RENO, Nev. — The most recognizable player in the NBA's annual minor-league extravaganza was hardly recognizable at all.
The signature cornrows were gone. The mischievous sneer, too. The swagger was there, though muted, offset by an easy smile and a buoyant stride. In quiet moments—and really, every moment in the sparsely populated Reno Events Center seemed quiet—you might hear a boastful chirp of "Tricky Ricky!" after a nice shot.
But Ricky Davis of the Erie BayHawks looked, played and sounded like a different person than the Ricky Davis who was last seen jacking up shots for the Los Angeles Clippers, or before that the Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Charlotte Hornets.
Thirty-four years old and nearly four years removed from his last NBA game, this Ricky Davis is surely a little slower, a little wiser, deliberate and humble, even a bit mellowed, though this last descriptor elicits a hearty chuckle from his coach.
"I don't know if he's mellowed out," said BayHawks coach Gene Cross, smiling. "I think he's wisened up. And he still can be a hard head at times." But, Cross hastened to add, "We all can be hard heads at times."
It was an unrepentant hard-headedness, along with unrepentant gunning and preening, that defined Davis' bumpy NBA career, which ended with a thud on Feb. 16, 2010, when—betrayed by a cranky left knee and a withering jumper—he was waived by the Clippers.
That decision came a year after Davis had been busted for violating the NBA's drug policy.
This is generally where the road ends for the trouble-prone athlete. When your baggage outweighs your usefulness, you end up on the curb. Or, in Davis' case, on a long and winding detour through Turkey, China, France and Puerto Rico, in search of a way back to an NBA on-ramp.
Determined to make one last push for redemption, Davis signed with the D-League last fall and was taken by the BayHawks, the affiliate of the New York Knicks, with the 93rd pick in the draft. Through Thursday, he was averaging 14.1 points on .439 shooting—his numbers modest, but his hopes high.
The goal is to return to the NBA, to help some team in need of scoring punch, but mostly to write a happier ending to his NBA story. Davis knows his career ended years before it should have. He knows, too, that he was not exactly a model teammate in his 12 seasons, during which he was traded five times.
"I did the wrong way sometimes," Davis said, adding, "I've learned from those mistakes."
"I was a gunner," Davis admitted with a rueful grin. "I didn't find a bad shot that wasn't bad. But I made 'em. That was my motor, just to go out and score that ball. I still got that motor now. Just a little more smarter. I pick my spots, don't break the offense as much and let it come to me."
Immaturity and selfishness surely hurt Davis' chances of another contract, but he said it was his health that ultimately pushed him out of the league in 2010. Davis said he played that season with an undiagnosed tear in his left patellar tendon—an injury the Clippers had classified merely as tendinitis. (A team spokesman declined to comment on Davis' assertion.)
Davis was averaging just 4.4 points per game when he was waived, a damning stat for a single-minded scorer who once averaged 20.6 points for the Cavaliers.
|Career as a gunner|
|2003-04||Cleveland and Boston||12.0||46.9||14.4|
|2005-06||Boston and Minnesota||16.7||44.8||19.4|
"I couldn't jump," he said. "I didn't have my balance. I couldn't really shoot. I knew it was just a matter of time."
The pain worsened over time, and Davis said he was ready to retire when a knee specialist finally discovered the tear. He had surgery 18 months ago.
"He brought me back," Davis said. "I'm feeling good and feeling like I still got a chance."
Davis was easily the most accomplished player on the court this week at the D-League Showcase and, for that matter, is one of the biggest names ever to play in the league. But he is pursuing a path that no player has successfully completed—using the D-League to relaunch a moribund NBA career.
Dozens of players have used the D-League as a stepping stone or training ground, most notably Jeremy Lin. Others, including Shaun Livingston and Josh Howard, have used it for physical rehabilitation. But no one of Davis' caliber has fallen out of the NBA, spent years in exile and played his way back via the D-League. Antoine Walker attempted it two years ago, at age 35, but he never got a call-up.
Walker was terribly out of shape and out of practice. Davis, by contrast, is a svelte 210 pounds and has been playing, more or less continuously, since he fell out of the NBA.
Still, Davis' odds of securing another NBA contract seem slim. He was not the best player in Reno this week, nor even the best player on his own team. Executives sitting courtside said Davis no longer had the explosiveness that made him such an effective scorer.
Then there are the ancillary issues—the lingering memories of the immaturity and insolence that made Davis such a tough bargain. This is, after all, the player who earned the moniker "Wrong-Rim Ricky" in Cleveland, for shooting at his own basket in an attempt to manufacture a triple-double in 2003.
Ask Davis his regrets, and he lists that one first. It branded him a knucklehead, a label that became hard to kick.
"I got drafted when I was 17," Davis said. "I never really learned the good ways and the bad ways. … It's bad that it's still on me, but it's OK," he said, before adding with a chuckle, "I'm glad to be remembered for a triple-double. That's OK. A triple-double's good."
Davis had such a high opinion of himself then that he viewed LeBron James, his rookie teammate in 2003-04, as a supporting player. Meaning, a player to support Ricky Davis. This sounds ludicrous now and probably seemed so even then, to anyone other than Davis.
In one infamous moment, Davis chewed out James during a game in Portland, after James chose to drive instead of passing to Davis.
Then came several run-ins with coach Paul Silas, who kicked Davis out of practice one day and later banned him from a road trip. A short time later, Davis was traded to the Celtics.
Having paid for his mistakes, Davis is now embracing the role of wise elder with the BayHawks. His teammates call him "Uncle Ricky." They seek his advice at every turn.
"I like it," Davis said. "Showing them the right way. Not the wrong way. Because I did the wrong way sometimes. I was so good that I could hide it. Teach them not to even go that route."
Davis now looks like the model teammate—quick with a high-five, vocal in timeouts, standing and cheering every basket during his time on the bench.
"One of the loudest cheerleaders we have," Cross said.
The experience has been so gratifying that Davis now envisions a second career in coaching—a move akin to the Maverick character from Top Gun deciding to become a flying instructor.
That transition, Davis hopes, is still years away, after he fulfills what he calls his "second dream" of returning to the NBA. It doesn't necessarily have to be with a top team, Davis said. He doesn't need a full-time role. He doesn't need a lot of minutes or shots or touches.
Nor, Davis said, does he need the money, having earned about $43 million in his NBA career. In fact, Davis elected to take the minimum salary from the BayHawks—$12,000, less than half what he could have earned under the D-League scale—so that the team could use that slot on another player.
If he was simply seeking another payday, Davis could have gone overseas again. That isn't the goal.
This Ricky Davis would be satisfied just to have one more moment in the sun.
"It could be one game," he said. "It could be 20 minutes. It could be a 10-day contract. It just lets me know that guys are watching and guys do see that I can still play the game. However long it is, just as long as they know I can play."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.