In the game of basketball, there are two types of players – innovators and copycats.
I’m a copycat. I would love to pretend that I’m an innovator in some way, but I’ve never really been THAT creative on my own with a basketball. Show me a move and I can copy it. Ask me to come up with one on my own and I’ll stare blankly at you like Boris Diaw at a side salad.
I’ve gone through my entire basketball-playing life copying those that I watched. From Iverson’s crossover to Kobe’s step back jumper to Jamal Crawford’s shake-and-bake to Mark Jackson passing out of the post to Philip Champion’s boomerang to John Stockton’s whipping a pass by his opponent’s head off the dribble – I’ve tried to take things I’ve admired through all of my basketball viewing and mold them into my game.
One player I wanted to completely copy every aspect of his game was Baron Davis and it all started with this play:
The first time I saw this move from him in a college game, I went guano crazy for it. Not only was it an incredible move that you just didn’t see that much on television, but he completely broke the defender he used it one. In a 2-on-1 fastbreak, he faked a passed around his back, kept his dribble in the process and caused the guy to fall. He could have thrown the ball into the upper deck after that move and I would have been cool with it. Instead, he went for the dunk to punctuate the play like a Tony Allen tweet.
I was in love with his game. It was love at first highlight.
I wanted to go out and test out the move. I wanted to figure out how to do it without breaking stride. I wanted to figure out how to break down an opponent who was 10 feet away from me with a single wraparound dribble. Baron Davis was a conduit of inspiration, a lighting rod of absurdity.
When he jumped from UCLA to the NBA, he had already suffered one ACL tear and was bouncing back from such an often-debilitating knee injury. He had grown up in South Central LA, curing his ever-developing game on the court with spices of blinding quickness, the prowess of a big man, and the zip of a point guard. He was athleticism and power molded into one floor general. It was like teaching Charles Barkley how to play like Fat Lever.
His knee injury seemed to be an obvious hindrance that couldn’t be overcome and yet he bounced back from it like he catapulted himself into the lane and over unsuspecting big men for crushing dunks.
When he entered the NBA, he was a cannonball of destruction. He was fired toward his opponents, gaining momentum with every forward rotation as he looked to bounce off opponents, tumble through defenses, and explode into the highlight reels. There wasn’t much stopping him. You were either too slow to keep up or too weak to provide resistance. And no matter what he was doing, he appeared to have a sheepish smile, cognizant that there was nothing you could do to stop him.
When he started learning the NBA game with the Hornets, he was the most athletic point guard I had ever seen. Some players used two hands for safety on their dunks, praying they wouldn’t lose the grip and suffer an embarrassing lowlight that would make SportsCenter’s blooper segment. Baron Davis went up with two hands to dunk because he was more man than most of his opponents. A vice-like grip on the ball with two hands dared those weight room heroes to send it the other way without breaking their wrists.
His handle on the court was as impressive as his strength. He wasn’t the first person to ever use an in-and-out crossover and his certainly won’t be the best of all time. But it was the kind of sleight of hand you’d see on a street corner that leaves you $100 in the hole in the blink of an eye and confused as to how you just got taken for your grocery money.
It wasn’t that he had the ball on a string; it looked like he had implanted a metal object into the basketball and was using some kind of magnetic force to control where it went. It was befuddling to see him dissect an opponent with his dribble because who the hell knows how magnets work anyway?
You had to have supreme balance, a gymnast’s nimbleness of sorts, in order to stay relatively in front of Baron. Lean too far over on one side of your ankle and you were destined to be left on the other side. If you were fortunate enough to be blessed with quickness to recover from Baron’s crossover, you were likely to bounce off of his shoulder as he barreled toward the rim. Play off of him and you were giving up a pretty deadly jumper. There really wasn’t a way to guard him. You had to hope he missed and still had the gumption to keep firing.
People will always remember Baron for the dunk on Andrei Kirilenko in the improbably Warriors’ run in the 2007 playoffs and it was spectacular. What’s forgotten is the highlight was a culmination of fantastic plays by the entire Warriors’ team, led by their unstoppable point guard. The celebration (Baron inexplicably flashing for beads, Matt Barnes in full-on Kevin McCallister aftershave mode, coaches giggling, Mickael Pietrus being Mickael Pietrus) was as good as the dunk and the dunk was as good as it got.
It showed that when Baron wanted to be the best, he probably was. When he wanted to be unstoppable, it was hard to get in his way and have your ankles or rib cage live to tell about it. Baron was whatever he wanted to be at any given time. Unfortunately for us, it didn’t seem like he wanted to be a one-man army in the NBA. He didn’t want to be all he could be. He just wanted to have fun and enjoy himself.
He had other interests that his lifestyle and career afforded him. He was an artist both on and off the court. He was as well-rounded a person as he was a point guard. He was the bridge from the pure point guard of previous eras to the physical specimens manning offenses and storming the interior that we see today in Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. We forget that they’re doing everything he had done before.
Over the last four years of his career, Baron Davis has been a disappointment. He hasn’t been the driven force we want him to be. He hasn’t been the perimeter predator that we watched him be for a decade. Maybe the toll of knee injuries and back problems just made it impossible to replicate the wonderment we’d seen from him in previous seasons. Maybe it’s impossible to keep up that kind of focus on destruction as you get into your later playing years.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough for us (myself included) and we chided him for it. We selfishly wanted him to keep the spectacle up and when he didn’t, we rebelled against him.
I don’t think it was because we didn’t like him anymore. If anything, we just liked him too much and wanted more. When he crumpled to the floor Sunday afternoon and dislocated his patella while his knee ligaments appeared to evaporate before our vary eyes, I couldn’t help but want to take back every smartass remark I had made about him as he wasn’t living up to my unfair expectations.
Now Baron is looking at 12 months of recovery and rehab. If it happens within that timeframe, he’ll be 34 years old when he comes back. It’s not impossible that he can get this done and come back to finish out his career on a more positive note, but it also wouldn’t shock any of us to find out that enough is truly enough for Baron.
As he was rolled off the floor in Madison Square Garden, he had that same grin we’d seen from him during countless highlights. Maybe it was an acceptance that this was the end for him and he had accomplished everything he could have ever asked for? Maybe it was just Baron being an upbeat guy that wasn’t going to let everybody sour on the moment of a possible team win.
I just know it left me with a feeling of uneasiness and congratulations to him. If this is the end of his career, I don’t know that I could have enjoyed his presence on the basketball court any more than I did. I don’t know that he could have brought more inspiration to my own viewing and playing experience.
I can’t say that we’ll never see another Baron Davis on the court because I see him everywhere in today’s NBA. I see him in Chicago, in Oklahoma City, and possibly heading to Brooklyn or Dallas. We’ll continue to see Baron’s game on the court even after his career is officially over.
He’s one of the innovators we’ve all been trying to copy.