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Assistant Coach Johnny Davis and Head Coach Lionel Hollins check over strategy.
PROFILE: Johnny Davis, Assistant Coach of Memphis Grizzlies
By Arelya J. Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief
The Mid-South Tribune and the Black Information Highway
What most don’t know about former NBA star player Johnny Davis is that he holds a Master’s Degree in sports psychology. Getting his Master’s was a strong indicator that Davis utilized good old-fashioned horse sense by anticipating that life in the NBA could be ‘short and brutish’, as a philosopher once described life itself.
While giving young Memphis Grizzlies players lessons in basketball technique, he also stresses to them that life is about being more than ‘in the moment’. Basketball careers might be greatly rewarded, they are still short-lived, especially in the highly competitive world of professional basketball otherwise known as the National Basketball Association (NBA). And there are many a young boy bouncing away on urban concrete to scratchy gym floors and beaten down dead grass in the backyard who still dream of hitting the shiny NBA hardwood. And Johnny Davis is the first to say that it’s nice to dream, because he dreamed and made it—with a lot of hard work and determination to make it, but he also knew that if he didn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world or the end of him being fulfilled as a human being who could be productive.
Upon meeting Davis, you might think that he is a quiet man and thus, so unlike, the stereotype of a hotly emotional motivational coach. Though, Davis is not emotional, he is motivational. You can bet your bottom dollar his players will tell you that. He can probably be best described as a thinking man’s coach who has been there and done that when it comes to the NBA world.
Davis is Assistant Coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. He is also one of the pioneer African American coaches in the NBA, having achieved a career that was not even possible or plausible at one time in pro sports history for Black men. In 1996 through 1997, he served as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, making him one of the earliest African American coaches in professional sports history period. He later served as head coach for the Orlando Magic (2003-2005), giving him two full notches on an achievement stick unheard of in the world of sports.
In reflecting on being among the first of a handful of African American coaches in the NBA, Davis says that more African American coaches will be seen on the NBA horizon. He comments: “Not only do you see African American coaches in the NBA, but also in the NFL, Major League Baseball and other sports. There are a lot of qualified people that don’t get to be head coaches, but it’s not because they are not good enough or organized enough or disciplined enough, but the opportunity has not always been there. I think people who make the decision in hiring are seeing that a good coach is a good coach irrespective of color. Color shouldn’t be the only determinant factor. You should want to hire a guy because he is the best.”
Davis’ impressive and historical resume began when he was named an All-American Player and one of the Top 10 Players in the Detroit Public School League.
“I was honored; I was humbled by it,” he recalls, “because when you’re voted the Top Ten of anything that’s an ‘all-time’. It was really just an awesome award, and I was humbled by that.”
He gives credit to his late mother, Dorothy, for grounding him in reality and for encouraging him to go for his dream. Davis says that his mother was the most inspiring parental model because she was “involved” in and “supportive” of whatever he and his siblings set out to do.
“In terms of criticism, it was always constructive,” he says of his mother’s style. “It was always about how you can do it better or how you could get it done. It was always about lifting you up and making you aware of what you might be doing right or wrong. Because of her, I had a drive to excel. I wanted to excel. I never thought of anything other than I would excel at whatever I was trying to do. When running the race, I wanted to ‘win’ it…I like competition. I’ve always enjoyed competition. I like putting myself against the best to see where I stood against the best.” He explains that this was not about ego but rather about evaluating your skills and your thinking ability in the game—very much in the same manner his mother used to inspire him and his siblings to go for it! She was the ultimate cheerleader.
He’s tried to emulate her as much as possible as a parent himself and as a coach-- or maybe a hybrid of coach-parent might be the word to describe how he cares about his players on and off the field, seeing that many gifted players are getting younger and opting for the hardwood instead of the mortar board.
Being an All-American Player catapulted Davis into the NBA, where he also played alongside Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins as a Portland Trail Blazer.
“I was fortunate in that I was with a good team, and we went on to win the championship during my rookie year,” he says of the year 1977 when they received the championship rings for being the best. And it’s not everyday you get a ring to symbolize that success.
Davis went on to play for such other NBA teams as the Indiana Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Atlanta Hawks.
And when that athletic portion of his career was over, he was not stuck in memory lane. He went back to school and got the Master’s in sports psychology. Why sports psychology? he was asked. For two reasons: Number one, he still had a love for sports and, number two, he was a people-person.
“I am fascinated by people,” he says flatly. “Every person is different and every person has a story. Just to listen to people talk. You can figure out what they represent and who they are.”
He elaborates, using sports as a collective noun to sum up life itself: “Sports reflects life, and life reflects sports,” he begins philosophically. “I can watch players and pretty much tell what type of personality they have. Sure, people have the ability to change, but most people are who they are. If a guy is animated and passionate on the floor, you can just about guess that he is the same off the floor. If a guy is selfish on the floor, he is selfish off the floor. If he is a giver on the floor, you can pretty much believe he is a sociable guy off the floor. Now this may not be true in all cases, but it is true in most cases.”
To reiterate, Davis can also be a motivational speaker, something his friends and family have told him. At a time when young men and especially young African American men need role models, Davis is a much-needed fit in the sports world and in the community as well. He’s been called a teacher as well, having both the commitment and compassion to teach.
He likens the 82 games the Grizzlies have to play each year as having to take “82 tests”.
“And we [the coaches] are the teachers and the players are the students, and we have to give the students what is necessary to pass these 82 tests.”
He also says there is a psychology in confronting former teams he’s either played on or coached for.
“I can take the emotion out of it, because I don’t think you can think clearly when you’re overly emotional about a certain thing, so I can treat the Orlando Magic and the 76ers no differently than teams I did not have an association with. Our team needs to beat any team and every team. When you’re emotional, you’re blinded and you can make a bad decision because you’re not looking at the situation analytically and strategically.”
And speaking of being a role model, Davis is the father of two sons, Reginald and Austin, both of whom played basketball. “They’re trying to coach me now!” he laughs good-naturedly.
About his wife, Lezli, he says: “She’s wonderful and she’s my best friend. She understands the demands of the business and the life she signed on for when she married me. She knows the ‘thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,’” he says giving her an everlasting Valentine.
To his young players, he does want to point out one thing in a world where materialism can overwhelm them: “I was never motivated by financial means, but I was motivated by being the best. I don’t think you should chase money, but you should chase excellence. When you excel, money will chase you. When you are good at what you do, people will recognize you. Even if the money doesn’t come, you still have a real satisfaction that you did your best.” And he still says being “humble” is the best way to deal with whatever life throws at you.