. With a quick jab, she exploded to the hoop. When two defenders swarmed, Davis snuck a laser pass to forward Nadjy Tyler, who sank the layup. After playing varsity for Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in the eighth and ninth grades, the sophomore is now exclusively playing girls basketball with her AAU team in hopes of getting scouted. Last summer, her first on the circuit, she distributed the ball and hit clutch shots, with big performances against All-Ohio at the Boo Williams event in Virginia and against Ohlde Elite (Kansas) at the Battle in the Boro in Tennessee. “[People] were impressed to see like, ‘Yo, she can really play. She’s not just out here to be out here because of her name, she can really play ball,’” says Dave Hargrove, Philly Triple Threat's coach. “She’s able to perform when the lights are bright, when the focus is on her, which is a quality a lot of kids don’t have.”
The intense AAU schedule, however, took a toll on her. She hit a wall by summer’s end. Sometimes her shots fell short, her intensity slacked, her fatigue showed. “I learned that I need to be more aggressive,” Davis says. But with her name and her baseball fame, she is expected to be not just good at basketball but to be great. She can’t just defend; she must dazzle. Her mistakes are magnified. “She knows that every time she steps on the court, she’s gotta be ready to play,” Hargrove says. Two mid-major Division I programs are expressing interest in Davis, but Bandura says she has even more potential. “I truly believe she can play at a top D-I school,” he says, adding that Davis, due to her high hoops IQ, could make a great coach someday.
But like any sophomore, Davis is still developing, still tackling weaknesses, like defense, strength and rebounding. She is more focused on building those into strengths rather than choosing a college (she had originally dreamed of suiting up for UConn). “A lot of people are just so serious, and it’s not all about being serious,” Davis says. “I get it, you want a D-I scholarship and to play in the pros, but if you catch some of the pros, you catch some smiling, so why be so serious now? This moment will go by so fast, so just smile and be happy.”
She’s able to perform when the lights are bright, when the focus is on her, which is a quality a lot of kids don’t have. — DAVE HARGROVE, PHILLY TRIPLE THREAT COACH
As she savors the joy of the game, Davis still can’t escape the grown men who hound her for autographs after games, the fans who ask for a photo at restaurants as soon as her food arrives, the media requests that began with her Little League baseball stardom. When she was 13, playing pingpong with her baseball teammates at the Little League World Series Complex, she was told some Philly kids downstairs wanted to meet her. She went to see but couldn’t even get down the stairs. Kids trapped her on all sides and she was unable to flee. She didn’t go anywhere alone again. She continued to smile in magazine photo shoots, clutching the seams of a baseball as she shifted left and right with each shutter click, even remaining poised when called a “slut” on Twitter. “He doesn’t know me,” Davis told Bandura, letting out a laugh, when the two learned of the tweet traveling to a media interview. “I tell her: She’s never going to have high blood pressure,” McLean says. “She doesn’t worry about anything.”
Davis doesn’t have time to fret. Not when she is playing sports year-round, designing sneakers on her phone during lunch and watching Pretty Little Liars in her spare time. She persuaded half the Monarchs to watch the show, which led to nonstop group chats. Davis’ phone buzzed so many times one night, her mom contemplated throwing it out the window.
Although Davis’ life seems normal for a teenager, there’s no denying the parts of her life that aren’t. She has recorded two camera phone videos with Drake (she records, he dances in the background), once at a Sacramento Kings game and another time after his concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philly. Former President Barack Obama once challenged her to a game of H-O-R-S-E. Davis gets tongue-tied around athletes and celebrities, though, most recently when she met Suns guard Devin Booker, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and Kendall Jenner. Sometimes all she can muster is “Hi.” She will “freak out” if she ever meets Beyoncé—a life goal. “People don’t realize I’m still 15,” says Davis, who doesn’t want an over-the-top Sweet 16 party (her mom wants Drake to perform). She envisions a family vacation in the Bahamas, Hawaii or Mexico instead.
When Davis travels, she prefers to blend into the background. Last summer, she and her Triple Threat teammates returned to their hotel, starving, after a long day of games at Boo Williams. Someone spotted an Outback Steakhouse across the street. “I just want a steak! I just want a steak!” Davis screamed as the team rushed over. She ordered filet mignon while the other players went with the New York strip. The plates came out, but Davis was handed a strip instead. Not one to speak up, she didn’t know what to do. “You better tell ‘em who you are, Mo’ne Davis!” her teammates screamed. “Tell ‘em: ‘Don’t mess up my food—I’m Mo’ne Davis!’” Davis sank in her seat. The waiter came over to check on things. Blushing, Davis whispered if she could please have the filet mignon? She got her steak after everyone had finished. “It was actually pretty good, though—nice and crispy,” she says, smiling.
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Back at Marian Anderson Rec, Bandura rolls the ball out to two Monarchs. One player sprints to the middle of the key for a shot, while the other touches the block, then sprints to the shooter for a close-out and box-out. Davis zips up the lane toward the shooter, shuffling her feet and raising her arms to the boy’s face. Dropping into a defensive stance, Davis doesn’t give an inch. The boy pivots back and forth and, unable to release his shot, back and forth again. He throws up an attempt, but Davis rises up and swats the ball down.
“Showtime!” a teammate yells, as all eyes turn to Davis. She doesn’t flex her biceps. She doesn’t talk smack. She doesn’t need to.
She just wants to ball.
Mirin Fader is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com, SLAM Magazine and SBNation.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.