Point of Contention

Clippers guard Baron Davis is using the NBA as a platform to work as a social activist, movie producer and entrepreneur. Anybody got a problem with that?
December 15, 2008

THE LINE snakedaround the block, 75 families, many with kids in tow, waiting for the doors toopen. On a chilly Sunday afternoon in South Central Los Angeles, they hadmassed in front of Urban Legends Stadium, a shoe store that sells Nikes andhoodies but also Booker T. Washington biographies and a full complement ofBarack Obama T-shirts. The folks in line talked about church and sports andmovies and tried like hell to avoid the topic of the economy. ¬∂ Sirens wailedin the background, and police kept a wary eye on the crowd, but the people werethere only for a giveaway of holiday food—turkeys, cans of vegetables,biscuits, pies, crates of bottled water—paid for and distributed by BaronDavis, the Los Angeles Clippers point guard. Davis had returned from an EastCoast road trip earlier that morning yet arrived at Urban Legends in highspirits, flashing a smile, framed by a thick beard, that puffed out his cheeks.This was no pro forma goodwill appearance by an athlete; Davis was greeted notas a celebrity but as a familiar figure in the community. No one wanted hisautograph or photo. They just wanted to catch up. The crowd of onlookersincluded his sisters, aunts, nephews and grandmother. They chided him foreverything from his tardiness to his attire. (At an aunt's behest, Davisquickly removed a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words TYSON VS. GIVENS.)

Davis grew up afew hundred yards away, in a two-bedroom house on 85th Street. Today, as theydid then, gangs and drugs pollute the neighborhood, and iron bars barricademost buildings, even the storefront churches. Davis and his sister Lisa wereraised by their maternal grandparents, Luke and Lela Nicholson. While Davisdidn't necessarily feel poor relative to his friends and neighbors, heremembers his sixth-grade trip to see Cirque du Soleil at the Santa MonicaPier. "The acrobats were cool, but what was really cool was running aroundin the sand," he says. "We lived in L.A., but for a lot of us it wasthe first time we'd ever been to the beach." Under Lela's roof there wasone overriding rule: There had to be more to life than sports. "My grandmawould always say the same thing," says Davis, "If I take that ballaway, who are you?"

Davis would go onto become an opulently talented basketball star, arguably the best player everto come out of Los Angeles, an NBA All-Star with a $13 million annual salary.And for all the fatuous talk of athletes "crossing over" into otherfields—which too often means losing one's shirt producing a vanity album ormaking a forgettable cameo on a forgettable sitcom—Davis, perhaps more than anyother athlete, successfully pulls it off. Here's B. Diddy, the politicallyactive, socially committed, entrepreneurial, movie-producing basketball player."Every time I talk to him, he has something different going on," saysNew Orleans Hornets center Tyson Chandler, a longtime friend. "It's like, Ican't keep up!"

The 6'3"Davis has put a twist on the familiar deliverance-through-hoops narrative.Basketball is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The sport is less who heis than what he does. But is that a good thing?

DAVIS SAYS he canpinpoint the precise moment that his life changed. Before his seventh-gradeyear he was approached by Daryl Roper, the basketball coach at CrossroadsSchool, an overwhelmingly wealthy, overwhelmingly white private institution inSanta Monica, peopled mostly by the offspring of the Hollywoodocracy. With itschess club and its student parking lot filled with imported sports cars,Crossroads could scarcely have been further removed from the publicschools—"typically overcrowded and underfunded," he says—in Davis'sneighborhood. Roper, who also grew up in South Central, says that he "sawBaron's amazing charisma" (as well as his ball handling skills) andencouraged him to interview at Crossroads. When Davis was offered a place and awaiver of tuition, which approached $20,000 a year, the decision to attend wasno decision at all. "Grandma was like, 'You're going. Period. Let's get abus map,'" he says.

After a fewmonths of adjustment Davis fit in fine, moving easily between the struggles ofSouth Central and the comfort of Crossroads, where he counted Kate Hudson andsons of Denzel Washington and Dustin Hoffman among his classmates. "Icalled it Disney World; I saw that there was a better way of life [than theinner city]," he says.

Davis's interestin activism was piqued during his two years at UCLA, where he met Jim Brown andtook a class on actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. As a rookie withthe Hornets, then based in Charlotte, Davis befriended Marshall Rauch, anentrepreneur and longtime North Carolina state senator. "On a lot ofSundays he'd come over and bombard me with questions about politics andeconomics," recalls Rauch, now in his mid-80s. "He absorbed everything,and you knew he was going to use it someday."

In the summer of2006 Davis, who was then with the Golden State Warriors, addressed theCongressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., about health issues and theobesity crisis affecting minorities. He also attended the Clinton GlobalInitiative in New York City that September. During the trip he met with thejunior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Davis spoke with him about life inthe inner city. "There's just this lack—lack of education, lack of safety,lack of opportunity, lack of health care," he says. "Barack reallylistened and engaged. He told me, 'If you're serious about restructuring theinner city, use your platform.'?"

When Obamaannounced his candidacy for president, Davis was quick to volunteer, hostingfund-raisers and cutting checks. (He and Obama aide Reggie Love texted eachother congratulations on election night.) "Our country is at a tippingpoint, as Malcolm Gladwell would put it," says Davis. "I feel like this[election result] is a new beginning, for the U.S. and even for the world. Itfeels good to say you were part of something bigger than yourself."

Davis's othersignificant nonbasketball pursuit is his production company, VersoEntertainment, which he founded with Cash Warren, his friend and Crossroadsclassmate (who is perhaps best known as Jessica Alba's husband). The company'smaiden project, Crips and Bloods: Made in America, is a full-length documentarydirected by acclaimed filmmaker Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys), tracing thehistory of the gang culture in South Central. "I think Baron wasparticularly taken with it because this was his community," says Peralta."He was like, 'If I had made a few different choices, that could have beenme.'"

For more than ayear Davis was in constant contact with Peralta, doing everything from helpingto broker interviews with gang members to making suggestions for the soundtrack. Whenever he was in L.A., he and Peralta would watch footage together.The next day Davis would send Peralta pages of notes and suggestions. "Iwas really impressed by how deeply Baron was involved," says Peralta,"and how much he wanted something to be said about poor, black men and howthey're not born wanting to pick up a gun and kill. At the same time, helistened, he wasn't dictatorial and he didn't overstate himself."

The film made itsdebut at the Sundance Film Festival last January and last month was named afinalist for an Academy Award nomination in the documentary feature category.(Verso's next project is a docudrama for HBO, ABCD Camp, starring JamesGandolfini as sneaker executive Sonny Vaccaro.)

Davis is aprincipal in an Internet start-up, ibeatyou.com, which pits users against oneanother in various oddball competitions. (If you haven't seen the Davis--SteveNash entry for Best Movie Trailer Spoof, go to YouTube and treat yourself.) Herecently invested in Conga, a new club across from Staples Center. He's aspokesman for Jenny Craig. Oh, and he's planning a trip to China—"The nextfrontier, baby," he says—as part of his endorsement deal with Li-Ning, thatcountry's top athletic apparel company. Otherwise, he has an abundance of sparetime.

WHEN YOU'VE beeninvolved in a successful presidential campaign, produced an Oscar-worthydocumentary and include among your goals for 2009 brokering a truce amongBloods, Crips and Latino gangs, it's easy to see how tossing a ball into abasket against, say, the Milwaukee Bucks could seem somewhat trifling. Andwhile Davis won't cop to it, there is a sense in some corners that hisextracurricular activities have exacted a price on his basketball.

The last twoyears in Golden State had been arguably the best of Davis's career. Last seasonhe averaged 21.8 points and 7.6 assists, and the year before, the Warriorsstunned the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. ButDavis opted out of his contract last July and signed instead with theClippers.

Aside from thelure of returning to Southern California—closer to his family, his communityand his ventures—Davis had planned to join with All-Star forward Elton Brandand form an inside-outside coupling to compete with that of any team in theWestern Conference. But the plan went badly awry when Brand signed with thePhiladelphia 76ers. Bottom line: Davis joined a different team from the onethat he had imagined. The bottom line is also the spot that the Clippers, 4--16through Sunday, occupy in the Pacific Division standings.

Predictably, theClippers' pricey point guard has been saddled with blame for the team'sfailures. Davis and coach Mike Dunleavy have already feuded about theplay-calling, and while Davis's 17.9-point and 8.2-assist averages exceed hiscareer marks, his joie de hoops has seldom been in evidence. Typical Davissnapshot: On one series he'll break down a defender and attack the basket,soaring so high his bulky body almost appears Photoshopped in midair. On asubsequent series he'll throw the ball away, frustration apparent on hisface.

Davis is findingout that the line between being perceived as a Renaissance man or a dilettantecan be a fine one. Asked about Davis's competitive resolve, Hornets coach ByronScott says tepidly, "My take on him is that he's a very talented pointguard, and I'll leave it at that." Recently, Roper, the Crossroads coachwho now works for Davis's foundation, had a heart-to-heart with his formerplayer. "I told him we all get distracted by what's attainable andobtainable, but first and foremost, you're a basketball player. Focus on whatmade you what you are. I want to see you be an All-Star for the next four orfive years and turn the Clippers around. Movies and whatnot can wait."

Davis has heardthe concern that he's spread too thin, but he is convinced that, at age 29, hispassion for basketball burns as fiercely as ever. "Basketball saved mylife, it really did," he says. "I owe everything to this game. I couldnever be one of those players who signs a big contract and then doesn't want toplay. People look at all the things I have going on and say it's a distraction.But, you know, they're hobbies. Basketball is my stage, and the failing justmakes you hungrier."

He does agreewith a visitor that it makes for an interesting theoretical discussion. Is anathlete's chief obligation to his talent or to his community? And if hisperformance happens to suffer slightly in service of the latter, is that reallysuch a bad thing?

As he considersthe topic in the back of Urban Legends, his grandmother listens in. She is nowin her 80s and confined to a wheelchair, but Lela Nicholson still cuts adignified, authoritative figure. And it's clear she's gotten the answer to thequestion she so often posed to Davis in his childhood. Who would her grandsonbe without basketball? Pretty much who he is now.

"My grandma would always say to me, If I take thatball away, WHO ARE YOU?" says Davis.

Davis is finding out that the line between RENAISSANCEMAN AND DILETTANTE can be a fine one.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesVICTORY DRIVE Davis gave valued help in the effort to elect Obama (left), but so far he's struggled to win with the Clippers. PHOTODAVID GONZALES[See caption above] PHOTONOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESFILM STUDENT Classmates like Hudson (top, with Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson) gave Davis the movie bug, which led to his documentary on gangs with Peralta (far right). PHOTORD/LEON/RETNA DIGITAL[See caption above] PHOTOTANYA SAKOLSKY[See caption above] PHOTOCOURTESY OF NIKKO DE[See caption above] PHOTOCOURTESY OF BARON DAVISMAN OF THE PEOPLE The plight of the black community has always been important to Davis, whether addressing members of Congress or handing out Thanksgiving meals. TWO PHOTOSANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]

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