Displayed proudly in a “little bottle” are three “teeth-like” pieces of cartilage that nearly ended Paul Davis’ professional basketball career.
And every so often, the former Michigan State superstar center stares at what’s left of them. He says they serve as a reminder of where he’s been, who he is and where he’s going.
He’s battled several knees injuries—he has 12 holes in his right one to prove it. He’s broken his nose at least thrice—and he has custom facemasks from Spain to prevent another.
But through it all, Davis, one of the most physical and fearless players in Spartans history, has refused to give in or tap out. But that's not to say he wasn't close prior to a leap of faith that landed him in Pensacola, Florida.
If not for the successful surgery performed by the world-renowned Dr. James Andrews this past March, those parasites would have likely spread further and deeper into surrounding tissue, leaving Davis to face yet another wave of critical decisions: basketball or knee health and mobility?
“[Dr. Andrews] had hardly seen anything like them before,” Davis said by phone from his in-season home in Moscow. “[The three pieces of cartilage] just got stuck in the right place where I didn’t feel them, but they were building and building over time.
“Eventually they got loose, lodged in my tendons—feeding off whatever’s in my knee. After a week of being out, they turned black, got smaller, started to die. They were growing in me. Who knows what kind of damage they were causing just floating around in there?”
Andrews quickly recognized the problem missed by several “teams of doctors and experts” in Europe, says Davis, who had a CAT-SCAN done hours after landing in Florida. He was repaired posthaste.
“When I got there, he looked at me and said ‘We have to take them out.’ I said, ‘Yeah I know,’” Davis said. “[Andrews said], ‘Alright, we’re going to do it tomorrow.’”
It was an “almost impossible” procedure, says Davis. The others wanted to completely dismantle his remaining knee structure and build anew. He didn’t want that. Instead, he trusted Andrews’ analysis and, more importantly, his hands.
“I don’t know if any other doctor would have tried that or had the confidence to try that,” he said. “It was just a little more hope to hold on to.”
From All-American status at Michigan State to a limited four-year run in the NBA with the L.A. Clippers (2006-09) and Washington Wizards (2009-10), Davis has truly “seen everything there is to see in the game of basketball.”
He’s gone from being perched high as the primary option all the way down to being the last one to make the team, all in a matter of years.
Nearly a decade removed from his days with Tom Izzo, Davis now enters his third season with Khimki, one of Europe’s largest clubs. Of course, he has fond memories of playing at the Breslin Center, but he’s changed and doesn’t like to compare himself to yesteryear’s version.
That guy had it easy.
“I don’t recognize the player I was [at Michigan State],” Davis said. “I didn’t play with as much tenacity as I do now. [Now I] look 100 times more physical because all of the s--t I’ve been through.”
|No luck: An injury-riddled, tough-break timeline|
|2006-2009||L.A. Clippers||Released due to ankle/back injuries|
|2009||Washington Wizards||Team lost three guards; Davis, the last man on the team, knew he'd be first released (and was)|
|2010||Maine Red Claws (D-League)||Davis "had a great summer" but was used to a higher salary|
|2010-2012||Seville (Spain)||Went to Euro Cup Finals in 2010|
|2012-present||Khimki (Moscow)||Playoff team; Davis is playing "some of the best basketball" of career.|
|from author interview|
Seeing Them for the First Time
At 6’11” and 270 pounds, Davis can “handle anesthesia” without an issue. Shortly after surgery, he regained his senses, recognizing where he was—in a hospital, again—and what happened—another poking and prodding beneath his kneecap.
After coming to, he turned his head for a moment only to catch the first glimpse of the “teeth," which sat encased in a small jar on the table next to his bed.
“'What are these? Whose are these?’” Davis said, recalling an exchange with hospital staff. “The nurse said, ‘This is what they took out.’ I was kind of relieved in the small sense that these had to be causing every problem I had in the last few years.”
Eight months ago, they were killing Davis’ future in the sport he loved. Today they’re nothing but rotten, blackened and withered bits of bone—twisted mementos of agony, releases from teams, re-signings, voided contracts, benchings and dead ends.
Davis would have probably seen more taken out as the condition advanced. He knows that. And that’s what keeps pushing him forward. A few centimeters of wayward cartilage weren’t going to knock out the near-7-footer.
Thanks to a strong will, along with assistance from Dr. Andrews and Dave Reavy, a Chicago-based trainer who’s put Davis “back together for all these years,” they didn’t.
“I didn’t work for 20 years to succumb to an injury,” he said. “I always said I wanted to finish on my terms. A lot of players would have stopped by now and nobody would have blamed them.
“I just can’t do it. I just can’t hang them up because of a knee injury—or five, you know what I mean? It’s just, like I said, I’m really, just mentally, it’s like I don’t feel pain anymore. My knee’s been chopped so many times—I don’t have feeling in some areas. It just makes you stronger. There’s nothing basketball-wise that I can’t go through.”
Playing in Europe
In 2006, Davis—along with Moe Ager, his roommate, and Shannon Brown—was part of Michigan State’s most recent three-man draft class. The program’s had two such draft-day bundles; Jason Richardson, Zach Randolph and Andre Hutson made the jump in 2001.
Davis was on one of the Spartans' elite teams, one that reached the 2005 Final Four and is remembered for being incredibly athletic at every position.
So needless to say, he’s competed with and against some of the best college talent and played alongside and against several high-caliber pros such as Elton Brand and Chris Kaman, who helped him adjust to life with the Clippers, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who had trouble hanging with one of Davis’ summer teams back in 2009.
NBA-bound or not, European players have stronger fundamentals than the majority of Americans, says Davis. International players’ vastly underrated attention to detail and commitment to consistency will lead to more of them playing stateside.
Adjusting to Moscow
When thinking of Russia, forget most of what you’ve been told. The days of the Cold War are in the past, and most Americans aren’t hated intruders, says Davis, who first visited the country in 2009 with the Clippers.
“[My fiancee and I] came here with an open mind,” Davis said. “I know it’s hard to survive over here nine months and being away from home. It’s definitely different, the people are different. There are some stereotypes that Americans have about Russians that date back years.
“There aren’t people waiting in line for bread for hours. It’s not true that nobody smiles. There is tons of business. It’s really become an international city.”
Originally from Rochester, Michigan, Davis, a self-described “Midwestern guy,” finds himself in awe of Russia’s grand architecture, art and culture. He's appreciative of what he's learned through basketball.
“There is an amazing history here, “he said. “Red Square, you stand where they used to march the nukes through Red Square. Those nukes were once intended for America. Standing there, that kind of history is pretty cool. We’ve really taken advantage of the city.”
On His Terms
At one point, Davis had the ability to pretty much play whenever, however and for as long as he wanted. He said that Izzo afforded that luxury to a few players. Of course, Izzo could do that when dealing with an All-American who scored a lot and led the team in rebounding for three straight years.
But that was then, and, as the saying goes, this is now.
Basketball is a part of Davis, but it doesn’t define him. He has plans to marry and embrace a lifestyle that's not predicated on dunking, blocking and shooting.
He’s traveled the globe, experiencing the sport's highest highs and lowest lows from preps to pros.
And he's done it his way.
“This knee situation is done. It’s finished with,” Davis said. “I’m not going to play for 10 more years, but I’m hoping to get a couple more years of playing before moving on. That’s the journey that it’s taken.
"And I have the battle scars to prove it.”
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
Quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer. Michigan State historical data via the team's 2013-14 media guide.
Be sure to check out Davis' interview on the Sports in the Mitten podcast.