BREAUX BRIDGE, La. — The free throw line is the edge of the concrete slab, where the driveway meets a trampled, brown patch of grass, once lush green like the rest of the yard but since smothered by tennis shoes, bare feet and whatever else they wear in south Louisiana for front-yard basketball. The three-point arc is naturally marked by a chain-link fence that separates the yard from a two-lane street. That’s one of Corey Davis Jr.’s favorite spots, and his grandfather, Alfred Dalcourt, stands behind the fence to illustrate this, his back to the road as he mimes a 22-foot jumper. The basketball goal, more than a decade old, shows its age: ripples of rust on a black metal post, a dented white plastic backboard and a base weighed down with three blocks of heavy concrete.
The most essential piece of Dalcourt’s front-yard basketball school is the set of three folding chairs leaning against the carport wall. Dalcourt carefully opens each and arranges them in a row with enough space for a teenage boy to weave between them while controlling a calm, steady dribble. “Fundamentals,” Dalcourt says. Davis recently told his grandfather that, despite all of the technological gadgets and equipment enhancements available to him, he still uses what’s known around here simply as the chairs. “People on the back streets will say, ‘I’ve seen that boy with no shoes dribbling through the chairs,’” laughs Svonnie Trailer, Corey’s mother and Alfred’s daughter. “That is so country. Every crew that came through there can tell you about the chairs.”
A long lineage of basketball-playing boys—and girls—trained with these chairs, on this court, in this yard: from Martel, the Dalcourts’ son, to Corey, their first grandson, to its current occupant, their 10-year-old grandson Zaybian. Alfred and Patricia Dalcourt, both now 64, have raised six children and another four grandchildren (they have 16 grandchildren in total, with a 17th on the way). So far, only one has advanced far enough in the sport that his face finds the front pages of newspapers. Corey Davis is a recognizable name for those who closely follow college basketball, but those who only tuned into March Madness last week might be wondering about the 6'1", 190-pound guard with the hiked-up shorts who, in two games, attempted 26 three-pointers, made 10, scored 47 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and led Houston to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984.
Davis learned the game from his “pawpaw” out in the yard, starting when he was two, shooting using a crumpled ball of aluminum foil at first. When he was seven, Alfred illegally entered him into a nine- and 10-year-old free-throw shooting competition, and Corey made all 15 of his free throws to win it. And he’s the impetus behind the local bitty basketball league overhauling its rulebook to require a player to pass the ball a certain number of times before shooting (“because any time he shot,” says grandma Patricia, “bomb!”). He’s still making bombs, this time on the national stage in college basketball’s most important month. He’s blistered through March. Davis scored a career-high 31 points in a win over Cincinnati that secured the Cougars’ AAC regular season championship, hasn’t missed a free throw in three weeks (17 for his last 17) and has sank 29 treys in the last eight games. “He’s playing so loose,” mom Trailer says. “I’m just watching him and I’m amazed. I’ve been watching since [he was] six and I’m still seeing things I’ve never seen.”
The Dalcourts rented a van to pile family members into for the 14-hour drive to Kansas City, where their hero and his Houston teammates will put the nation’s best record on the line against Kentucky to cap off Friday's Sweet 16 action. Davis has the second-best free throw-percentage (87.3) and has made the fourth-most threes (110) of any player left in the tournament entering Friday, just behind his teammate, junior Armoni Brooks (115). But it is Davis who is the 2019 version of Hollis Price or Corey Brewer, sharp-shooting guards that led Sampson’s best Oklahoma teams, with Price lifting the Sooners to the Final Four in 2002. “Our teams have always been built like that,” says Kellen Sampson, Kelvin’s son and an assistant at Houston. “The hamster on the wheel that moves it is a dynamic guard who goes off the bounce and makes plays and distributes to others. Corey’s done that for us all year.”
Houston coaches recruited Davis out of San Jacinto Junior College as a point guard. They moved him to the two-guard spot upon his arrival in 2017, and it’s not hard to see why. He makes shots. Kellen portrays him as the missing piece of a team that his father spent the previous five years constructing to make a run like this. “We were at that point in our program where we had proven we could be really good,” he says. “We really needed some pieces to put us over the top. Credit Corey because were not his only team. At the end, he had LSU, Arizona, Oklahoma State. He had some heavy hitters that were selling some tangible things for him. He bought in with us and said, ‘I want to get those tangible things with somebody who hasn’t done it yet.’”
Davis’s official visit to Houston is unforgettable to Kelvin Sampson. Usually, a mother and/or father accompany a prospect to campus, but Corey brought enough people to fill a conference room. “It was a family reunion,” Kelvin says. “We didn’t have enough chairs. Those south Louisiana people...”
Back in Breaux Bridge, the Dalcourts are walking along the same driveway on which their grandson spent so many hours. His mother was in college when he was born, so Davis lived the first eight years of life with his grandparents, in the heart of Cajun Louisiana with a water tower that pictures a small crustacean alongside a message: CRAWFISH CAPITAL OF THE WORLD. Davis has found a place for boiled crawfish just off campus in Houston that will suffice, but his grandparents, who attend every UH home game, bring him a south Louisiana favorite that he can’t get near campus: pepper jack boudin. “One time,” Patricia says, “we were running late. We didn’t bring him any. I said, ‘Corey, it was either be late for the game or get you boudin!’”
For reasons other than the food, Davis returns to this place to shoot hoops in the front yard and visit the kids who idolize him so much here and in Lafayette, about 10 miles west. He calls his grandpa his “inspiration who taught me everything I know.” Dalcourt is former local basketball star who’s known to this community as “Spook,” a nickname he embraces despite its racial implications. “A white boy gave me that name and it stuck. You better put that in the story. People know me here as Alfred ‘Spook’ Dalcourt,” he says. Alfred is on disability, as is his wife. This family has endured its share of pain. Zaybian has sickle cell anemia, a disease that could prevent him from playing basketball deep into his high school years. In the 1980s, the Dalcourts lost everything in an electrical fire. Their oldest child was born with leukemia and spent six months in a Memphis hospital at a young age. In the ’90s, the matriarch of the family, Mary Alice, was a victim of a robbery and rape inside her home—the same house the Dalcourts now live—and she died in 2005 having never returned to her old self. Corey lost two friends to gun violence, and his godfather, cousin to Corey’s dad, died in a motorcycle accident years ago. “I’m glad everything in his life happened—even the bad stuff,” Trailer says. “It makes him humble.”
Would Davis be a big basketball star had he not lived with his grandparents until age 8? Would he be playing in the Sweet 16 had he qualified academically and enrolled at nearby Louisiana as planned? And would he play with so much gusto had Michigan guard Jordan Poole not swished a buzzer beater last year to end Houston’s season in the second round of the NCAA tournament? Davis rewatches that second-round game at least once a month. With the Cougars up two with 3.6 seconds left, Poole launched his shot from the right elbow, and in his face was Davis, his two arms outstretched, with such good defense that CBS color analyst Steve Lavin described the shot as “defended well, just destiny on the Wolverines’ side.” Davis was so emotional afterward that his father, Corey Sr., had to pull him from the court. So why watch a replay of the game each month? “It just rekindles that fire in me,” he says. “Gives me that extra oomph to be as good as I possibly can.” He’s tried and failed to convince teammate Galen Robinson to join him in rewatching something that hurt so badly. “Corey, he’s a different cat,” Robinson says. “I mean that in the most crazy way possible. The stuff he does, you’d never catch another person doing.”
That goes for off the court too. Davis’s dreams don’t stop at the NBA. He’s interested in modeling and designing clothes. Agencies have shown interest in him appearing in runway shows to market their clothes. “His clothing speaks to him,” says Trainer, an event planner and account manager at a Lafayette newspaper. “I call him my male diva.” Davis is an oddball in other ways. He’s ambidextrous, for example, writing with his right hand and eating with his left. And speaking of eating, Davis has a special spoon kept in the top drawer of his grandparents’ kitchen, slightly larger than a normal spoon but otherwise nondescript. When he’s here, he eats only with this spoon. His favorite dish to eat with it: White beans and smoked turkey necks.
Often, Davis’s grandmother will tell him that her life depends on his free throws. Make it and grandma remains alive; miss it and she dies. Davis hasn’t missed a free throw since March 10. Patricia DVRs all of her grandson’s televised games, rewatching them frequently with Zaybian. However, she recently noticed that one game is missing from her queue list: Houston’s 80–77 loss at LSU last year, which Corey has intentionally erased.
Like any other athlete who’s reached this level, Davis is competitive, but the tools that made him Houston’s best hope at a Final Four since the mid-’80s was ingrained in him out on that front-yard court. Years ago, little Corey would shake his grandfather awake or pull him from the television. “I want to learn,” he’d tell him, before racing outside to the driveway. Recently, a video popped onto Alfred’s iPhone. It was from his grandson. There, in a gym in Houston, Corey Davis dribbled around three chairs. Look pawpaw, he wrote in the message, I still do the chairs.