by Alex Shultz
Dwayne Davis was almost out of options. He finished 4-16 from the floor in a third-round NIT loss to BYU, not exactly a good look for a player who had made his living as a scorer during his one collegiate season at Southern Miss. He was already 23 years old, so there would be no “upside” or “potential” buzzwords on his draft profile. His career was flatlining.
Southern Miss head coach Donnie Tyndall decided to give Davis’ basketball hopes one last jolt. He vouched for his inclusion in the Portsmouth Invitational, an annual tournament featuring some of the best college seniors on the fringes of the NBA. And that’s when it all came together. Davis finished first out of every participant in points per game. He caught the attention of Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg, who decided to write a personal profile on his journey.
Shortly thereafter, Davis was contacted by producers at Mandalay Sports Media for a basketball documentary called Summer Dreams—they wanted to get his story on camera. He was also invited to the NBA Summer League, and then came a contract offer to play in one of the top basketball leagues in the world. Hard to imagine that only a year earlier, he was ready to give it all up and work a 9-5.
Last summer, Dwayne Davis introduced himself to the room full of women and children at the Shade Tree Shelter, a short drive from the Strip in Las Vegas.
“My life is y’all’s life,” Davis began. “I know what it feels like to be hungry, lost and not have anyone.”
When Dwayne was 13 years old, his mother died of lupus. His father was not in his life. As Davis recounted to Eisenberg in his piece for Yahoo, he lived wherever he could take refuge, often in shelters or out of a van with his younger sister and baby brother. Food was never a given. Basketball was all he had left that made him happy. Now, with documentary cameras rolling and people hanging on his every word, he looked at the faces staring back at him. It was a powerful moment, one that he never thought he’d experience. He wanted to stand before them and offer hope.
“I know everything is rough, but just never give up,” Davis said.
By the time he was finished speaking, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, Davis included. Co-executive producer of Summer Dreams, Jon Weinbach, recalls the moment vividly.
“It’s so easy for those of us in the sports business who work in the media realm to get jaded about another story of heartbreak about a kid from the inner-city,” Weinbach says. “We’ve become hardened to it, and that’s really unfortunate. But to have someone you’ve never heard of like Dwayne Davis, what he had to overcome in his personal situation—he says these unbelievably profound things and you just can’t help but root for him.”
Kasheef Festus still remembers when he met Dwayne Davis for the first time. They were playing in the Sonny Hill League in Philadelphia, not more than 11 or 12 years old.
“[The team] came and gave me a ride one day,” Festus says. “I was like the new kid in the neighborhood. Dwayne and I played in the league and were the two best players on the team. We pretty much just instantly clicked and I ended up transferring from the middle school where I had just won a championship to go to middle school with him.”
Festus and Davis joined the same AAU team, and Festus in particular caught the eye of Mike Fink, the new head coach at Kennedy-Kendrick High School, a private Catholic institution in nearby Norristown. Fink pitched his program to Festus and got an answer he never saw coming.
“Dwayne wasn’t really that good at the time, but Kasheef said Dwayne was a great kid and they’d want to come together,” Fink says.
“I was one of the best players in the state at the time, so it was kind of like whatever I said goes, unfortunately for Mike Fink,” Festus laughs.
The first time Fink picked up Davis for basketball practice, he realized the traveling arrangement wasn’t going to work. Davis was a high school freshman living in the roughest part of North Philly. So Fink sprung into action. He had a side business as a realtor and worked out a deal with Festus’s mother—she rented a home in suburban Norristown with her son and Davis so the youngsters could focus on school and basketball.
“My mom, she just was always there to support both of us no matter what,” Festus says. “She never showed favoritism to me more than him just because I was her real son. She treated both of us the same and we both got the same stuff and went to the same places. It was a family, he was my older brother.”
For Davis, the stability took some getting used to. He wasn’t accustomed to anyone watching out for him, guiding him, thinking about his future. At school, he was easing his way into things.
“Mike Fink was the first guy that really showed me discipline, really showed me the meaning of hard work,” Davis says. “Going to Catholic school was the greatest thing that happened to me as far as work ethic and my studies. The first time I had to run a suicide hard, I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Davis was far from the star of Fink’s program—in fact, he was on JV for most of his first season.
“He played JV for me the first year, he might’ve played a little varsity but he mainly played JV,” Fink says. “He was raw, I don’t even think he was six feet tall. He was skilled, but you never would’ve thought he would blossom into the player that he’d become right out of eighth grade.”
Fink left Kennedy-Kendrick High School after two years, and Davis enrolled at Strawberry Mansion as a junior. He had grown into a gifted scorer and a Division I prospect, though he had some issues managing his anger, which occasionally manifested itself out on the court.
“Not only did he sometimes lash out at coaches or slam walls with his fists in frustration, he once chased a referee and chucked a ball at him during a game,” Eisenberg wrote.
Over time, he learned to control that anger. But first, Davis was recruited by Morehead State, later accepting a scholarship to play there even though he was academically ineligible for his freshman year. Like much of his earlier life, nothing came easy for him. As it turns out, Davis never played a single game for the Eagles. He ended up transferring to a junior college for one season, then transferred again to Southern Miss. That’s when things looked like they were finally coming together—until once again, Davis was ruled ineligible because of a dispute over an online class credit.
“The frustration of college was unbearable really,” Davis says. “I really don’t know how I got through it, but you’ve got to be tough. I’d label myself as one of the toughest guys at heart, but at the same time, mentally, it was too much to handle. There were times where I felt like giving up and thought, Forget it, I’m about to go work a 9-5 and be a regular guy instead of doing basketball anymore. I kept getting my hopes up and then it just crashed down right back at the bottom where I started.”
Kasheef Festus had just finished his season at Lock Haven University in North Dakota when he heard about Dwayne’s stunning Portsmouth Invitational performance. He couldn’t have been prouder of his best friend.
“When I heard about it, it really didn’t surprise me,” Festus says. “I was just happy that somebody finally gave him a chance to do what he does.”
Soon afterward, Summer Dreams producers were filming Davis and Festus as they trained before and during the Summer League.
“I had never been in that situation before,” Festus says. “I did interviews after games and stuff like that, but as far as being in the documentary, it was really cool but pretty intimidating at the same time.”
Though Davis and Festus didn’t understand it at first, they soon realized their story was resonating in a big way.
“The producers showed [some clips] to a live audience and my name was one of the biggest names that they wanted to see,” Davis says. “They wanted to see my story, so [the producers] just decided that I would be a part of the documentary and that would be great for me.”
Davis wasn’t a superstar in the Summer League, though he did make the most of his chances. In 11 minutes of action against the Bucks, he put up 10 points. International clubs began to notice, and Davis took their interest in stride.
“In all reality, who is Dwayne Davis? Who was he before any Portsmouth Invitational or anything? I was off the map,” Davis says. “So my mindset was that I wasn’t supposed to be here so I can’t complain, and I’m grateful for the opportunity that I’m on an NBA Summer League team.”
Along the way, he got help from Festus and Fink, who both traveled to Las Vegas. Festus and Davis trained daily in intense one-on-one sessions, while Fink ran some additional drills for his former player.
“It’s neat for me because—not that you need recognition or validation, it’s not why you do it—but it’s always nice to get it,” Fink says. “There are a lot of failures and it’s nice to have a success story. I’m just thrilled for him.”
Today, Davis is in his first season for UCAM Murcia in the ACB League, the best in Spain. He’s playing well, scoring 23 points in his last outing.
“I can’t complain too much,” Davis says. “It’s hard for rookies to get into the ACB to start off, so I’m grateful to be playing in this league and to be a part of it.”
For a guy who’d never left the United States before heading to Europe, he seems to be adjusting pretty well.
“After five or six months I’m finally a little used to it,” Davis says. “Not completely yet, but as far as the food and stuff, it took about four months to try to get to know the culture. But it’s a great culture and I love it. Great people here and a great environment.”
Davis is taking a free Spanish class at a local school—provided by the team—and says his “Spanglish” is slowly improving. And for the first time in his life, he’s financially stable.
“It’s unbelievable,” Davis says. “It’s kind of bittersweet for me, because I know that I’m making money now but I still have that feeling of when I had no money. I know how it feels. I’m trying to save everything.”
He speaks regularly with Festus, and the two push each other to attain their goals on and off the court.
“We talk everyday,” Davis says. “He’s my best friend, he’s like my brother. Not a day goes by, that’s all we talk about is him coming out here for his spring break.”
Dwayne’s siblings are also doing well, and he talks about how excited he is to spend time with them this summer. He plans to try out for the Summer League again, but will remain grateful for any basketball opportunity that presents itself going forward.
“I’m absolutely going to tryout for the Summer League,” Davis says. “I’ll be there this summer and if things work out my way then I’ll be happy with that. But I don’t really care where I play at. I’m not picky. So if it’s here, overseas for the next few years, I’m fine with that. If it’s in the NBA for a year, then overseas, I’m fine with that. Wherever I go I’m just trying to make the best of it.”
The fact that Davis is able to make a living playing basketball isn’t lost on Fink, the man who helped turn the troubled teenage boy’s life around.
“Let me tell you something—I’ve worked out a lot of pro players, and none of them have overcome what he has persevered against,” Fink says. “No one has worked as hard as this kid has worked.”
Summer Dreams debuts on Saturday, March 15 at 8 p.m. EST on CBS.