A higher but darker place in Syracuse
Former ball boy Bobby Davis describes his life with ex-Syracuse assistant coach
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The tan, two-story wood house is still there on Wilson Street, but it's changed quite a bit in the past two decades. It has fallen into disrepair; paint on the cedar shingles is cracked and peeling. The screened porch in front is torn, and the wiry shards shiver in the wind.
This house once belonged to Bernie Fine, an assistant basketball coach for Syracuse University, who was fired Sunday after three men said he had molested them as children. The first of those was Bobby Davis.
Davis says he thought of that Wilson Street house as his second home and spent many nights there growing up. The old house on the city's east side was a mecca for neighborhood kids filled with hoop dreams, but all knew the young Bobby Davis, who would go on to become a Syracuse ball boy, held a higher place.
In his world, the gregarious top Syracuse assistant coach was always "Uncle Bernie." Davis baby-sat Fine's children, vacationed with the family and confided easily through the years in Fine's wife, Laurie. But he tells, too, of a darker, twisted side. Davis, 39, alleges that when he was a seventh-grader, it was in the family's basement bedroom that Bernie Fine began fondling and touching him inappropriately -- a pattern of sexual abuse/molestation that lasted until he was 27.
Davis has been telling this story since 2001 -- first spilled self-consciously to then-girlfriend Danielle Roach, and about a year later to the Syracuse Police Department, by which he was informed the statute of limitations had run out. Davis went in 2002 to the local Syracuse newspaper and ESPN's "Outside the Lines," both of which decided not to run the story because no one corroborated it. In 2005, Davis took his story to Syracuse University, which investigated the matter but found no corroboration.
But in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and with his stepbrother and fellow former ball boy Mike Lang saying Fine tried to touch him inappropriately as well, Davis spoke out again.
"I always thought, 'Why did I allow it to happen for so long?' and I didn't know," Davis says. "Did I think I was gay? Or I don't know why. I just didn't know. I thought I had a problem 'cause I let it happen, and then I realized it wasn't my fault. It's his fault. He started this at a young age, and he, you know, kind of programmed it in me, in a sense."
"Outside the Lines" reported Davis' allegations and those from his stepbrother against Fine on Nov. 17, the same day Syracuse city police opened an investigation. On Friday, federal authorities -- including the U.S. Secret Service -- carried out a search at Fine's suburban Syracuse home. The U.S. Attorney's Office and U.S. Secret Service have taken over lead of the investigation as of Monday, and the city's police department said it will turn over its information on the investigation to the Onondaga County District Attorney's Office on Tuesday.
On Sunday, a third alleged victim came forward publicly with allegations that he, too, had been abused by Fine, and he signed a sworn affidavit to that effect with police.
Davis, though, has been the central figure in the case, providing explicit detail in multiple interviews with "Outside the Lines". He paints a dysfunctional picture -- even acknowledging an affair with Fine's wife -- yet many questions remain unanswered.
A father figure
Davis says he first rang the doorbell of the house on Wilson Street while selling candy as part of a fifth-grade fundraiser. He knew who Fine was because neighborhood kids, older brothers, talked about him with some awe. Fine was a vital part of a basketball program they all rooted for; he knew players they wanted to be, such as Sherman Douglas and Pearl Washington; he took basketball trips to Maui and Alaska -- places far from the blocks surrounding Lincoln Middle School.
Davis was the youngest of eight kids in his blended family. He met his biological father only once before his mother, Cathy Pitts, married Mel Lang when Davis was 4 years old. Pitts said she remembered Davis spent a lot of time with the Fines. Friends remember Davis living with the Fines.
"His brother Mike knew him really well also," Pitts said. "He connected with them. My husband said it was a good idea, because Mike was doing it. He said Mike has been doing it for years, and OK."
Along with his stepbrother, Davis said Fine was influential in other neighborhood kids becoming Syracuse ball boys, including brothers Jim and Brian Lavelle. Davis said Brian Lavelle was with him when he first formally met Fine while selling candy. Lavelle, who lives with his wife and six young children on a farm 45 minutes outside Syracuse, declined comment for this story.
Jim, the older Lavelle brother, is a vice president with The Widewaters Group, a prominent real estate development firm in Syracuse. When reached by telephone, he told ESPN, "I have no interest in talking," before hanging up.
ESPN interviewed Davis extensively in 2003 and again in recent days. Earnest and emotionally wrought, much of what he says has remained the same. In 2003, he recalled the first night he was touched by Fine as happening during the summer before seventh grade, the night he stayed in Fine's basement before Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's Big Orange Basketball Camp started.
"That night he came down," Davis said in 2003. " He was just laying next to me talking to me, and he started like grabbing my leg and rubbing my leg, and then he grabbed like my penis outside my pants and just started rubbing, and I was like just frozen and I didn't know what to do."
When he was asked about it recently, the time frame shifted slightly. Davis was asked when Fine stopped being a father figure.
"But probably when I was in sixth grade. Ten, 11 years old," Davis said. "Trying to touch me and things like that."
Davis says he didn't pull away from Fine after the initial incident. Davis says the local celebrity would later come to his parochial school basketball games; that when he was in trouble at school, the teachers would call Fine instead of his mother. Davis says some of Fine's importance influenced him, and another ball boy recalls that Davis had an elevated status in the group.
Chad Snyder, who was a ball boy for two years in the early 1990s and says he was never approached by Fine, says Davis was "kind of the leader of the ball boys," adding that Davis "acted like he was head ball boy."
According to ball boys, they didn't travel with the team, but Davis did because of his connection to Fine and his family. "If anybody had asked me to travel, I would have jumped at it," another former ball boy told ESPN. "Of course, I would have said yes. Bobby was different. He went a few times. He traveled, but he didn't travel all the time. He was like [Fine's] adopted son."
Davis says he slept in the same bed with Fine on some of those trips, and that Fine reaching over and grabbing his penis "was just a normal thing for him." He says Fine touched him on recruiting trips, in showers and in Fine's office -- several times leading to ejaculation.
Two former ball boys reached by ESPN say they had no idea of any impropriety and weren't subjected to inappropriate touching. They also say they were not contacted by Syracuse police in 2003 or Syracuse University during its 2005 investigation, but one acknowledged being interviewed by city police after the story broke last week.
Since the allegations came out, one of the ball boys called a third to see whether he had missed an obvious sign of the alleged abuse.
"I called [the other ball boy] and said, 'Did I miss something? Did something happen that I wasn't aware of?' [He] said, 'I didn't see it, either.'"
A boy grows up
By the time he was in high school, Davis says, the relationship was bothering him deeply, yet he says he still felt enmeshed.
He details sexual encounters with Fine that continued into his late 20s. He says Fine's wife acknowledged to him her husband's behavior and told of witnessing at least one encounter. Davis secretly recorded a phone conversation in 2002 but did not provide it to either the police or the university during their investigations, although he later shared it with ESPN and the local newspaper. During the conversation, Laurie Fine worried aloud about being overheard -- "Not that I think you're going to record anything, but I'm very cautious about what I say" -- and seemed to acknowledge the inappropriateness of her husband's relationship with Davis.
Later, when he was 27 and admittedly wanting to get back at Bernie Fine, Davis admits concocting a tale about student loans he had to repay and convincing the coach to give him $6,000. Davis says the payment came in three installments in as many days, with each requiring his submission to Fine's advances.
It was the last time Bobby Davis says he allowed Bernie Fine to touch him.
Davis says Laurie Fine told him once that she saw Bernie touch him in the basement of the Wilson Street house. She counseled Davis to stand up to Bernie. That same year, he said in the 2003 interview, when he was a junior in high school (he said several days ago it was his senior year), he was headed home from a local club, drunk, and lost his virginity to Laurie. Davis portrays her, like her husband, as taking a special interest in him by buying him clothes and allowing him to use her credit card.
By then, Davis says, he was entrenched in the Syracuse basketball program. He went to the 1987 Final Four and traveled to Maui. He was not generous with his access, however. He didn't bring other boys into the circle and says that perhaps he was trying to protect them, but there was more.
"Maybe I was jealous," Davis says. "I didn't want them to have what I had."
Eventually, Davis graduated from Henninger High School, where he was a point guard, and went to Webber College in Babson Park, Fla. He says he struggled to sustain relationships with women, although he is married with two children and recently moved back to Syracuse after having lived in Utah.
He says he moved to Utah in 2002 to flee from Bernie Fine, staying there until 2010. He says he moved back with his wife because he thought she would be happier in Syracuse, although he had some trepidation about it.
Before the emergence of his stepbrother Mike Lang, there was little to corroborate Davis' version of events. Since the story has come out, some in the community have loudly denounced him because, after all these years, his lone corroborative witness was Lang.
In the wake of the allegations at Penn State that took down an allegedly complicit Joe Paterno, Boeheim is fully cognizant of the consequences if he is wrong in his support of Fine. Yet that didn't stop the Syracuse coach, the school's equivalent of Paterno in stature, from calling Davis a liar.
As days have passed, though, Boeheim's defense of his longtime assistant has softened, and he issued a statement Sunday calling the allegations "disturbing" and "deeply troubling." He continued: "What is most important is that this matter be fully investigated and that anyone with information be supported to come forward so that the truth can be found. I deeply regret any statements I made that might have inhibited that from occurring or been insensitive to victims of abuse."
Davis says Boeheim saw him in hotel rooms with Fine, an allegation Boeheim has flatly denied.
"I never saw him," Boeheim said. "He is quoted -- [that] I saw him in the room. I have never been in Bernie Fine's room in my life. That is an outright lie."
Boeheim said he is unaware whether travel records exist that would either back or refute some of Davis' assertions.
A coach at another nationally known program said last week that Davis' name has come up in the coaching fraternity as having had a run-in in the past with Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins.
According to someone close to the Syracuse program, Davis stayed with Hopkins, who has an agreement with the university to replace Boeheim when the Hall of Fame coach retires, early in his coaching career and allegedly did "steal stuff from him."
Asked whether there was any truth to the theft allegation, Davis says, "No, not that I can remember."
Hopkins, 42, did not respond to messages left for him. A former Syracuse player, he is in his 15th season on the coaching staff, is married and has a young family. Davis was still around the Syracuse program when Hopkins arrived as a freshman in 1989.
The Syracuse extended family has been stunned by the allegations. Some longtime friends of Fine's, such as Michael Satsky, who is the owner of Provocateur and Winston's Champagne Bar in New York City, can't believe them.
"I was blown away," Satsky said. "Bernie has always been a class act, No. 1 guy. Something didn't seem right when I heard it."
Scott Ferguson, who played with Davis on a German club team after college and worked at some of Fine's basketball camps over the years, doesn't know what to think.
"Bottom line, they are both good people," Ferguson said. "Bobby has given me no reason to think he is a liar or he is untrustful. I would check my own kids with him, you know what I mean. On the flip side, Bernie as well. He obviously has been an icon in the community. He has stood up to help people. I don't see him doing that, either."
Friends describe both the longtime assistant and Davis as basketball junkies. Davis grew up on the streets of east Syracuse, a ball always in his hand, wanting to be the next great Syracuse point guard. He honed his skills in pickup games at Manley Field House on the Syracuse campus, later running the point locally at Henninger High before his college career ended at an NAIA college in central Florida after several stops. "'I moved around a lot -- and if a coach wasn't playing me enough, I'd go to another school," Davis said.
After college, Davis says, he traveled overseas and played two seasons -- 1998-99 and 1999-2000 -- for a German club team in the city of Emmerich. Matt Patterson, who grew up playing at Manley with Davis, was his roommate his first season in Germany. He, too, knew that Davis and Fine had a close relationship.
"He always called him 'Uncle Bernie,' but I never thought anything weird was happening with it," Patterson said. "I just assumed it was a regular role model, father figure. It was always, 'Hey, I just talked to Uncle Bernie.' It was never 'Bernie.' It was, 'Uncle Bernie, what is up?'"
Patterson said Fine never visited Davis in Germany, but he said the two typically spoke on the phone at least once a week.
After the first season, Patterson left the German team to play elsewhere. The two reconnected when Davis moved back to Syracuse within the past year. On Thursday nights, the old friends now play in a men's pickup league at the local Solvay-Geddes Youth Center. Only Davis was a no-show Nov. 17, the day his story was first broadcast on ESPN.
"My friend called him on Wednesday: 'Yeah, we got a game tomorrow,'" Patterson recalled. "[Bobby] said, 'I'll see you.' When Bobby says, 'I'll see you,' he is going to show up for the game. When everything happened, obviously he wasn't there."
Patterson didn't have a clue about the allegations until he flipped on the TV.
As a mother, Cathy Pitts only wishes Davis hadn't been so distant with her as well. He initially told her in 2003 about the allegations as he was trying to go public, but then he failed to tell her in advance two weeks ago before he and his stepbrother had their accusations broadcast on ESPN.
"I was very upset," Pitts said of the allegations. "I wished I knew when he was little. I would have done something then. There was nothing I could do after the fact. He was older. He said he got it together and he talked to a priest and got all kinds of guidance and counseling. He said he's fine. I believe him. He seems to be fine."
Davis cannot reap much from his story. Despite Boeheim's assertion that he is doing it for the money, the statute of limitations has run out on any criminal charges, making a civil suit more difficult to file. As for looking for hush money, that ship sailed long ago.
"I want to know for sure that he's not doing it to any other kids," Davis says.
Davis recalls the last time he spoke to Fine, in the fall of 2003 after he had started to go public with the allegations.
"I wanted to call him just to say, 'Bernie, you need to get help,'" Davis says. "Nobody has tried to help him. They just feared him. And he said, 'You're just trying to hurt me and hurt my family.' I was sitting in my car at the time and I said, 'Bern, you're not understanding me.'"
Mark Schwarz, a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit, contributed to this report. Jane McManus reports for ESPNNewYork.com; Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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