LOS ANGELES — “What direction is the culture moving in Los Angeles?” the lecturer asks, and from among the various students, including women in open-toed sandals typing away on laptops and a gray-haired man with a wedding ring writing on a yellow legal pad with a Montblanc pen, comes a response from a man with the beard that’s familiar to any NBA fan.
“East!” Baron Davis calls out, correctly.
Baron Davis has always been a little different than your average NBA player. He was the first professional athlete to ink an endorsement deal with Jenny Craig after struggling to keep himself in tip-top shape. He went to school with Kate Hudson and Cash Warren. He’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild and he’s produced a documentary about gang life in America. He’s as active outside of the basketball sphere as he is in it (and sometimes, it seems as though we see more of him off of the court than on it) and he’s got a loud and colorful personality that does indeed speak louder than his game these days.
Despite these things, my first interaction with Davis was less than stellar. It was in Seattle (R.I.P, Sonics), and the Golden State Warriors were in town. It was a game where the scoreboard caught on fire. A game where I spoke with Stephen Jackson about gun shots in Indiana. A game where Kevin Durant was so long and lean that you feared his forearms would snap when he was fouled while driving to the hoop.
Davis was alone in his locker after the game, and I asked him if we could speak. He said yes. I asked him some questions, plural. He elected not to respond, but to stare at me blankly. I repeated my questions. He repeated his stare. I was a rookie reporter, in the locker room for only the second time in my life. I didn’t know what to do. I chose to walk away. I felt my face burn up, not sure if this was normal behavior, feeling foolish because Davis was the player so many of my writer friends had told me to talk to because, “He’s great, you’ll love talking with him.”
After I left the locker room, as I walked down the tunnel, smiling at Don Nelson drinking a beer in the hallway by the team bus and trying not to stare at Robert Swift’s smoking hot girlfriend, I felt someone tap my shoulder. I turned around to face Davis. I tried not to show my fear on my face, but wondered if I was about to be cursed out, to earn the horror story that every writer seems to have about a player flipping out on them for no real reason. I braced myself for what he was going to say. After what seemed like an eternity, Davis asked me what I needed and asked me to repeat the questions I’d asked in the locker room. I told him I’d gotten the answers I needed from his teammates and started to walk away. He then began to apologize profusely, saying he hadn’t meant any disrespect, that he’d been caught up on something, but that wasn’t an excuse. The team had boarded the bus by this time and started yelling for him to get on. He motioned for them to stop before asking me again if I needed anything from him. In short, he was as polite as I’d expected him to be in the first place. He was human. He hadn’t been in the mood to answer anything, but instead of brushing me off as a media member that he didn’t know and had never seen seen before, he treated me with respect once he recognized his actions.
I’m sure Davis doesn’t remember this encounter, but I do because heÂ taught me a lesson: players can be cranky, and sometimes you’ll approach them after a bad loss or performance when they’re angry or bitter or caught up in something. But often times, how someone treats you on that single occasion isn’t a fair representation of who that person is. Plus, people deserve a chance to right their wrongs before being written off. I was so bummed that Davis wasn’t what I had expected him to be, and then in the blink of an eye, he proved himself to be exactly what everyone had told me he was: a normal guy who also happens to get paid an absurd amount of money to play basketball.
Three years later, I stood in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ visiting locker room, waiting for Davis to address the media. My eyes were burning, stinging from an allergic reaction I’d had to the cologne a man sitting on press row was wearing. As Davis was answering a question into the camera for the Cavaliers broadcast team, he caught my eye and noticed the red, swollen eyes staring back at him. Despite being on camera he stopped to ask me if I was alright. After he was done with media, he pulled my aside, cringing while looking at my eyes, then told me to take care of myself and rest up. I wanted to tell him how he’d scared the hell out of me three years ago, but didn’t have the ability to think of anything but getting home so I could take my contacts out and flush my eyes out. Still, it was another little jolt that reminded me of the lesson mentioned above. People, especially famous people, can’t be judged by glimpses of interaction. It’s not fair.
Now, how does any of this link into Davis going back to school? Well, with Davis, we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s returned to UCLA 12 years after leaving for the NBA, because, unlike the unsavory, incomplete glimpse I’d gleaned during our first interaction of that Sonics/Warriors game, Davis has spent 12 years showing us that he isn’t just a basketball player. He’s got interests and passions that extend far beyond sports. This isn’t anything new. One of my favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou who said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Davis has shown us. We should have believed him. We should also remember, though, that it often takes more than a glimpse to be shown who someone is.
I’m so glad I didn’t walk away from that first experience with Davis jaded by his initial, blank reaction. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the uniqueness that Davis brings to the NBA in the same way that I do now and I really enjoy those things. As writers, there are always lessons to learn. Some of us bloggers (myself included), don’t have a journalism background; we never learned how to deal with attitudes in the locker room, or developing a good rapport with players. It’s trial by error and baptism by fire. My encounter with Davis was one of many lessons I learned in that first year of NBA writing, and three years later, it’s still the first thing I think of whenever Davis’ name is mentioned by a colleague. This time, though, I get to be the one telling the newbie writer that Davis is a sure-thing when looking for someone who will be interesting and engaging with your questions.
Finding players like that is one of the most rewarding parts of this gig. Learning about someone’s family, their friends, hopes, interests, random pieces of real life that tumble out when you ask a particularly good or intriguing question that captures a player’s attention is something you don’t forget. These lessons are also things that I will not forget.
The best part of experience is the lessons that come with it. After three years of covering the NBA, I’m thankful for all I’ve learned (both good and bad, and Lord knows there’s been plenty of not fun lessons to learn), but mostly, I’m excited for more. Now studying history at UCLA, Davis is keeping busy by learning from the experiences of those that came before him. It’s nice to know that getting paid a lot of money to play a game hasn’t killed Davis’s desire for more, either.