Friendships that change your life often start with the most curious beginnings.
In the spring of 1974, I was finishing up my college career playing for John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins. We were part of one of the great runs in the history of college basketball, well on our way to UCLA's eighth consecutive NCAA championship. But on a glorious March evening in the Sonora Desert dustbowl outpost of Tucson, Ariz., the mighty Bruins ran into a bunch of no-names from Dayton, Ohio.
Rolling to what should have been one of our easier games of the season, we kept finding ourselves unable to distance ourselves from the up-start Flyers in that first-round NCAA Tournament game. We had so much talent on that UCLA squad: Keith Wilkes, Dave Meyers, Marques Johnson, Greg Lee, Andre McCarter, Pete Trgovich and of course the master himself, Coach Wooden. Yet Dayton matched us point for point, run for run. We rarely played many close games in our years at UCLA (1972-74) much less faced a situation where we actually lost a game. But as things turned out that fateful night, Dayton stayed right with us and the game went into overtime. Then a second, then a third, as we kept asking ourselves, "Who are these guys?"
Coach Wooden never scouted any opponent, never mentioned any opposing player, never said a word about who we were playing. He was only interested in how and what we were doing. But as this seemingly routine Bruin romp turned into an endless nightmare for us, we slowly started to pick up the names of the guys giving us so much trouble that night from the public address announcer at the University of Arizona's McKale Center. Mike Sylvester, a slick, 6-foot-7 senior scoring machine ... Donnie Smith, a crafty, left-handed senior gunner whose lack of conscience shocked even the jaded ... and little Johnny Davis, a 6-foot freshman whippet from Detroit whom we could do absolutely nothing with, never mind trying to keep him in front of you.
UCLA ultimately went on to win the game, though not before experiencing the scare of a lifetime. At the end of the second overtime, Smith threw up a buzzer-beater for the upset win but that victory was snatched away as his own coach was frantically calling a timeout when the shot swished through the net. We blew them away in the third overtime. We went on to bigger and better things, never giving the Flyers another thought, other than how lucky they were to have hung with us for so long.
Two years later in 1976, Jack Ramsay was hired by the Portland Trail Blazers to build a team out of a bunch of selfish egomaniacs playing for a franchise that had never even made the NBA playoffs in its six-year history. It was the perpetual expansion team -- noted only for losing, hapless greed and ineptitude. One of Jack's first moves was to draft a fleet, little underclassman from the University of Dayton named Johnny Davis. In those days, most everyone attended four years of college before trying their hand at the NBA. But after three years at Dayton, Little Johnny was in a bad way financially, having grown up with next to nothing in the Detroit ghetto. Little Johnny thought he could do something to help his struggling mom who was having a terrible time keeping the family together. So Little Johnny disobeyed his Mom and left the sure path to a better life -- education -- for the gamble of professional basketball.
Few thought at the time that Little Johnny had a chance, being so small and all. But Ramsay knew what he wanted -- speed and lots of it. And Little Johnny had more than enough of that to go along with an incredible heart and mind. But when Little Johnny showed up that first year, it was as if Ramsay had either forgotten all about him, didn't think he could play or was too busy dealing with the myriad of problems that his newly assembled squad presented. Little Johnny couldn't even smell the game, never playing a meaningful minute all season long. So quiet, so shy, so reserved -- and now so frustrated -- Little Johnny never said a word, to anybody, all season long. But we were rolling as a team and on our way, and it seemingly didn't matter that everything was now going so dreadfully wrong for this young, 20-year-old rookie with the hardscrabble background.
We were coming to the end of our season. In the playoffs, Blazermania was in full swing, yet there was still not a flicker from this faintly glowing ember who was now all but forgotten. Fast forward to Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals at Denver. The Nuggets were loaded with Larry Brown at the helm and David Thompson, Dan Issel and Bobby Jones -- to say nothing of the refs in their pockets. Late in the game, one of our starting guards, Dave Twardzik, went down with a severely sprained ankle. And with that ankle went the game and most likely our season's hopes and dreams. It was a bitter overtime loss and worse, now shorthanded, the long flight home to Portland was bleak -- the whole time Ramsay furrowing his eyebrows and stroking his chin. He was perplexed by our predicament.
With the weight of the world on his broad shoulders and the fate of Western civilization in the balance, Ramsay addressed our sullen group in the last fleeting moments before Game 6. Up 3-2, we felt more up against it than anything else. And it was then that Ramsay turned and pointed in the startled locker room to little Johnny Davis -- the forgotten and now lost soul -- and said, "YOU ... It's on YOU, now let's go!"
With Little Johnny as a mainstay now, we swept the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, then blasted the 76ers for the world championship. And it was all because of a simple twist of fate and an ankle that gave a great but unknown man the chance of a lifetime.
After 10 years as a player, Little Johnny is an NBA fixture now in his 27th year in the league. A longtime coach and front office administrator with many different organizations, Johnny always leaves them better off than when he arrived. A proud and happy husband and father, Little Johnny and his bride of so many years ago, Lezli, have two college-age sons, Reginald and Austin.
I have been touched by greatness many times in my short life -- none more so than what my friend Johnny has done for me. Little Johnny now stands alone at the top, epitomizing all the things that mean the world to me: It's not how big you are, it's how big you play ... Basketball, like life, is not a game of size and strength, but rather a game of skill, timing and positioning … Balance and quickness are the two most important skills that you'll ever need, and quickness has nothing to do with your foot speed but rather your mind, anticipation and decision-making capabilities ... Competitive greatness is doing your best when your best is needed.
With unending faith and patience, my friend Johnny is the man I hope to be one day. He is as great a champion as I have ever known.