The Dagger

Homeless as a teen, draft prospect Dwayne Davis may soon find home in NBA

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Dwayne Davis (AP)

On the day his mother died from complications of lupus almost a decade ago, Dwayne Davis remembers coming home from school to find the living room full of the same flowers and balloons that once surrounded her hospital bed.

At first, Davis was elated because he assumed doctors had finally allowed Lawanda Smallwood to return home. Only after a tearful conversation with his step-dad did the 13-year-old discover the tragic truth.

"I was devastated," Davis said. "She had been to the hospital a few times before that, but she had always come home after a couple days. This was pretty sudden. We didn't see it coming. It was the worst news I ever heard in my life."

Since his father wasn't involved in his life and his step-father lacked the income to offer much support, Davis had to assume much of the responsibility for raising his baby brother and 8-year-old sister after his mother's death. He confronted obstacles no boy so young should have to overcome, from sleeping in homeless shelters or his mom's old van, to driving his sister to school long before he was old enough to have a license, to selling stolen PlayStation 3s out of the trunk of the car in order to scrape together money for food.

That Davis emerged from such poverty to arrive where he is today is so implausible even he still wonders how he managed to do it. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard escaped his hardscrabble Philadelphia neighborhood, became the first person in his family to earn a college degree and played so well in his lone season of Division I hoops at Southern Miss that he has caught the interest of NBA teams.

Only invited to the Portsmouth Invitational last month after Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall made a late plea on his behalf, Davis quickly proved he belonged, averaging 21.7 points per game and earning first-team all-tournament honors. A lack of elite athleticism has hindered his draft stock, but Davis has performed well enough in workouts with a half dozen NBA teams to merit consideration as a potential second-round pick.

"I think he will hear his name called in the mid-to-late second round,"said Keith Kreiter, Davis' agent at Edge Sports International. "How confident am I? The draft is very tough and it's difficult to say, but I think he brings a lot to the table. You know he's going to work hard every day, you know he's going to be a great teammate, you know he's going to score the ball and you know he's going to play hard at both ends."

Crisscrossing the country to visit with NBA coaches and executives the past few weeks is pretty surreal for someone who grew up as humbly as Davis.

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Dwayne Davis (AP)

Even before his mom's death, Davis lacked a stable home or male role model. His mom bounced between several men and sometimes struggled to support her kids, so the family often resorted to spending long, shivery nights in shelters or to crashing with friends or relatives.

Basketball quickly became a release for Davis. He honed his silky shooting stroke on the snow-covered Philadelphia playgrounds, earning the nickname "Rifleman" from his friends for his soft touch from well behind the arc.

It became much tougher for Davis to prioritize either school or basketball in junior high once his mom died. He had much bigger concerns at that time, like figuring out where he and his siblings could sleep for the night or find their next meal.

Too proud to ask for help from family members who were barely subsisting financially themselves, Davis and his siblings alternated between sleeping in Philadelphia homeless shelters and the back of the family's van the next few months. He and his sister sometimes went a day or two between meals, but Davis earned pocket change by getting a part-time job at a local toy store and by purchasing stolen PlayStation 3s from a neighborhood thief and selling them for a discount rate out of the trunk of the van.

"Three people living in the car, not knowing where your next meal is going to come from, that was absolutely rough," Davis said. "You know you have family members, but you don't want to ask for help. I'm the type of person who keeps a lot to myself and if I don't have it, I won't go out of my way to ask for it. I'll just try to get it myself."

Even after Davis finally sought help and his aunt agreed to become legal guardian for him and his siblings, his childhood remained bumpy. Not only did he continue to work at the toy store to bring in money for food and clothes, life at his aunt's home was also sometimes dysfunctional enough that he'd seek refuge elsewhere for days at a time.

One of the couches where Davis often slept belonged to Stan Laws, who became a mentor to Davis after coaching him in a Philadelphia youth league in middle school and again as an assistant at Strawberry Mansion High School. Laws, who says he's also an ordained minister, often provided home-cooked meals and refuge to underprivileged neighborhood kids, but he became especially close to Davis as a result of basketball.

"I brought him in and opened my home to him so he could have a place where he could feel love and comfort," Laws said. "Having your mom pass away is tough and without a male figure in your life, a lot of these young kids have a tendency to fall by the wayside. He had his ups and downs and battles with life, his guardian and his family, but through it all I tried to help him stay the course."

It's a testament to Davis' natural basketball ability that he had the chance to play in college despite his issues.

Davis blossomed into one of Pennsylvania's best prospects as a junior and senior at Strawberry Mansion, but the coaches who flocked to see him play soon learned he'd be a high-risk recruit. His grades were poor. He was 30 to 40 pounds overweight as a result of a fast food-heavy diet. And his unstable home life made him prone to anger and trust issues.

Since Davis had few people to talk to about his mom's death and kept his emotions bottled up, his pent-up anger often exploded when things did not go his way on the basketball floor. Not only did he sometimes lash out at coaches or slam walls with his fists in frustration, he once chased a referee and chucked a ball at him during a game his sophomore year.

None of those problems were enough to keep Tyndall from recruiting Davis.

Tyndall, then the coach at Morehead State, realized the Eagles would only land a player of Davis' ability if they were willing to take risks more prestigious programs would not. It was a good fit too since Davis relished the chance to move far away from his violence-ridden neighborhood and Morehead State was one of the few schools that could admit Davis even though he'd be academically ineligible to play for at least his first year.

If it seemed Tyndall had made a shrewd move when Davis averaged 22.1 points per game as a senior, earned first-team all-state honors and led Strawberry Mansion to the state title game, that changed once the shooting guard arrived at Morehead State. Tyndall and his staff required Davis to change his diet, improve his conditioning and make academics a priority, but the Philadelphia native lacked the maturity at that point to make such an abrupt lifestyle change.

"I kept harping on him that he had to get some weight off and get his body right, but he wasn't doing cardio on his own," Tyndall said. "On top of that, I had to keep explaining to him there was a reason he wasn't playing that year -- that he hadn't handled his business in school. He had the chance of a lifetime being back in school at Morehead, but he wasn't committed to being on time to class, going to class every day or going to tutoring. School had never been a priority in his life, and it still wasn't."

Having warned Davis over and over again during the freshman's first few months at Morehead State, Tyndall decided he'd had enough. He dismissed Davis from the team after only one semester, a decision that sent the young shooting guard down a meandering path back to Division I basketball but also served as a much-needed wake-up call.

In 18 months at two junior colleges, Davis began his transformation from an introverted, immature teen into a more gregarious, well-adjusted adult. He made school a higher priority, he saw a therapist to address his anger and trust problems and he slimmed down through hours of conditioning drills.

The first summer that Davis worked with Philadelphia-based trainer Eric Evans a few years ago, Evans couldn't believe the effort his new client put into reshaping his body and retooling his game.

"We had to put trash cans in every corner of the gym because you never knew when he'd run too hard and have to vomit," Evans said. "He left it all out there and he wouldn't need a break. He'd go to the bathroom, wash off and come right back out just as hard as he was before."

All the hard work nearly didn't amount to anything because Davis admits he almost quit basketball when a dispute over a grade in one online class caused the NCAA to rule him academically ineligible to play the 2011-12 season at Southern Miss. Eventually he changed his mind and channeled his energy into making sure his lone season of Division I ball would be worth the wait, paving the way for an improbable reunion the following spring after Southern Miss plucked Tyndall from Morehead State to replace former coach Larry Eustachy.

"I was probably every bit as shocked to see Dwayne during the first team meeting as he was to see me," Tyndall said. "The first thing I did was give him a high five, and tell the guys how I run the program and what I expect. I said, 'If you guys don't believe me, you can ask Dwayne Davis.' He kind of smiled like coach isn't BSing here."

If it could have been an awkward situation for a player to be coached by a man who dismissed him three years earlier, Davis and Tyndall turned it into a positive. Tyndall offered a blank slate and Davis proved he had matured, working hard in the classroom and during offseason conditioning and emerging as a team leader even before he played his first game in a Southern Miss jersey.

After propelling Southern Miss to a 27-win season by scoring 16.4 points per game and shooting 43.8 percent from behind the arc, Davis has continued to showcase his work ethic during NBA draft preparations. Evans has put Davis through agility drills and plyometrics training the past few months in hopes of improving his lateral quickness and athleticism in order to add another dimension to his perimeter-oriented game.

If Davis hears his name called in the second round Thursday night or fights his way onto an NBA roster as a free agent this fall, his new team will not have to worry about money changing him. The hardships Davis endured growing up without a stable home have made him all the more appreciative of how far he has come the past few years.

When the Chicago Bulls offered to send a limo to the airport to drive Davis to the team facility for his workout earlier this month, he told them such a lavish expense was unnecessary and he'd just take a cab. He also ordered the cheapest item on the menu -- a personal cheese pizza -- when Bulls executives took him to dinner that night.

"He said he knows eating out is expensive and he wanted to help save the Bulls some money," said Sam Cipriano, player relations coordinator for Edge Sports International. "Not too many kids like him out there."

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