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Playing Through The Pain

Jan. 29, 2007
Jan. 29, 2007

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Jan. 29, 2007

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
Pro Football
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College Basketball
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Playing Through The Pain

Alabama forward Jermareo Davidson, reeling from the recent deaths of his girlfriend and then of his brother, has found solace in his god and in his game

At first glance,the MySpace page of Alabama forward Jermareo Davidson looks a lot like that ofany other college student. There are loads of photographs, a song playing inthe background and goofy, half-intelligible messages from friends. But take acloser look. Read the preamble across the top of Davidson's page: "Novemberhas been a rough month for me...." Listen to the song, Ky-Mani Marley'smournful I Pray. And watch the continuously looping photo montages, digitalelegies to two fallen pillors of Davidson's life.

This is an article from the Jan. 29, 2007 issue Original Layout

One shows picturesof a willowy young woman framed by electronic roses, floating hearts and asimple farewell: Live in the sky ... Nikki, love u 4ever, RIP. Just below that,another series of photos presents a young man with piercing eyes, a goatee anddreadlocks beneath another postscript: RIP BIG BRA.

On Nov. 7, justthree nights before the start of a senior season that Davidson, one of thenation's leading big men, hoped would lead him to the Final Four and the NBA,his brother, Dewayne Watkins, was shot in the neck by an unknown assailant.Four days later Davidson and his girlfriend, Nikki Murphy, visited Watkins atGrady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. That night, as they returned to Tuscaloosa,Nikki, who was driving Davidson's SUV, lost control as she swerved to avoidanother car on Interstate 20. The vehicle flipped several times before landingon its roof.

Davidson, who sayshe was wearing his seatbelt, walked away unharmed, but Murphy was thrown fromthe vehicle and died several hours later--in the same hospital where Watkinswould die on Dec. 20. Davidson is still coming to terms with the two tragedies."I have my tough moments, like right before we go on the court, but I'mable to move it to the side until later," he says. "The times I breakdown are when I'm alone, just sitting at home in front of thecomputer."

Sitting andstaring at his MySpace page.

Madonna Davidsoncan't help it. She's a loud, proud mom, and this is a big game. So she cheerswhen her son goes up strong against LSU's Glen (Big Baby) Davis, cheers againwhen Jermareo lofts an old-school skyhook, and cheers loudest when then No. 14Alabama seals a 71--61 win. There's nothing unusual about her fervor, exceptfor where it's being displayed. She's not sitting in the parents' section;she's standing in the second row of the student section, among the craziest ofthe Crimson Tide crazies. "Jermareo's heart is hurting, but I'm so proud ofhim," Madonna says. "I tell him, 'You've got to use Nikki and Dewayne'slove for basketball as a driver because that is what they would want you to do.You've got to keep striving. You've got a story to tell, a story to upliftsomebody.'"

Some of Jermareo'spassion for the game came from Dewayne, who was five years his senior and apoint guard in high school. Growing up in the Capitol View neighborhood ofAtlanta, the boys would play ball nonstop on the goal Madonna had set up in thebackyard. "I have thousands of memories [of my brother]," saysDavidson, smiling. "The last Thanksgiving that I went home, he cooked forme and [teammate] Alonzo Gee." Turkey, collard greens, mac and cheese; itwas a perfect holiday spread from the guy who called his younger brother Jay-O."Whenever he came into the gym, I knew he was there," says Davidson."That always got me hyped."

On Nov. 7 Davidsongot a call from a family friend: Dewayne had been shot in an Atlanta suburb.The first person Davidson contacted was Nikki, whom he had met in a healthclass when they were freshmen. A student athletic trainer for the women's team,Nikki hoped to work in the NBA or WNBA one day. She more than anyone encouragedDavidson to be serious about school. "She said we couldn't have a futureunless I graduated," he says. They kept their relationship secret becauseher job prohibited her from dating athletes, so they called each other cousins.("What's up, cuz?" he'd say in front of her friends. "You callingGrandma tonight?") Only recently had they started using the terms boyfriendand girlfriend, and every Thursday they would go bowling together.

"My brother'sbeen shot," he told her that night. "Can you ride with me toAtlanta?"

"I'm alreadypacking," she replied.

They visitedWatkins, who was paralyzed and on a ventilator, and returned to Tuscaloosa forDavidson's season opener three days later. After the Tide's 96--65 win overJackson State, they drove back to Atlanta and saw Watkins again the nextmorning. Davidson says he won't forget the haunting details of their drive homethat night. The song playing on the stereo (Beyoncé's Irreplaceable). Nikki'sscream ("Baby!") as she swerved off the expressway, losing control ofDavidson's blue 1998 Ford Explorer. And, not least, his pleas as he croucheddown next to Nikki on the asphalt and waited for an ambulance: I love you ...keep breathing ... I love you ... keep breathing.

Davidson, ridingin the ambulance with Nikki, returned to Grady Memorial. As Nikki underwentemergency surgery, Davidson waited to have his back examined. "They gave mesome medicine, I think to put me asleep," he says. "When they woke me,they told me that Nikki had passed." Brandy Nicole Murphy was 21 yearsold.

When Davidsonrejoined the Crimson Tide after missing just one game following the caraccident and Nikki's funeral, his teammates were amazed by his courage. "Idon't know if I'd be strong enough even to think about basketball," sayspoint guard Ronald Steele. "I don't know how he does it." Not that theprocess has been an easy one. "He had a few days when you could tell he'dbeen crying all day," says coach Mark Gottfried. While Gottfried thinksDavidson's best games this season are still ahead of him, the coach notes,"He's played great considering the circumstances," averaging 14.3points and a team-best 9.0 rebounds a game.

The way Davidsonsees it, basketball is more valuable therapy than just about anything else he'stried. At the suggestion of his coaches, his mother and the team chaplain,Kelvin Croom, he met with two grief counselors, neither of whom he has visitedsince. "It just made me sad all over again," he says. Some of hisinspiring conversations, he says, have been with Nikki's mother, Edwina Murphy."She knew how serious we were," Davidson says.

Last monthDavidson was able to withdraw from school before exams and then regain hiseligibility a week later thanks to an NCAA rule that grants an exemption for anathlete whose ability to attend college is hurt by an incapacitating injury orillness to himself or a member of his immediate family. "I'm stillstruggling," Davidson says, "but I've been able to live throughbasketball because both Nikki and Dewayne supported that part of my life."Davidson honors his girlfriend and his brother during games, forming a"B" sign with his hands for Brandy and pounding his fist against hischest, where he has a tattoo of Dewayne's face, before shooting free throws.(Another tattoo, on his right forearm, depicts Nikki as an angel inflight.)

How has Davidsonfound the strength to play basketball? How has he stood up to the pain? Perhapsthe answer lies in the scene that took place on Dec. 28, during his brother'sfuneral at the Capitol View United Methodist Church in Atlanta. The nightbefore, he had stunned his mother by telling her he wanted to be baptized inthe church that he and Dewayne attended as children. So after giving hiseulogy, Pastor Otis Pickett asked the congregation if anyone wanted to besaved. Davidson came forward. "It really was a powerful moment for everyone of us who was there to witness it," says Croom, the brother ofMississippi State football coach Sylvester Croom.

And so, in achurch that was filled to capacity, a grieving giant kneeled on a pillow, askedfor forgiveness and gave his life to the Lord. Afterward, nobody could tellwhether it was holy water or tears running down Jermareo Davidson's face.

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Power Rankings

Will Jermareo Davidson and the Crimson Tide crackSI.com's Top 16? Check out Luke Winn's Power Rankings. ONLY AT SI.COM

As he crouched down next to Nikki on the asphalt andwaited for an ambulance, DAVIDSON PLEADED, I love you ... keep breathing.
PHOTOGreg NelsonPHOTOGreg Nelson MOTHERCOURAGE
Davidson, who had 16 points against Georgia, leans on Madonna, a regular inAlabama's rowdy student section.
TWO PHOTOSCOURTESY OF JERMAREO DAVIDSON (2)SUPPORT SYSTEM Watkins (above, with grandmother Elvira Davidson) and Murphy (right) encouraged Davidson's hoops passion.