If you're called Lee Davis you should make quite a name for yourself in the South, even if you're as black as the bore of one of General Grant's Napoleons. But, as Lee Davis admits, "I'm not even a household word in Memphis." And it is there that L. Davis, as he is referred to in Memphis Tarn box scores to differentiate him from teammates M. Davis and W. Davis, obscurely plies his trade. (Incidentally, having three players with the same name on one team does not constitute an ABA record; early this season Dallas boasted C. Jones, R. Jones, S. Jones and N. Jones. What's more, when S. was traded and N. cut, the Chaps acquired L. Jones.)
But Lee Davis is not just another nonentity. He is the least-known most-talented player in pro ball and one who has, more by hook than crook, the fifth-best field-goal percentage in the ABA.
For four seasons Lee Davis sat on the bench, averaging 10 minutes and 4.4 points a game. In New Orleans, where the Tams franchise originated, his most newsworthy accomplishment was his marriage to local beauty Rebecca Strickland. In Memphis he got into tropical fish to give himself something to do.
Then last Nov. 10, Tam Center Randy Denton broke his hand late in the second quarter in a game against Dallas and the 6'8", 230-pound Davis replaced him. The Chaps are coached by Babe (Magnolia Mouth) McCarthy, who had been the Memphis coach until this season and had predicted that Davis would not be in the ABA when play began.
March 12, 1973
In the Dallas game Davis, who is known to his teammates as the Geezer, exceeded his lifetime pro average by 22.6 points. He hit on 12 of 17 field-goal attempts and all three of his foul shots for a total of 27 points. Magnolia Mouth said nary a word. Undoubtedly, he figured if he kept quiet Davis would go away or, better yet, revert to what McCarthy believed to be his form.
Instead, Davis poured it on. For the 18 games Denton was out the Geezer averaged 21.4 points. "I always knew I could put the ball in the hole," he said after he got 38 points against Virginia and 36 against Indiana in successive games, "but this is ridiculous."
In a solemn ceremony Forwards Wil Jones and Les (Big Game) Hunter dubbed their teammate Kahead Abdul-Geezer. "You proved that you are a genuinely bad dude, Abdul-Geezer," intoned Jones, "and now you have a genuine bad dude's name."
McCarthy maintained his closed-mouth policy in regard to Davis, but Billy Cunningham, who came to the ABA from the NBA this season, couldn't keep quiet. "This cat can really play," Billy C told the world and promptly named Davis to his All-Obscure ABA team. The other four members—Guards Jimmy Jones of Utah and Mack Calvin of Carolina and Forwards Rich Jones of Dallas and George McGinnis of Indiana—are established stars, unknown only to insular NBA refugees. "Davis has an unstoppable shot!" raved Cunningham. "A hook that can't be blocked!"
Earlier this season Julius Erving was winding down from another cyclonic performance. Memphis had just gone through its predictable fourth-quarter vapors and, after tying the score at 115 all, had been blown off the court by Dr. J. and his colleagues. That is, all except. L. Davis, who went 10 for 14 from the floor, 4 for 4 from the foul line, had a game-leading 13 rebounds and blocked three shots—two of them Erving's. "This cat just doesn't miss from anywhere around the key," pronounced Dr. J., who may be the world's leading authority on shooting basketballs.
The night before, the Tams had done another fourth-quarter number, dribbling away a 10-point lead, but they staggered home a winner over the division-leading Utah Stars. Playing out of position at power forward, Davis was barely noticeable on offense. But off the boards and on defense, the Geezer was overwhelming. In the two quarters that Davis guarded the renowned Zelmo Beaty, the Star star had but one basket and few opportunities to rebound. When Davis took a breather, the job fell upon Ruther Lackley (one of Davis' drolleries that causes ex-Knick Luther Rackley to plead, "Please, please don't do that!"). Beaty had a field day, belting Rackley out of position with his elbows.
Nobody elbows with Geezer. A few-years ago Pittsburgh's Skeeter Swift cut into the middle, smashed into Davis and fractured his own jaw. Denver's Warren Jabali once ran into Davis and bounced to the floor. And in the Utah game Gerald Govan, an ex-Tam, bumped Davis all night and couldn't make a dent. "I have whips all over my body from the Geezer," groaned Govan.
"Where I come from you played football or nothing," says Davis, whose Raleigh, N.C. neighborhood produced NFL defensive linemen Chuck Hinton and John Baker. Davis himself went to North Carolina College on a football and scholastic scholarship. Strength is a dominant trait in his family. Lee's older brother Thurmon was a 300-pound college wrestler, and his 19-month-old daughter Monika, or Bam-Bam, as she is called by some of the neighbors, walks around the house hefting a tricycle under each arm.
Before he developed his unstoppable hook, Davis' chief function was as the Memphis muscle man. Tam fans even formed a Lee Davis Hatchet Club, which disbanded in disgust when he started putting the ball in the hole.
But his teammates always knew Lee Davis could shoot, players like Jimmy Jones and Govan, who was a Memphis holdout earlier this season and then compounded his insolence by getting flip with new owner Charles O. Finley. "I had never met the new boss," says Govan. "Then from nowhere, long distance, I got these calls and a voice on the other end would say 'Charles O. Finley talking.' Finally, I said, "Gerald Govan. What's happening, man?' "
Three calls and, man, what happened was that Gerald Govan was gone. But he was not forgotten. This has been the case with most of the Memphis exiles, and there have been many. This season alone there have been 29 player transactions. Players continually pass through the portals of the Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis' home court, become Tarns, and usually keep on going to become ex-Tams. Like the legions of ex-Tams before them, they spread the word of the supershooter locked to the Memphis bench.
When asked about his being of no account, Davis replies in mock indignation, "Just wait a darn minute, I made the All-Didnip team." (DNP is the abbreviation for Did Not Play that appears in team statistics.)
"Last year Lee and I teamed and beat the starters time after time," recalls Memphis Guard Johnny Neumann. "I mean whipped them. It was embarrassing. I'd feed Lee and he'd pop in the baskets." If Babe McCarthy was embarrassed, he never gave himself away. Nothing changed, no matter how well Davis performed. As far as the coach was concerned, Davis was too short to play center. One year McCarthy said that the players who had the best training stats would start. The Geezer was outstanding. But when the exhibition season began, he was back on the bench. "Stats don't always reflect a man's contribution," said McCarthy.
After his scoring and rebounding spree, Davis received an Oakland A's warmup jacket—as, in fact, did everyone on the team. "Gene Tenace gets a $5,000 raise and I get a green jacket," said Davis. He spoke too soon. A few days later Finley added a $5,000 pay boost.
Abashed, Davis wanted to apologize to Finley in person and thank him for the raise. The opportunity might have presented itself at the Jan. 28 game at Indiana, one of the four Memphis games Finley has attended so far. Davis never got to talk to Finley, but he demonstrated his appreciation by scoring 32 points.
At one point in the season the Tams, who are in last place in the Eastern Division, dropped 10 straight, and in nine of those games they led well into the fourth quarter. After every game, Memphis Coach Bob Bass, an anxious little man with gray bangs, spoke to Finley and reported on the good loss.
"The frustration is unbelievable," says Bass. "What do you do? What can you do?" What he does is to wake up at 4 a.m. and replay the near wins. He also keeps bringing in new talent. "Players disappear and new ones arrive without notice," says one Tam. "Suddenly there they are on planes or in the locker room. Or they are gone just as quietly." So far there has not been any improvement. The constant shifts in personnel have made the team strangers to one another. Talent is not a Memphis problem; playing together is. That and getting the ball in to the Geezer and handling the full-court press. Bass believes Davis is wearing down, unaccustomed as he is to playing. Undeniably, since Denton's return Davis has found it difficult to adjust to facing the basket. "He isn't moving enough," says Bass. "And he doesn't put the ball on the floor well yet."
"Neither does Bob Love, and he just scored 49 points against the Milwaukee Bucks," says Tam Guard George Lehmann. "The fault is ours. On a team with better coordination, Lee Davis would be a superstar."
Not long ago the Tams were returning from a road trip. Davis was carrying a plastic bag containing two Giant Zebra Danios, a Silver Shark and a Mono Scat, which he had picked up in San Diego three days before. But his mind was not on his new tropical fish or the team's last good loss. "Can life begin at 27?" mused Davis.
"Abdul-Geezer," Big Game Hunter said. "Bad dudes are unusual people. They can go on forever."