Part the curtainsand cue the funk. "Get UP! Get on UP!" ¬∂ The footage from the 1998talent show at Capitol Middle School in Baton Rouge is no better thanpublic-access quality, but there is no missing the charisma of the colossalsixth-grader who commands the stage. Mike in hand, wearing a black suit and oneof his grandmother's wigs, Glen (Big Baby) Davis--all 5'11", 225 pounds ofhim--is channeling James Brown, nimbly mimicking the Godfather of Soul's slidesteps and feverish gestures and bringing down the house. ¬∂ Now a sophomore atLSU, Davis's persona and frame are still XXL, but he's taken his act to abigger stage, fronting the Greatest Show in the SEC. A 6'8", 315-poundpower forward blessed with soft hands and light feet--he says he took a balletclass in high school "to chase a girl"--Davis was the SoutheasternConference's leading rebounder though Sunday (9.9 per game) and ranked secondin scoring (18.3 points). With Big Baby putting up double doubles despitefacing double teams in eight of his last nine games, the Tigers (22-7) wontheir first SEC title outright in 21 seasons and have emerged as a dark horseto reach the Final Four. "There's not a team in this league that hasn'ttried to devise ways to stop Glen," says LSU coach John Brady, "yethe's been dominant down the stretch."
With a shootingtouch from midrange and nifty spin moves in the post that belie his heft,Davis--who has slimmed down from his freshman weight of 363 pounds--has provedthat he's not an oversized novelty. "The guy's an athlete," said SouthCarolina coach Dave Odom after Davis had 24 points and 10 rebounds in LSU's64-61 win on Feb. 28. "I don't care if he's 310 pounds or 350. It's toughto wear him down."
Davis got hisnickname as a nine-year-old peewee league football player who, because he washardly peewee, had to play against kids at least three years his senior."Stop crying, you big baby!" his coaches would shout when Daviscomplained that his elders were picking on him. Now 20, Davis inflicts hisdamage on the hardwood with a cherubic smile. Ari Fisher, his coach at LSU'sLaboratory School, says Davis has "an infectious personality thatcompletely sets him apart." At the ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., in 2003,which featured 200 of the top high school players in the country, Big Babystole the show with his showboating. During the camp's senior all-star game hepretended to be a point guard, and his postbasket boogie was so smooth, "itwas like [he was] Fred Astaire or Gregory Hines," says director SonnyVaccaro.
On the LSU campusDavis has also become known for his big heart. After Hurricane Katrina struckthe Gulf Coast last September and LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center wasturned into a triage unit, he spent several nights inside the arena, unloadingsupply trucks, setting up hospital beds and even holding an IV bag as doctorsoperated on a severely injured man. Yet below Davis's genial surface lurks thatnine-year-old who learned just how tough life can be. "When you first seeme--a guy who's always positive, who has such a pure heart," says Big Baby,"you'd have no idea what I came from."
Slightly before10 on the night after the Tigers' win at South Carolina, Davis is drivingthrough the drug-infested Eden Park neighborhood of Baton Rouge. This is wherehe lived from the fourth through eighth grades, five miles from the LSU campusbut worlds apart. He stops at a corner on 44th Street where a group of men inbaggy T-shirts are drinking Heinekens. "Bay-bee!" they say as he rollsdown the window. "Saw you on TV last night! You killin' 'em!" Some wereDavis's classmates at Capitol High, but he's not here to see them. He's here tosee his mother.
Earlier thatevening Davis was laid out on a padded table at Effum Body Works, a tattooparlor in South Baton Rouge. An artist's needle repeatedly pierced his rightbreast, drawing the outline of a striking young woman's face, that of his mom,Toyna Davis, at 19, 11 years before he was born. "This is how I want toremember her," Glen says of the sepia-toned photo that served as thetattoo's template, "from when she was in her right state of mind."
Toyna was theoriginal entertainer in the Davis clan. A star in basketball, track andsoftball at Capitol High as well as a majorette, she was a dance team member atNorthwestern State and later became a model in New Orleans. "All my flair,all my personality, comes from her," Glen says.
As he continuesdown 44th, a woman approaches the car. "There she is," he says. Toynais staying on this block with a family friend. For the past 24 years--since thefast pace of the modeling world caught up with her--she has battled drugaddiction, which has regularly pulled her out of Glen's life. "Mom," hesays, "I've been looking for you. Get in, I want to show you mytattoo."
Glen drives tohis grandmother's house nearby, where he removes the gauze covering his newartwork. Toyna's eyes widen when she sees the tattoo. She gasps and thenretreats, weeping. Later she says it's a blessing that "the cursestopped" with her, that none of her three children--Toy, 29, Glen andLaJazzia, 18--inherited her weakness for chemical substances. "I taught mychildren not to trust in me," says Toyna, wiping away tears, "because Iwould fail them. I taught them only to trust in God."
Glen and LaJazziaspent most of their early years with Toyna and LaJazzia's father, Donald Davis,in Edgewood, Md. (Glen did not know about or meet his birth father, DonaldRobertson, until his sophomore year of high school.) "When Mom got home,everything was about us," Glen says. But after Donald and Toyna separatedwhen Glen was seven, her drug problem escalated and she began disappearing fordays. The family lost its house and the kids were sometimes compelled to stealfood from the neighborhood store. Glen and LaJazzia were shuttled between afoster home, a shelter and Toy's custody before being sent back to theirgrandmother's in Eden Park. "If I could ask God for a different life, Iwouldn't," Glen says. "The wrongs that my mother did made me a strongerperson, and I wouldn't change that for anything."
Throughbasketball, he discovered a second family. Collis Temple Jr., the first blackbasketball player in LSU history, saw Glen in a rec-league game as anine-year-old and invited him to join the Sports Academy AAU team, whichincluded Tasmin Mitchell, Tyrus Thomas and Temple's youngest son, Garrett--allof whom now start for the Tigers alongside Davis. Collis, the director of agroup home for children, says Davis "was like a son because we spent somuch time with him." Temple later encouraged Big Baby to move out of EdenPark when he was an eighth-grader and into the Temples' home near LSU so thatDavis could attend Laboratory, a college prep school on campus.
Davis flourishedthere, a star player in football and basketball. After his junior year hefocused solely on hoops and won his second state title and earned McDonald'sAll-American honors. He also grew closer to Robertson and decided to move inwith him in 2003. Fisher notes that Toyna never interfered as Big Babyblossomed. "She was not selfish enough to let her vices affect herson," Fisher says. "She always wanted him to do the right thing, andthat's what love is all about."
Toyna andRobertson, a postal worker from nearby Port Allen, are now regulars at theirson's games, though they don't sit together in the stands. His mom cheered fromthe front row at the Maravich Center last Saturday as Glen scored 15 points andmade five key rebounds down the stretch in LSU's 55-52 win over Ole Miss."If my wrongs made him strong, then so be it," she says. "Had Ibeen anybody else, he wouldn't be Big Baby."
Read more about LSU and Glen Davis in Luke Winn's NCAAtournament blog at SI.com/collegebasketball.