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Johnny Davis
Johnny Davis
Published by Swampy Meadows
Johnny Davis

AUBURN HILLS (MI) -– “From the Swamp” is coming to you today from The Palace of Auburn Hills, where the Los Angeles Lakers will take on the Detroit Pistons later this evening. I cooled my jets in the press room, waiting for former Flyer great and current Lakers Assistant Coach Johnny Davis and the team to conclude the closed-to-the-public portion of their 11:00AM shoot around. Chatting with Lakers PR guy Calder Hynes he said that Detroit was the last stop on a long LA road trip. The Lakers played in Brooklyn Wednesday night and then spent Thanksgiving in the posh Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, which is about 2 miles from my house. Calder escorted me to the floor and Johnny was working with Pau Gasol on his free throw shooting. Then JD rebounded for another player who was practicing three pointers. Once finished, the players were obviously in a big hurry to get back on the bus and head to their hotel. Calder apologized and I had to hustle down I-75 to beat the team bus back to Birmingham. A short while later, Coach Davis and I sat down in an empty banquet room at the Townsend Hotel to chat.

The first time I ever saw Johnny Davis play was 40 years ago. I was sitting in the offices of WVUD up on the 2nd floor of the Kennedy Union, chatting with fellow Bostonian Steve Weisberg. Phil Laciura, the Sports Editor of the Flyer News came into the office and excitedly told us that we had to come down to the UD Fieldhouse (now the Frericks Center) because there was a freshman kid from Detroit who was “jumping over Donald Smith” in the Flyers’ open scrimmage.

That kid was Johnny Davis.

Weisberg and I followed Phil down to the Fieldhouse and while we didn’t witness Johnny leaping over Smitty, he did actually do that later in his UD career against some hapless kid from Harvard. Street & Smith Basketball Yearbook had a picture of it.

Johnny played for 3 years under Don Donoher and was the first and only Flyer to ever apply for a hardship exception to the NBA draft. JD ended up as the 2nd round draft pick (22nd overall) of the Portland Trail Blazers in their NBA Championship season of 1977. He has been a coach ever since, except for the one year he took off to finish his bachelor’s degree.

Here are the highlights of our conversation:

FTS: You attended Murray Wright High School here in Detroit. How did you end up at Dayton?

JD: I was all set to go to the University of Michigan. Having grown up in Detroit that is where I wanted to play. UD Assistant Coach Jack Butler basically lived at my house and my school—he was there all the time! I liked Jack and he convinced me to at least give Dayton a look. I basically did it as a favor to Jack. I went to see them play and the atmosphere was incredible, the people were really friendly and the school wasn’t huge like Michigan. You could tell Don Donoher was an honest man and a good coach. I knew Leighton Moulton and Allen Elijah from playing against them in Detroit. I saw Donald Smith play and thought to myself “this guy could play anywhere.” So I thought to myself “Why not go here and help develop this into something really good?” There was something about the place that just seemed special. When I called Michigan to say I wasn’t going to be coming there they asked “Where are you going?” When I told them “Dayton” they couldn’t believe it. A lot of people were not happy with my decision, but I was. I have never second guessed it.

FTS: In the fall of 1973, you joined a senior-laden team with Donald Smith, Mike Sylvester, etc. What was it like playing with them as the starting PG as a freshman?

JD: They accepted me as a young player right away. When I first saw Donald Smith play I thought to myself ”I want to play with him.” Mike Sylvester, another great player. They were all great guys and UD Arena had a special atmosphere that was second to none.

FTS: In the “no dunking era” of college hoops, your patented move was to lay up the ball by jumping high above the rim and dropping it in. You had a few hoops waved off. How many times did you get called for that?

JD: A few! And the UD fans, they got so used to seeing me do it that the few times when I did get called for offensive goal interference, they went absolutely crazy!

I reminded Johnny about the time that fellow Detroiter Erv Giddings dunked against Dicky V and the Detroit Titans, drawing a technical foul and the wrath of Coach Donoher and we both laughed. Johnny knew Erv from playing against him in high school. When Erv came on an official visit to Dayton, Johnny told him:

“This is where you want to be.”

FTS: You left UD after your junior year and went hardship for the NBA draft. How hard was that?

JD: Tough decision…very tough. My family needed to have financial help. I had the opportunity to play pro ball for a living. I knew from having played internationally at the Pan Am games that I could compete with those guys. I didn’t leave just to be leaving, I was looking forward to my senior year. But those summer jobs just couldn’t pay the bills. School was very important to me and I promised my mother when I left UD that I would get my degree. I reflect on my time at UD with great pleasure but it was not an easy choice.

FTS: You got drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers and ended up winning the 1977 NBA Championship. What was that like?

JD: We thought we would do it every year! Just to be on the floor with those guys was an honor. We were “The Ultimate Team.” Everyone was a good player and a good guy. There was no selfishness. The offense was movement based and you had to think. That team has a special bond…we get together or call each other whenever we are in the same town.

FTS: Trivia question: who had the ball in their hands at the end of the final game in 1977 vs. the 76ers?

JD: I did! I remember that a shot was taken, I think by George McInnis. Everybody was after that ball and Walton tipped it out. I thought to myself “Get that ball!” I did and started dribbling down the floor. I would have gone in for layup or a dunk, but the buzzer went off, so I threw it up into the air. After that game, I made three phone calls: to my family, to my high school coach and to Coach Donoher to thank them. Don Donoher is an outstanding coach, a kind-souled man and a wonderful person…he is a Flyer through and through.

FTS: What was Bill Walton like as a teammate?

JD: Unbelievable! He was the best all-around player I ever played with! He could singlehandedly elevate a team—I saw him do it many times. Bill Walton was a great teammate and is still a great personal friend.

Walton wrote about their friendship ten years ago in a piece for ESPN entitled “My Friend Little Johnny.”

Linky goodness:


FTS: You have 37 years of experience in the NBA as a player, Assistant Coach and Head Coach. Besides the 1977 NBA Championship, what are your personal highlights?

JD: I got my first head coaching job with the Philadelphia 76ers, who were rebuilding. We drafted Allen Iverson 1st overall. The team really wasn’t ready to win and it didn’t go well. My second head coaching position was with Orlando, taking over for Doc Rivers to finish the season. The next year, I had a gentleman’s agreement with the GM that if we made the playoffs, I would get a contract extension; if we didn’t, I wouldn’t. With 18 games left in the season we were in the 8th spot in our Division for the playoffs—only eight teams qualified. And with 18 games left, the GM came to me and said “We are going to go in a different direction.”

FTS: How did you end up with the Lakers?

JD: I was with Toronto for two years and got a call from Mike D’Antoni and he asked me if I would like to join the Lakers.

FTS: What’s next?

JD: Hopefully I will be here for a while. If not, I have always thought that I would like to try college coaching, because you really get the chance to teach, as compared to in the NBA It wouldn’t have to be a big school. Someone asked me recently what my goal is in basketball and I told them “I want to try for 50 years of being a coach.”

I finished my conversation with Johnny Davis by sharing a personal story that I thought he would get a kick out of. When I moved to Detroit in 1981, I couldn’t find anywhere to play pickup hoops outside during the summer time. My office was at 10 Mile Road and Greenfield, so one day I drove south until I found a playground -- Peterson Park. I hooped there every summer for four years. One day, I played one-on-one with a guy who had a familiar looking jump shot, because he launched it when he was at the very apex of his leap. After we finished, I told him “Your jump shot reminds me of Johnny Davis.” And my playing partner told me:

“He’s my brother.”

Johnny thought that was a pretty amazing coincidence and went on to say:

“My brother was a better player than me… a few years older, but a much better player. But he didn’t have the love for the game.”

And there you have it, that rare quality that makes Johnny Davis so special. The love for the game. If you ever have the chance to talk to Johnny Davis in person, it will be immediately apparent to you as it was to me -- Johnny Davis has the love for the game and for the University where he played it.

That’s it “From the Swamp”
You can email me at: swampy@udpride.com
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By Flyer 86 on 11-29-2013, 11:19 PM
Great piece Swampy. Love these historical based interviews and tales.

Keep them coming!
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By jack72 on 11-30-2013, 05:42 PM
Wonderful reading. Written very well about a great guy and player.
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By Swampy Meadows on 11-30-2013, 06:13 PM
Turns out that the guy JD was rebounding for that was shooting three pointers was Wesley Johnson who made 6-7 of 'em on his way to 27 points. Nice job, Coach Davis!
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By Alberto Strasse on 11-30-2013, 09:13 PM
Great Interview

Johnny Davis was a special talent. Thanks for the fine interview Swampy.
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By redbengal on 12-01-2013, 01:46 AM
Love hearing about how he spurned Michigan to come to UD... and why he did. Did the triple OT game with UCLA come up? Especially with his coaching experience I'd love to know what he thought during the crucial moments of that one. If we were to ever take a chance on a coach with no college experience I'd want it to be this guy!
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By NovaFlyer on 12-01-2013, 08:33 AM
I really enjoy this kind of post. Thanks, Swampy, you made my day. So did the fact that Villanova won in OT..... but we'll leave that for another time.
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By Swampy Meadows on 12-01-2013, 10:16 AM
Originally Posted by redbengal View Post
Did the triple OT game with UCLA come up? Especially with his coaching experience I'd love to know what he thought during the crucial moments of that one. If we were to ever take a chance on a coach with no college experience I'd want it to be this guy!
Yup, sure did. We didn't get into the coaching aspect of it, but UCLA and the ND game right before it were two of JD's favorites.
Last edited by Swampy Meadows; 12-01-2013 at 10:37 AM..
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By The Fly on 12-01-2013, 01:25 PM
Fun read, Swampy. Thanks!
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By udflyerfan on 12-03-2013, 12:39 PM
Great article........great player...........thanks for sharing.
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By 46 Chambers Alumni on 12-03-2013, 11:31 PM
Outstanding interview and article, including the Bill Walton piece. Smith and JD tore UCLA's guards apart. Of course, UD had no Bill Walton. Great game. Great year. Johnny Davis could do anything on a basketball court, quicker than anyone else...and as the interview shows, is a tremendous person.
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By Swampy Meadows on 12-04-2013, 07:52 AM
UD did, however, have Joe Fisher, who went soemthing like 6-6 from the field and 3-3 from the line for 15 points. You can't shoot any better than that!
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