When you look at Baron Davis, you only see the beauty of what is, not the pain of what was. That’s the way he wants it.
The 2008-09 season was supposed to be it for Baron Davis. He was poised to lead a young, talented Clippers team in a new direction with the help of fellow All-Star tight rope walker Elton Brand. Plus, it was a homecoming for Davis, born and raised in L.A. Then, Brand jetted for Philly, while B. Diddy—as has frustratingly been the case over the last few seasons—battled the injury bug, and the Clips ended up with a woeful season and the first pick in this past June’s draft. As Scoop Jackson illustrated here (originally in SLAM 59), though, no matter the outcome of this season or the next, or even what jersey he’s rocking, we should all be pulling for Baron.—Adam Fleischer
by Scoop Jackson
Let’s take a trip…back to where a child is born. State of mind unkind. Before the age of five, he sees his mother coming out of abandoned buildings. Drugs. Serious addiction. In his mother the child sees his future, not just his but his sister’s. A life consumed by never knowing where mother is or when someone, anyone (because father had the same problem) was going to be there, to hug them after school, to put food on the table, to tuck them in. To kiss goodnight, then goodbye. Abandoned buildings take away all of that. The State can take that child away. So can a grandmother.
“My grandmother will turn 89 in July,” Baron Davis says today. “And to sum up my life story, if it wasn’t for my grandparents, I wouldn’t be here.”
Being here, in this hotel lobby in the middle of Minnesota, cold as hell, waiting to play another game of professional basketball, knowing that this life of his has nothing to do with professional basketball. For the glory that many eyes have seen, the eyes of Baron Davis have seen opposite. There is no glory in set trippin’, crack runnin’, and seein’ numbers of homies dead before grammar school graduation. South Central, L.A. as the slogan says, “Where the cost of living is going up and your chances of living are going down.”
Survive this and the rest of the world will be easy—yours for the taking. But those mental scars that ride shotgun on life’s journey will cost. A fat check from the Charlotte Hornets every two weeks with more commas than you’ve ever seen will not erase anything. The infectious smile that Baron Davis puts on covers all of this up beautifully. To us he’s a 22-year-old kid who (everyone thought) left UCLA too early, and has in three years proved that his name is worthy of mention alongside the Marburys and the Iversons. That’s what we see. That’s all we see. We see everything wrong.
“Drugs. Guns. Welfare…and all of that other shit that can mislead you.” He is asked one question throughout our entire time together, one question that will lend a deeper perspective. He is asked: What did he have to go through in order to get here? To get to this point in his life where he can (possibly) exhale? His answer takes more than an hour. It consists of the stereotypical hardships with which most African-American athletes’ legends are made, combined with the truth that many of those same athletes never disclose. When Baron Davis first mentions his parents’ drug addiction, he says it in an almost “whatever” manner. Later, he’s straight with it: “I used to be ashamed of both my moms and dad for being on drugs, but I’m not anymore,” he says. “I just realize that that’s the path they chose.”
He explains that he never had a bedroom, spent his childhood sleeping in a living room, on the floor, and how he was on his way to becoming one of those statistics after being on the verge of getting “kicked the fuck” out of high school his freshman year. Those sentences become minimal as he further unveils his life. He focuses on his grandparents and the lives they sacrificed to save one. He tells the story of how his grandfather, damn near too sick to walk, built a basketball goal in the alley behind where they lived. He talks about how proud his grandfather—literally Baron’s best friend coming up—was when he knew he had done something so special for his grandson that Baron cried. A kid who had witnessed his parents strung out, and who was emotionless through that, cried. He talks about how his grandfather has missed most of everything that resulted from this because by the time Baron graduated eighth grade, God had rested his soul.
“On Christmas Day [’85], after coming from seeing my mother, my grandfather came out and was like, ‘Come and see your Christmas present,’” BD says. “I’ll never forget it, because he was so excited and he never got that way about anything.”
His present was a stick, a wooden stick that came out of the ground. “Man, I saw that, man…” There was a basket attached to that stick. A lowered basket, perfect for a little six-year-old with a potbelly, to defer another Lost Angeles dream. Grandfather wanted some sense of security that the hood would not take baby boy under.
One hundred and thirty-seven steps from his grandparents’ house is what they were trying to eliminate. And Baron knows this number because he walked it every day, with a basketball, “walking the dog,” dribbling through his legs non-stop with every step. One mistake, one misdribble, back to the front door. Start over. He would, for the most part, make these walks unharmed, unscathed, but never unnoticed. “It’s not like I got a pass,” Baron would say. “But the homies, the OGs in the hood wouldn’t mess with me, they knew even as a kid all I wanted to do was ball. So…”
So he’d take those 137 steps, trying to ignore the world around him, the cesspool that would take so many others before him—the great Sweet Ray Lewis, John “Allah” Williams, Maxwell Henderson among them. He didn’t want to see it every day, so he’d dribble with his head down until he got to one-three-seven. Then he’d look up. Home.
He’d spent a large part of his early childhood there, doing most times more watching than playing, often until past seven o’clock, when the L.A. sun would start to set. He’d hear his grandmother’s voice from the other side of the fence where she’d walk, 70 steps, calling him, always more than once. Time was up. But it would never stop, because young’n was on a mission that he wasn’t even aware of. Having seen so much without looking, having been victim of so much without even hurting, God had instilled a quiet force inside this one. “I’d come home,” he’d say, “but I’d go right in our little backyard where we had, like, a camper with an orange stripe at the top where the clothesline was. And that’s what I’d do, I’d start playing basketball on the clothesline.”
His grandfather had cancer then. Would later die from it. He never said too much to Baron, but he taught him everything his grandmother couldn’t. As he would watch his grandson play imaginary basketball on that clothesline, the grandfather knew the streets was watchin’ the kid, too.
“I know now it’s not my fault,” Baron Davis is speaking now, low tone, almost silently. “Shit happens like that. But back then it was like…”
As a child, you don’t ask to understand this, but you have to. The burden he is talking about is Grandfather’s death. On the day he died, Baron, too old to play on Grandad’s homemade hoop, had gone to hone his life’s calling, to play basketball at a park—away from home, stiffer competition. By the time he returned that night, Papa was barely there. “Damn, if I wouldn’t have left…” For years Baron felt this way, the same way any of us, at 13, would. Self blame.
“To be there by his side, to watch him die, to be looking at him, to watch him suffer, I never thought as a kid it would come to that,” Baron says. “Not to him, a man of his character, strong, strong-willed, independent, raised 30 kids: his kids, grandkids, great-grandkids. To see him on that bed like that, after I had been out having fun, ate me alive. After that, I felt, the only thing I had left in my life was basketball. I just didn’t know how to deal with it…still don’t.”
Then Baron, as if he’s about to wipe an unfallen tear from his eye, says the only profound thing a young black man can say about losing someone so close so soon in life, the same thing he says to himself every time he looks into the stands at an empty seat phantom-occupied, or when he’s just lounging around and that image of his grandfather enters him. “That’s my nigga though,” he smiles. That’s only the first part.
And now, part two, which looks a lot more like Baron than the first: his father. The one whom Baron barely knew, the one he rarely saw. The streets had him. From Crenshaw to Sunset. Gone. In and out of jail, in and out of Baron’s life. But a teenager’s heart is often nothing but full of gold. It’s warm, and it has open spots. It forgives. “I finally came to the conclusion,” Baron speaks on his father, “that I was going to make this work.”
Before he got to this point, Baron will tell you that he really didn’t know his old man. “I knew him, but to me he was never really my father.” Grandfather was. But most men need someone—older, same gender—in our lives, if not a father than a figure to play one. Baron had Pops. Pops was gone. Baron searched. Bobby Watson, a friend of Baron’s older sister, wound up inducting Baron and his fo’life homie Darryl into the Bethune Park League in South Central Watts, filled a partial void. As did Thaddeus McGrew, the AAU coach who got Baron, then 5-3, out of the color separation that had become the L.A. lifestyle and into a private school, Crossroads, in Santa Monica. As did Chris West, his seventh grade history teacher who scraped up spare change from his teacher’s salary to buy Baron a plane ticket to play at Ohio State’s basketball camp—this during the L.A. riots—just so he wouldn’t be forced to watch his community burn. But the child still felt the vacuity of being another ghetto bastard, a son with no father. So, with more forgiveness in his heart than any teenager should have, Baron reached out and began a relationship with his true father to fill the one that left with his grandfather’s last breath.
“We started hanging out, you know, just chillin’, talking,” Baron stops so that he can catch his breath. Cool. “We would talk every day. I went to his house on Father’s Day, took him a present. He’d call me and tell me, ‘Good game.’ That was one thing, he loved basketball.” Did you catch that? “Loved.” Past tense. Continue.
Baron’s father would shock him one day when he showed up at a high school tournament in Vegas; Pops then proceeded to never miss any of his son’s games while the younger Davis, still round in the middle (“I do like 1,000 crunches, eat right, everything and my stomach still sticks out,” Baron jokes), was putting on shows in Westwood while playing just two of his scheduled four years at UCLA. But Dad had never seen son as a pro. Not live. The time had come.
“I was in Utah when I invited him,” Baron says, reopening that door. “He was, like, speechless. We were playing the Lakers in two days and I thought it would be cool for him to be at that game, you know, that would be his first NBA game.”
Baron’s cell phone rang right before he got on the plane. It was his sister. Part two is a muthafucka. The emphysema Dad carried around forced him back into the hospital. Baron had been through this before with his father, so he thought nothing of it. The plane ride to L.A. was smooth. Until the plane landed. And Baron says, “You know how you get those feelings that something’s wrong?”
Emphysema led to a heart attack. One Baron’s father would not recover from. He was pronounced dead before Baron got the chance to call his sister back to check on him. Father would never see his son play that game; son would never get the chance to look in those stands and see his father seeing him as a man, ballin’ at the highest level, doing what he was birthed to do, redirecting the deferred dream. All Baron would see during that game was another empty seat in the Staples Center, next to where his grandfather should have been sitting.
“My grandmother told me to always accept blessings as they come,” he says. I ask him, is there any way he can possibly find a blessing in the events that have shaped his life to this point? “Everything,” he answers, “has made me stronger.”
This is part three to the masterpiece, searching for the worst part of good. Baron picks up his black XBox traveling case and pushes play on the portable CD player, uncased. “What you know about that?” he asks me as NWA’s “Dopeman” escapes the headphones. I tell him something about Cube, Dre, the D.O.C., Ease, Yella and Ren that even he didn’t know. We squared.
“My life,” he says, “as bad as it sounds, still unfolded step by step. Whenever it came to a turning point or a crossroad, a door would open up. Those are those blessings my grandmother used to talk about.”
“Barrrrron! Barrrrron! Barrrrron!” Baron hears that familiar voice calling his name. Grandma. But this time, there are no fences separating them, only the three short steps between her and the Charlotte bench. It’s December 9, and she’s in the Staples Center. This is her first in-person NBA game. This is serendipity. Finally, someone was able to share Baron’s dream of making it to the League. The Hornets lose, but it doesn’t matter. This is one of the best days of both grandson’s and grandmother’s life.
He still stays with her during the offseason, in the same small crib he’s been trying to move her out of. While averaging 19 ppg and making a run at All-Star status, and about to buy a house in Vegas, he still sometimes sleeps on the living room floor. ’Hood trapped. He spends every non-professional day of his life with her. Outside of basketball, Baron will instantly admit, “She’s all I got.” She’s his entire family rolled into an 89-year-old frame. She’s what got him here. She’s the portrait of this story.
Now I ask him how will he prepare himself for her, for the day when God blesses her soul. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” he says, trying hard to find those strong words. “I think about it, and it just scares the hell out of me. Just from seeing death so much growing up, and people, family, around me dying from natural causes to unnatural causes, I want to say that I’m ready for that day, but…I mean, I’ve had her all my life, everyday…that’s going to be tough, but I understand it now, I think I understand it…I hate thinking about…”
As he tails off, he turns from the tape recorder. He looks around to find pride in where he’s gone and what he’s accomplished in only 22 years, from whence he came. “My grandmother used to tell me about my life: ‘You’re not going to fuck this up.’” The blessing lives in that she, Baron Davis’ grandmother, is still with us to see that he didn’t.