It broke my heart to hear that Walter Davis, the UNC basketball great, died recently.
But I also smiled, because Davis once saved my life.
Most of the time when I ran away from home, I was mere steps ahead of a Rockingham Police Department posse seeking to question me about some crime.
I swear, I was usually innocent.
When I ran away at 16 in 1974, though, I wasn’t running away from something: I was running to something – someone, actually.
You see, in my fevered imaginings, I figured that if I could just make it to Chapel Hill and get an audience with the University of North Carolina’s basketball coach, Dean Smith, I’d astound him with my jump shot, he’d offer me a scholarship when I graduate high school the next year, and I’d get to jog out onto the Carmichael Auditorium court decked out in Carolina Blue in front of thousands of screaming fans.
Never mind that Coach Smith had just signed some kid from Rocky Mount named Phil Ford, who’d been recruited by every university with a basketball team.
(One of Ford’s Rocky Mount neighbors told me decades later that evangelist Oral Roberts had come and prayed in front of Ford’s house – or possibly over it in his personal plane - seeking a higher power to convince him to play at his eponymous university.
Alas, there was no higher power than Smith – at least not in North Carolina and not when it came to basketball.)
Never mind, also, that I had failed to make my high school team that year and was probably the 10th man on a 12-man roster the next year. I just figured it’d take a genius like Smith to see how great I really was.
With the irrational confidence of youth, I threw some Converse and clothes in a grip and boarded a Continental Trailways bus for Chapel Hill.
My first two days and nights there were spent traipsing up and down Franklin Street and wandering around the UNC campus. It was spring, so I slept easily on a bench one night and in some unremembered building with other homeless people the next.
It would all be worth it, I figured, when Coach Smith witnessed my hardcourt wizardry.
On the third day of my quest, I palled around with some slightly older hippies who were preparing to drive to Colorado the next day in a VW Microbus. They invited me along, and I said “What the heck: let’s go.”
But first, I had to go look for Coach Smith one more time.
When I walked into the lobby of Granville Towers dormitory, I spotted Davis sitting regally behind a desk. I went over, introduced myself and eventually told him my story - about my troubles with the law, about running away to meet Coach Smith, about fixing to go to Colorado.
We talked for perhaps 30 minutes, and he imparted some brotherly advice. He then told me – in much nicer language -“TAKE YOUR DUMB A** HOME.”
He also told me to wait a minute and left. Was he going to call Coach Smith? The cops? The people with the strait jackets at the nervous hospital in nearby Raleigh?
No, no and no.
He returned after a few minutes and told me that he’d looked for a pair of basketball shoes to give me, but remembered that he’d loaned them to teammate Dennis Wuycik that afternoon.
I don’t remember everything Walter Davis, the uncle of UNC’s head coach Hubert Davis, said that night, but his concern was more important than any words. It convinced me to follow his advice, return home and stop being the bane of my aunt’s existence.
I met him several times over the years, and I’m guessing he got tired of me thanking him so effusively every time I saw him thereafter for his life-changing concern.
I didn’t meet Coach Smith until three decades later, when I regaled him with the tale of my adventure searching for him and the assist i received from one of his top players: he’ll probably be in basketball heaven still laughing when Walter gets there.