A letter addressed to Iowa basketball Coach Tom Davis arrived at Carver-Hawkeye Arena one day.
It was from U.S. Representative James Leach of Davenport. His letter started out,
“You probably already know about this guy.”
“This guy’ was in the seventh grade at the time, but he was already opening eyes in the Quad Cities with his athleticism and basketball skills. His name was Ricky Davis.
Six years later, Davis entered the 1998 NBA Draft after one season at Iowa. Charlotte took him with the 21st pick of the first round.
The Hawkeye program hasn’t produced a first-round pick since, but that will change Thursday night. Consensus all-American Keegan Murray, who entered this year’s draft after a breakout sophomore season at Iowa, is projected as a Top 10 pick in virtually every mock draft.
Iowa’s last Top 10 selection was point guard Ronnie Lester (No. 10) in 1980. Murray will become the program’s 10th first-round pick overall, but only the second to leave with college eligibility on the table. Just 18 years old on the night he got drafted, Davis remains the program’s youngest first-round pick.
When Davis, who played at Davenport North, and Dean Oliver from Mason City committed to Iowa before their sophomore seasons of high school in November of 1994, they became the youngest players to ever accept scholarship offers from Iowa.
That distinction had belonged to Chris Street of Indianola, who committed before his junior season. Jeff Horner now holds that claim, committing to Iowa after his freshman season at Mason City High School.
Oliver, a point guard and now an assistant coach at Wisconsin, became a 1,000-point scorer at Iowa and ranks fourth in career assists.
Davis, a 6-foot 6-inch small forward, scored 464 points, an Iowa record for a freshman (15-point average), 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists. He also had a team-high 104 turnovers. And then he was gone. Ricky was committed to Iowa longer (1,052 days before he signed) than he played for Iowa (144 days).
Ricky entered the draft even though he had not talked to any NBA teams or scouts about where he might get drafted.
“It will be my first job, and I’ll be making a million dollars,” Davis told reporters on April 2, 1998, when he declared for the draft.
That was a big day in Iowa basketball history because of another Davis. Tom Davis and athletic director Bob Bowlsby appeared at a hastily-called Carver-Hawkeye Arena news conference earlier that day, where it was announced the 1988-89 season would be the 13th and final year for the coach.
Bowlsby used the word “retired.” Davis used the word “resigned,” but the divorce was final.
Davis remains the program’s winningest coach with nine NCAA bids, including three Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight, as well as two NIT appearances and 10 20-win seasons.
After four seasons in hiatus, Davis returned in 2003-04 to coach Drake for four seasons before retiring with a career record of 598-355.
Coach Davis was surprised by Ricky’s leap to the NBA. Yes, the coach said, Davis had improved during the season, “but he still had a lot of things we wanted to improve even more and we felt that we could have brought that about.”
Many were critical of Davis and his decision to turn pro, including Marty Blake, the NBA’s director of player personnel.
“I think it’s a joke,” Blake said. “I think it’s a tragedy. He’s not ready to play. It’s sad.”
Davis let the criticism roll off his back.
“The people that think I’m not ready, that’s their opinion and I can’t change that,” Davis said. “The decision is mine, and I’m going to go with it.”
Davis dropped out of school in April of 1998 and went to California to train. He worked out for numerous franchises, including Milwaukee, Sacramento, Vancouver, Atlanta and Indiana.
Davis got the last laugh on his critics, playing 12 NBA seasons for Charlotte, Miami, Cleveland, Boston, Minnesota, Miami and the Los Angeles Clippers.
By the time his NBA career ended in 2010, Davis had played in 736 games while totaling 9,912 points (13.5-point average), 2,550 rebounds (3.5) and 2,426 assists (3.3).