THE EVOLUTION: Mo’ne Davis Discusses Her Relationship with Basketball

by August 13, 2019
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mo'ne davis basketball softball

For the first time in four months, Mo’ne Davis wanted to play a real game of basketball. That didn’t mean shooting a few hoops after softball practice. No, she wanted to play a competitive game of five-on-five basketball. So she called up her brother, Quran, who told her he was headed to Smith Playground in South Philadelphia. Mo’ne knew the playground well. She grew up on these courts—way before the Little League World Series, way before she landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, way before she even started playing baseball. Mo’ne would follow her brother and cousins to the playground, where she would be the only girl. From sun up to sun down, she ran with the boys. Everyone knew Mo.

And now Mo’ne wanted to do it again, to return to the courts where she was first introduced to basketball. This was where Mo’ne, too small to go into the lane, honed her jump shot. But Quran couldn’t remember the last time he had seen Mo’ne play. Even Mo’ne had a hard time pinpointing the last time she played five-on-five.

That didn’t stop her; she came out firing. She hit one deep, deep three, Quran recalls with admiration. But Mo’ne, normally hesitant to attack the basket at Smith, was also aggressive and fearless. She ran up and down, up and down, until she didn’t feel like running anymore. 

This is the new reality for Mo’ne Davis, the girl who told everyone, as she skyrocketed to fame on the baseball fields of Williamsport, that she actually wanted to play college basketball. Someday, she said, she hoped to lace up for Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut. But now she’s heading to the University of Hampton to play softball and those college basketball dreams are suddenly in the past.

Five years ago, Mo’ne Davis was everywhere. In front of a national TV audience, she had just thrown six scoreless innings, giving up just two hits and racking up eight strikeouts in her Little World Series debut. Her instagram account blew up. People wanted to know Mo’ne Davis. They wanted to know where she came from and how she learned to throw like that.

It was at this point she let everyone know that although she liked baseball, basketball was her number one sport. Maybe she threw like Clayton Kershaw, but she wanted to hoop like Maya Moore.

Since learning on the Smith blacktops, Mo’ne lived and breathed basketball. When she wasn’t in the gym, she played NBA Live with her favorite duo, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. When she wasn’t near a gym or gaming system, she watched highlights of her favorite players, like LeBron James and Stephen Curry. She joined the Marian Anderson Monarchs basketball program shortly after her early days at Smith playground. She played with the boys, but that wasn’t the only reason she stuck out to many of the coaches. 

“She was a gym rat,” her youth basketball coach at Marian Anderson, Ronald “Ike” Isaac, says. “Consistently in the gym. Wanted to hang out in the gym.”

Even as Mo’ne grew older and continued playing with boys, she held her own. Mo’ne was tough and smart—a true point guard. She knew how to hoop.

“Even as the boys got bigger and more athletic, we were still a better team with Mo’ne at the point guard, with her controlling and running the show,” says Steve Bandura, another one of her coaches at Marian Anderson. “People don’t know when they watch what they’re seeing, she has a plan when she comes over halfcourt and sees the defense… She doesn’t look at everything but she sees everything.”  

After the Little World Series, Mo’ne would play as an eighth and ninth grader on her school’s high school varsity basketball team. She competed for one of the top AAU teams in Philadelphia, Triple Threat. 

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Yet it was during her early years of AAU that she began to understand she wasn’t big enough or athletic enough to play at UConn. 

“I think once I started AAU and I saw the different level of basketball players and the height you had to be at UConn, I figured I’m not growing anymore so that’s not in my future,” Mo’ne says. “But I’ve been a big fan of UConn… and I’ve wanted to go there for the longest. It’s one of my favorite schools, but I didn’t have the height to do it.”

Still she was good enough to play Division I. Going into her junior summer of AAU, schools like Fordham, Quinnipiac and Longwood called and wrote to Mo’ne. But little did these college coaches know—let alone her own family and friends—that Mo’ne was already thinking about moving on from basketball.

It was late July 2018, the summer before Mo’ne’s senior year, and one of the most important basketball weekends of her life. College coaches from around the country, including Quinipiac’s, one of Mo’ne’s top schools, were in the crowd. Mo’ne was supposed to be throwing dazzling passes, hitting little runners and commanding the offense for her AAU team. But that wasn’t happening. She was feeling sick and her asthma was acting up. She couldn’t play with the intensity and poise she usually brought to the court.

She reassured her teammates, however, that the rest of the tournament would be different. “This game I’m gonna play hard,” she told them. “I haven’t been playing hard, but I’m gonna play hard this game.”

Mo’ne came out the next day energized—maybe even too energized. Running down the floor on a fast break, she rolled her ankle. For the rest of the tournament, she hid at the end of the bench, a boot noticeably covering her ankle. The Quinnipiac coach walked the other way. During the most important time for college basketball recruitment, Mo’ne couldn’t play.

For days to come, the doubts entered Mo’ne’s head again. Did she really want to play college basketball? She would be in the boot for two months and if she wanted to increase her offers, she might have to do a postgraduate year. And, for multiple reasons, her relationship with basketball had already been waning.

There had been all of the Little League World Series appearances that had taken away from her time in the gym. There had been the high school coach who yelled a lot, leading Mo’ne to skip her sophomore season. There had been the years of losing in high school basketball. And there had been softball, a sport she grew to enjoy, as basketball became less fun, like a chore. 

mo'ne davis basketball softball

Did she really want to spend another four years dragging this out? What was she doing this for anymore? Was it because she felt an obligation to her parents, who had put so much time and money into her pursuit of college basketball? Was it because she felt an obligation to herself, after spending her whole life working for these scholarships?

She decided that the ankle injury was the final straw. Mo’ne was ready to move on from basketball and pursue college softball. She worried over how some of the people closest to her would react when they heard.

But the thing is, no one was shocked. Not her brother. Not Coach Isaac or Coach Bandura. Maybe they were a little surprised that she was leaving behind a lifelong dream, but they had seen the writing on the wall. 

“That burnout factor, once it hits, it hits,” Isaac says.

Bandura was impressed with the way Mo’ne handled the situation. “I’m proud that she came out and had the guts to come out against what everyone else expected and stand up for what she wanted to do,” he says.

In the fall of 2018, her senior year, Mo’ne committed to play softball at Hampton. It was around that time that Mo’ne, on a visit to the school, met the Hampton basketball coach. He knew of Triple Threat, Mo’ne’s AAU team, and admired their program. There were no guarantees, but the door was left open. Maybe she could try and play both basketball and softball.

But as of right now, Mo’ne still doesn’t intend on trying to play college basketball. These days, with every sport being year-around, competing in two college sports is rare. There is the season and then the offseason practices, conditioning and workouts. Playing just one sport is a long and grueling process. 

And Mo’ne just doesn’t feel the urge—to play or even watch basketball. “I just started gaining interest in different things,” she explains. “And we just kinda saw the Warriors and the Cavs most of the time in the Finals so you kinda knew how that was gonna turn out.”

She checks in here and there, enough to form opinions on players (“A lot of people like RJ [Barrett]. I’m not a big fan of RJ…I’m a pass first person. So RJ doesn’t pass too much,” she says), but she’s not nearly as attached as she once was. 

Mo’ne is still pitching and playing baseball in her final summer with the Anderson Monarchs. She did an internship this past year with the Phillies’ broadcast team, interviewing players like Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. She has become a diehard United States women’s soccer fan, watching every second of the World Cup games (“I will literally sit [in the dugout] and watch it,” she says). She even wants to try golf or tennis. 

Still, she recognizes that “my mind can change. It changed already, so it could change again.” Bandura agrees, saying, “I just have the feeling that if she gets out there in the fall and plays pickup, it might strike a chord with her.”

She played her senior of high school basketball and now she’s playing again with the boys in a summer league. Maybe that will help her find her spark to play college basketball again. Or maybe she will find it the next time she goes to Smith Playground with her brother. Or maybe she’ll never find the spark again and become the best player in the Hampton recreation center. And Mo’ne Davis is fine with that, at least for now.

Benjamin Simon is an intern at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminSimon05.

Photos by Bob Quinn