In the absence of light, darkness prevails. That simple little truth is more than enough to keep him up at night.
“I’m afraid of the dark,” he says. “I can’t go to sleep unless the TV is on.”
When his eyes get heavy just after midnight, he mutes the flat screen and the incessant, comforting flicker goes to work, sending him off to a peaceful slumber.
It’s one of the many boyish quirks of Anthony Davis, the 22-year-old New Orleans Pelicans wunderkind who is poised to become the new face of the NBA. “I still feel like a kid,” he says. “I’m having so much fun and my life is pretty crazy. But there’s a huge responsibility that comes with being the guy.”
Since bursting on to the hoops landscape in 2011, winning both a national championship and the consensus National Player of the Year title in his lone season at the University of Kentucky, Davis has been a quick study in the NBA. The Pelicans selected him No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft; this past July, the team rewarded the two-time All-Star with a five-year, $145 million contract extension, the biggest deal in league history.
The accolades and superlatives have continued to pour in from every corner. He won Olympic gold in 2012 as part of Team USA. His average of 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game last season landed him a spot on the All-NBA First Team.
Physically, Davis is the evolution of the modern athlete. His tool chest of attributes—uncommon length of stride, wingspan (7’7”) and speed for his 6’10” frame—seem to bend the dimensions of the court to his will, giving him considerable advantage over even the best athletes in the world.
But there was something missing—an indefinable take-charge quality possessed by the truest of leaders, the ability to command attention and respect when it matters the most. Davis has always found comfort simply by fitting in, but now he has to grow up.
The next step in Davis’ maturation into a transcendent game changer will take place from the neck up as he gains confidence and learns to harness the holy trinity of intangibles that are required for anyone to take charge in an organization: mindset, focus and leadership. “I’ve grown a lot just in the last few years, but there is so much more expected of me,” Davis says. “It’s time for me to become who I’m supposed to be.”
Davis unfurls his body in a leather swivel chair in the cluttered office of a community center in Beverly Hills, where he’s shooting a promotional spot. His limbs go on for days and seem to extend out of frame. His voice is soft and easy. He laughs at his own jokes and teases a friend sitting nearby. His boyish demeanor and super-freak athletic features make for a striking juxtaposition.
Growing into the role of a superstar has meant a steep learning curve. As a freshman at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago, he was very comfortable in the cloak of anonymity that came with being a run-of-the-mill athlete. But when Davis unexpectedly sprouted six inches to 6’9” after his junior season, his position, his wardrobe —and just about everything in his life— changed dramatically.
Davis had always been rather shy, comfortable only around close friends. He scarcely ever drew attention to himself or displayed outward emotion. “He was just really quiet and polite,” says his mother, Erainer. “He was never the center of attention because he would just rather fit in with his friends.”
After being named the No.1 high school basketball prospect in the country and accepting a scholarship to the University of Kentucky, things began to change. In the basketball-crazed Bluegrass state Davis was treated like a rock star and subjected to near round-the- clock attention. Fans would approach him for autographs and pictures nearly everywhere he went. Each trip out his front door meant endless interactions. He had no choice but to come out of his shell. “It’s like we were on stage everywhere we went,” he recalls. “It was uncomfortable at first but after a while I just opened up and ended up loving it.”
By the time he joined the Pelicans, he was growing a bit more comfortable in his own skin. But despite his billing as the franchise’s cornerstone, he found it difficult to assert himself on the floor during games or in practice.
If Davis had an idea at practice he would just whisper it to another rookie to spare his ego the punishment of getting shot down by a vet in front of the team. “They threw me into the fire when I first got drafted,” he says. “I was a deer in the headlights. I had guys who were 30 years old who expected me to guide them. I didn’t know if they would listen so I didn’t want to speak up.”
But as his confidence grew, Davis found himself being more vocal on the floor. He would talk on defense, act as a coach on the floor and motivate his teammates in practice. Veteran guard Roger Mason helped boost his confidence by asking for Davis’ opinion in front of the group. “You just have to speak up and let them know that everything you’re doing is for the betterment of the team and they’ll respect you,” Davis says.
Lately his brand of leadership has been as nuanced as it has been vocal. Davis understands that one size does not fit all. “You’ve got to know the personality of each player on your team because you can’t talk to everybody the same way,” he says. “Some guys don’t open up. Some guys are looking for direction. Some are funny, serious, talkative or outgoing. You have to get to know every one of their tendencies. I still have a lot to learn, but that’s the job of a leader.”
Davis struck up a friendship with the ultra-intense Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, who’s known for his unflinching on-court killer mentality. Westbrook is a huge admirer of Davis, but he saw one flaw. “He’s too nice,” Westbrook says. “That’s something we’re going to have to work on.” And Davis is willing to listen. “[Westbrook] is just a different animal,” he says. “Whatever he’s willing to teach me I’m all in.”
But that doesn’t mean a wholesale overhaul of his personality. To embrace being a leader and the responsibility that comes with it, Davis has to stay true to himself—but display his burgeoning confidence in his interactions. Turning into a screamer and aggressively leading the troops isn’t a natural part of Davis’ makeup. “I wouldn’t say I have a killer mentality,” he says. “It comes out every now and then when the emotions take over. I start getting goosebumps and making all these faces. You’ll see it
more this season, that ego and mean attitude on the floor. But I’m still going to be myself.”
And don’t forget, he’s still in the infancy of his NBA career—and sometimes the best schooling is to learn by doing. In a game against the Lakers last season Davis forced Kobe Bryant to shoot an air ball. “I’m the only person in this league you can’t shoot over,” Davis said to Bryant, in jest.
“Yeah, OK,” Bryant responded, a bit annoyed—and proceeded to ramp up the intensity.
“He took it seriously,” Davis says. “I was just joking.”
This season Davis will be joined by head coach Alvin Gentry, who served last season as an assistant on the Golden State Warriors’ 2015 championship team. Gentry sees some parallels between Davis and his last star, league MVP Stephen Curry. “They aren’t really vocal guys by nature,” Gentry says. “But Steph became a great leader because he asserted himself and guys listened. I think we’ll see Anthony do that more this year.” Gentry’s player-friendly approach will certainly empower Davis, and he’s wasting little time getting inside his star’s head with positive motivation. “He’s the best player in the league not named LeBron,” he says.
“He better say that,” replies Davis with a laugh. “But seriously, I think that way even if I’m not. I want to do everything that LeBron has done—but I’m not going to try to be LeBron.”
For now, Davis is learning to be content blending on-court intensity and off-court humility. Apparently, you can’t take the kid out of the leader. Davis loves cartoons. Phineas and Ferb is required viewing when it’s on, or Family Guy or American Dad. Disney Channel fare like K.C. Undercover and Dog with a Blog make him laugh. “It’s kind of silly but you do whatever you can to get away from the game,” Davis says. “And it’s really not that hard to make me laugh.” (His dad falling out of a chair or a friend trying to have a serious conversation does the trick as well.)
When he’s bored, he passes time watching fight videos or rap battles on YouTube. “I’m just chill, laid-back and fun to be around, I think,” Davis says. “I really just try to stay in my own lane.”
Though it’s nearing the end of a long photo shoot, Davis isn’t showing any signs of fatigue. He hasn’t lost an ounce of energy. He makes fun of the photographer and challenges people to hit trick shots. He could easily go another few hours.
He’s used to spending hours in homely gyms like this. His high school team didn’t even have a gym—the team had to practice at a nearby church. There are soft spots on the floor, and rims that don’t quite sit straight.
Davis walks to midcourt and takes a couple dribbles. “I’ll nail this from half court,” he declares. “Who wants to bet?”
He sizes up the rim in front of him, then tosses the ball over his shoulder to the basket behind him. He walks away confidently, like an action hero with his back to an explosion. The ball splashes through the net. He shrugs.
“I want to be the best player in the league,” Davis says. “I’m going to carry myself as the best. I’m going to think like the best. That’s what I truly want. I want to be that guy.”
Let there be light.