Second in a two-part series
Nick Davis, one of the original stars in the bj-league, was as frustrated as any of his Tokyo Apache teammates after their Dec. 17 loss against the Ryukyu Golden Kings, the team’s final game of 2009.
In that game, Davis finished with seven points, eight rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks. It wasn’t a great statistical performance, but it was a typical Davis-like effort, with across-the-board production.
The Apache, handed a less-than-ideal schedule at the start of the season, had a three-week break (the second time that’s happened this season) until their next game on Jan. 9. During that downtime, first-year coach Motofumi Aoki said he would give his foreign players time off, enabling them to return to the United States for Christmas.
Originally, Davis intended to fly back to the United States on Dec. 18, but the team’s poor season caused Davis to change his mind. So he decided to remain in Tokyo to participate in practice sessions with his teammates.
“We weren’t winning and I chose to stay with the team, to fight it out and try to continue to get better,” the veteran center told me during a recent phone conversation. “I chose to stay here instead of going home to be with my family.”
While making preparations to work out with his teammates, Davis received a phone call from the team the day after Christmas, he said, and was asked to meet with team executives the next day.
“They told me they felt like I couldn’t run anymore,” Davis said. “They felt it was time for me to retire.”
I asked him if he reminded the team’s brain trust that he was the league’s fourth-leading rebounder.
He responded by saying, “Yes, I did talk about my stats.”
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In a passionate plea to remain with the team, Davis spoke about his goal to improve the “foundation of the team,” he told me and his voice cracked with emotion.
“And I also expressed to them how much I cared about the team, that it’s like a family for me. That’s the reason I stayed over the break . . . to be with the team.”
Tokyo’s front office didn’t change its mind. Davis’ release became official on Jan. 8. I found the decision puzzling at best, pointless at the same time, especially for a team that has few quality frontcourt players and a lack of depth across the board.
So, that was that: Two-plus years of blood, sweat and tears in an Apache uniform ended during a post-Christmas meeting with folks who wanted to turn the page, rip one more reminder of the successful Joe Bryant era out of the team’s annals and plot its course for the future in a different direction.
This was painful news for Davis.
“I spoke to the players and it’s just a sad situation,” he said. “It’s sad that over the last two years we built something. We all worked together, we came together, we started off as a bunch of people that were just on a team and we all grew real close.
“We cried together, we played together, we fought together. For this reason, it’s just kind of sad.”
I felt compelled to ask Davis if he believed he was having a solid season under Aoki, the new coach.
“I could’ve had a better season,” he revealed, adding his salary was low by the bj-league’s foreign player’s standards (all are undisclosed by the league). “But I guess each season is different because of different roles I’ve had to play. With the Niigata Albirex (BB) and with the Apache, I had different roles. That role worked for the team; that role was part of the team’s success.”
He spoke in generalities about his time with Niigata and Tokyo. But there is no denying the fact that Davis’ value to both teams — three trips to the title game, in 2006 with the Albirex and in 2008 and ’09 with the Apache — had something to do with his sizable commitment to his team, year in and year out.
“This year, I really didn’t know what my role was and I asked about that,” he said. “I asked (Aoki) what my role was, (but) there wasn’t much communication between him and me.”
Davis characterized himself as an “unselfish player, a team player.”
He added: “I only want the best success for the team, no matter if I am playing with them or not,” he added.
Without much direction from the coaching staff, Davis assumed his skills as a savvy veteran would keep him busy, especially in the paint, where he had earned his living, cleaning up the glass for rebounds.
“All I knew was I needed to go out and go get rebounds,” he said with pride in his voice.
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The 203-cm Davis is generously listed at 90 kg in the bj-league’s official 2009-10 media guide. He’s one of the smaller big men I’ve ever seen at the pro level, but one of the most dependable practitioners of a big man’s repertoire: putbacks, hook shots, rebounds, pick-and-roll plays.
In addition, he has a keen eye for passing to the open man and being in position to reject a shot in the low post, or provide extra pressure to double team any opponent with the ball in his hands.
These attributes and more — a cheerful disposition, a gentle spirit off the court, countless photographs and autographs with fans — earned him a beloved place in the hearts of Tokyo Apache faithful, whose team’s very existence began in the fall of 2005.
What’s more, Davis felt at home in Tokyo.
“I love the Apache players, especially the Japanese players,” he said. “We formed such a bond.”
That’s also why he made his passionate plea during his meeting with team officials, reminding them that the 52-game season offers a chance for redemption and improvement in the season’s second half.
“I’ve been here so long, and so many people have supported me — the boosters, the children,” he said. “I felt I owed them that: to try to stay, to do better.” Davis also reminded the team’s top brass that the Apache were only five games out of a playoff spot after their final game of 2009.
“I wasn’t giving up,” he said. “I will never give up.”
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The aforementioned game on Dec. 17, one in which the Apache led 27-8 after one quarter, but let the defending champion Ryukyu Golden Kings take control in the second half — was filled with Davis’ hustle and hard-nosed play, and it turned out to be his abrupt final outing in a Tokyo uniform.
And it’s a game Apache fans ought to keep in their minds as a true reminder of Davis’ genuine commitment to his team.
Speaking about fans he’s met all over the country, Davis expressed sadness that he was leaving Japan and losing the special friendships he’d made with so many of them. And then he politely apologized for his departure, returning to Atlanta, where he makes his home, a few days ago.
Fans in Tokyo, Niigata, Osaka and Toyama, for instance, have formed a special bond with him over the years, including the Kosaka family from Niigata.
This family took Davis to the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament on Jan. 11 at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.
“I spend time with them off the court,” said Davis, a member of the league’s first Best Five team, for the 2005-06 season. “That means a lot to me and it means a lot to them.
“That’s why I have had so much fun out here, and try to pride myself on being a good person. That counts for a team. That counts for people coming to games.
“It’s something that’s special when fans drive 6, 7 hours to come to every game because they love you and they really love the team.
“There wouldn’t be a team, if there wasn’t anybody in the stands. First and foremost, I want to apologize to them for this situation happening.”
Davis spoke in articulate, well-measured sentences about his interest in being a coach in the future. He credited ex-coach Bryant for helping him to develop a deeper understanding of the game’s intricacies.
“I don’t really watch stats other than who’s hot or who’s not, who’s in a groove right now, where’s their favorite shot, what coaches like to do,” Davis noted. “I have definitely learned these past two years what’s going on. I feel I could do something in coaching.
“I understand Japanese players and foreign players. I would love to coach.”
For now, Davis’ future plans are up in the air, but he’ll have more time to spend with his 6-year-old twins. He’s now thinking about what he’ll do next.
He has said, however, he doesn’t want to move to another foreign country to play ball, calling Japan the “final place” he wanted to play professionally.
Davis handled this difficult interview with sincerity and humility, often bringing up a point before I even asked the question.
“It’s a business decision they chose to make,” he said of his ex-employer. “Am I happy with the situation? No, but I am going to be OK.
“But there are a lot of other people that care also. That’s who I want to apologize to. I’m saddened by the news, but I’m not upset about it for me. When I think about those people I care about, those children that come up and hug me, those are the ones that are truly hurt by this situation.”