SANTA CRUZ — His dream seems a bit foggy on a rainy, chilly night by the sea, inside a makeshift gym resembling a Quonset hut, where he stands in a barely lit corridor 65 miles south of Oracle Arena and a zillion miles from his NBA headliner days.
But though his team needed a four-hour bus ride to get here from Bakersfield — try GPSing that journey, Magellan — and though these Delaware 87ers stay in budget hotels where he must share a room, he’s not letting go of that dream.
Baron Davis, a month shy of his 37th birthday, wants to play again in the NBA.
Preferably, he’d do so with the Warriors.
“I would love to. It would be a dream come true. Be a dream come true, man,” says Davis, his grin as big as it ever was, nine years after leading the “We Believe” Warriors to pro basketball’s biggest-ever postseason upset. “Who wouldn’t want to play on a team that plays basketball the way it should be played? I’ve always dreamed about playing for a team that’s unselfish.
“I love ’em. Everyone bought into the system. Most importantly, they bought into each other. It’s just the beauty of watching them. I never miss a game. They are my favorite team.”
And his favorite front office, hint hint, after having to play years ago in the abysmal Chris Cohan era. “It will always be home and always be a special connection,” Davis says of the Bay Area. “I wish we had this ownership [Joe Lacob and Peter Guber] and organizational sphere when I played. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t; there were a lot of shenanigans, just a lot of stuff that should have happened that didn’t. Bad leadership, I would say. They figured it out with this ownership group and management. It shows, top to bottom, how serious they are about winning. Those fans deserve it. You can see why they’re undefeated at Oracle.”
So Davis isn’t one of these old-school grumps who begrudges Steph Curry and thinks he’s a product of a soft era? “Steph Curry is my favorite player. When I go to the gym, I’m trying to be like Steph, too,” he says. “A lot of times, older players get stuck in their era and their mentality and don’t really appreciate the talent and gifts these younger players have. Steph Curry — I haven’t seen anyone on his level, bringing that type of showmanship with excellence. He’s a complete player, and if you’re a fan of the sport, you can’t help but love him. Someone like that could play in any era. Imagine Steph Curry playing in the Oscar Robertson era. He’d probably average 70. How can you not love him?
“He’s someone I want my kids to pattern their game after. I hope my son becomes the next Steph Curry.”
The chances of Bob Myers and Steve Kerr considering this whim, of course, are about as likely as Oscar Robertson becoming the team mascot. But might another team take a flyer? Indeed, Davis is serious about a comeback that some might suspect as a publicity stunt. How do we know he’s sincere? He has temporarily shelved what he calls “the luxurious life” in Los Angeles, where his wife recently gave birth to their second child and where he’s having success as a film producer and director, to come off the bench in the NBA Development League. His last NBA game was May 6, 2012, when he blew out the ACL and MCL in his right knee and was carted out of Madison Square Garden on a stretcher.
He does not want that to be the famous, final scene in his own movie. Thus, the two-time All-Star is trying to show NBA executives that he still can play point guard in a league oozing of the species. The experiment is in its early stages — in three games for the 87ers, he’s averaging 14.3 points, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting 41.7 percent from the field (and 36 percent behind the three-point arc). And already, a player known for bad injury luck has suffered his first boo-boo, a calf strain that kept him out of Sunday’s game against the Santa Cruz Warriors, the Lacob-owned affiliate of the NBA champions.
But Davis, who didn’t budge when the 42-40 Warriors took down the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs, doesn’t sound like he’ll take no for an answer this time, either.
“I love the game. Definitely, it’s always been in the back of my mind,” he says of a comeback. “No one wants to be carted off, and I always thought if I had an opportunity to walk onto an NBA court again, then I would do that. I want to have the opportunity to walk off on my own terms. That’s been my motivation.”
Can he pull it off? “I like my chances,” he says, “especially the way I feel and the way I’ve been progressing after three games and two weeks of practices. It’s like I am meant for this and what I’m thinking about myself is true — that in due time, I’ll just knock off a little rust and be ready.
“Absolutely, I’m making my way. I’m feeling in better shape, my timing is getting better, and I’m getting stronger. If I continue to work the way I’ve been working, good things will happen.”
And his timetable? ‘Hopefully, it’s for a playoff team. Any playoff team,” he says. “That’s what I’m built for. Throw me to the wolves. I learn faster when I’m around wolves and sharks. I’ve got some time [(before the playoffs], another three or four weeks. I’m not sure when the last date is that a player can sign. But someone is going to take chance. Once that happens, I’m good in the underdog role.”
All of which means Davis, known for a controversial streak that included a 2008 postseason benching by coach Don Nelson and his eventual opt-out from a Warriors contract that led to a $65 million deal with the L.A. Clippers, now is living the minor-league life. The 87ers travel by bus when possible and fly commercial when necessary. In Iowa, they stayed in a Quality Inn. “Yeah, you know what? I’m learning. It’s definitely a humbling experience, considering that in my semiretirement, I’m living, like, the luxurious life,” says Davis, always something of a renaissance man. “To come back and go bare bones, it puts me in the mentality that I don’t need much. You really don’t need much, man, just a ball and a hoop and a weight room, an opportunity to play. For me, it’s kind of fun to be traveling on a bus and staying in these hotels. It puts you back in the sense of when you’re a kid, playing AAU ball, riding buses for the love of the game.”
He also had the foreign feeling of not being wanted. Always in hot demand from his days as a Santa Monica prep legend and UCLA star, Davis started itching to play in November and applied for the D-League player pool. And waited. And waited. He could have played in Finland, but when the 87ers lost Sean Kilpatrick to the Brooklyn Nets and Jordan McRae to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they called.
“For the first time in my career, I was waiting for someone to take a chance on me,” Davis says. “There were no suitors for a while, but I’d made peace with myself. Luckily, the 87ers called. It was a big moment for me in my life and in my household. I have another shot to play.”
He was “disappointed” to be in street clothes Sunday night, when some fans showed up wearing old Warriors jerseys with his name and waved “We Believe” memorabilia. His teammate from that series, Stephen Jackson, recently said the “We Believe” team would beat the current Warriors. “I don’t know, man,” Davis says. “Two different eras, two different teams. This team is a championship team. It would be a good matchup, and we play the same style. But the way this Warriors team is chasing records — it’s pretty unprecedented.”
“We want Baron!” a few fans chanted near the end of a Santa Cruz victory. They didn’t get him, but he’ll return to the lineup this week, back in Delaware, wherever that is.
“This is like the last chapter,” he says. “My career has been about overcoming hurdles; it’s always been part of my DNA, whether it’s injuries, ownership, some type of controversy that never is really part of the game. Injuries have been a huge part. What better thing to do than come back from one of the worst injuries in basketball history?
“I have nothing to lose and a lot to give. There’s no pressure for me to come in and be an All-Star, no pressure on me to save a franchise. I just want to come in, play basketball, be a contributor and help young players get better.”
I asked him what will happen if no one calls.
“If nobody calls,” says Baron Davis, “nobody calls.”
Either way, it sounds like a hell of a movie, one he’s perfectly suited to produce and direct after starring in it.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.