November 2008

Baron Davis The Power of One

The star athlete wants to transform the Clippers—and Los Angeles

John
Ireland

Baron Davis and his grandmother Photo by Ben Baker

Any lawyer or agent representing a star athlete will tell you there is an unwritten code they hope their big clients will follow: Don’t be political. Don’t take unnecessary stands on serious issues. Keep your image clean, and you could be looking at an eight-figure shoe contract, a national sports-drink campaign and your own videogame. It worked for Michael Jordan. It worked for Tiger Woods. And it can work for you.

Mention this to Baron Davis, the new point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, and he smiles. He has his own code.

“No disrespect to anybody,” Davis says, “but I’d rather stand for something than nothing. I’d rather have my voice be heard than sell products. I’m more someone who wants to inspire.”

That’s just one thing about Davis, 29, that surprises most who meet him. He’s an All-Star with the confidence to wear the No. 1 on his jersey and have an agenda that goes far beyond the court. He owns a company, Verso Entertainment, that distributes films, TV shows and Web content. When asked, he will passionately discuss education, politics, crime, media and almost anything else.

After nine seasons in the NBA, Davis has come home to L.A. He was raised by his grandmother in South Central, went to Crossroads in Santa Monica (one of L.A.’s most prestigious private schools) and played two years at UCLA, before turning pro in 1999.

He stresses that his top priority is basketball. “I want to win an NBA championship for the Clippers,” Davis says. “I think that’s my ultimate goal. On top of that, I want to help bring peace to Los Angeles. I want to be a voice of stopping gang violence...black-on-brown violence. I also want to help build a bridge between the upper class and the lower class. Give kids a chance to go to private schools. Basically, I want to help others live the life I’ve been able to live.”

It’s no coincidence that his words echo those of superstar Magic Johnson. “Magic is the ultimate role model for all NBA guys,” Davis says. “He set the tone as far as what type of person you should be and the impact you should have, and ultimately, I want to have that same impact. He lights the room up, and people want to be around him.”

Magic always knew Davis had this in him. “I see a lot of myself in Baron,” Johnson says. “He has a great work ethic on and off the court. We’ve spent a lot of time together over the years, and I’m really proud of the work he does in the community. It’s been nice to see him grow, not only as a true basketball professional but also as a man and a businessperson.”

That said, Magic admits having Davis in L.A. will force him to do something he never thought possible. “You know how much I love my Lakers,” Johnson says. “But for the first time, I will [also] root for the Clippers because of Baron.”

Magic was the main attraction for the city’s marquee team, with a built-in stage to showcase his ideas. If Baron wants to follow in his footsteps, he’ll have to do it as a Clipper. That isn’t a problem for Davis. “I grew up a Lakers fan,” he says. “But now I’m a Clipper, and I want to grow this organization and make it successful in this town, make it one people can attach themselves to.”

He plans on doing that in some unusual ways. He spent 20 minutes on ESPN Radio last year, ostensibly to talk basketball. But after five minutes of hoops chat, he spent the remaining time arguing that L.A.’s educational system needs to be reconfigured to improve minority enrollment at local universities. (He later met with officials at UCLA in an attempt to address the problem.).

He was an avid Barack Obama supporter during the presidential campaign and introduced Obama twice at California fundraisers.

In September, Davis announced a partnership with Jenny Craig, admitting he needed to get healthier. Not only was he the first athlete to team up with the weight-loss company, he was one of the first men ever to go down that road.

“When the story came out,” he says, “Tayshaun Prince [an All-Star with the Detroit Pistons] sent me a text that read, ‘Are you serious?’ But to me, it’s inspiring. By becoming more health conscious, maybe I can inspire my friends to do the same. I want to let them know it’s cool to have that barbecue, but at the same time, be aware of your health and where you’re going.”

Davis credits his 87-year-old grandmother, Madea Nicholson, with helping him become the man he is today. She still lives in the same South Central house, seven miles from the Staples Center. (She took over after his parents left a young Baron.) He says one of the reasons he’s glad he signed with the Clippers is so he can “check up” on Nicholson.

“Know what he calls me?” Nicholson asks, laughing. “Old lady.

” “She was disciplined,” Davis says, “but she allowed me to be who I was. She taught me to stick to my beliefs.”

She also kept her boy on the right path. After Davis’ freshman year at Crossroads, he wanted to transfer back to South Central and go to school with the kids he grew up with. Nicholson wouldn’t allow it and insisted his education came first—before his friends and before basketball.

“One of the best decisions of my life,” Davis says today.

“We talked about education a lot,” Nicholson recalls. “He understands that now.”

Not surprisingly, she is proud of Davis. But it’s not for anything he’s done on the court. “I’m most proud that he’s good—he lives a good life. He always does the right thing, and he’s a gentleman.”

Like her grandson, Nicholson does things her own way. Nothing illustrates this better than the time Davis moved her into a much bigger, more expensive and presumably safer house in Chatsworth.

She moved back less than six months later. “All of my friends are here,” Nicholson says. “We all know each other. Everybody treats me nice. That’s the most important thing to me.”

Outside of his grandmother, Davis looks at his friends as his extended family. It’s an unusual one, to say the least.

Jared Stacy, a television sports producer who grew up with Davis, has never seen anybody travel in a more eclectic crowd. “Baron might have the most diverse group of friends of anybody that has ever lived in Los Angeles,” he says. “He’s still close with his friends in South Central, and he’s still close with his friends from Crossroads. [Among others, Davis went to high school with Kate Hudson and the kids of Dustin Hoffman and Denzel Washington.] Very few people have been able to experience this city in the way Baron has, and I think you see it in the types of endeavors he is involved in.”

“I’ve got friends from Compton, Watts, Malibu, all over the place,” Davis says. “I can relate to each one, and most of the time, we share the same work ethic.”

Even today, he surrounds himself, both personally and professionally, with people he has known for years. His agent is Todd Ramasar, a former UCLA teammate. His partner at Verso Entertainment is Cash Warren, whom he met in the sixth grade.

Warren’s father, Mike, was a star basketball player at UCLA in the 1960s and then a successful actor in Hollywood (Hill Street Blues). When young Cash wanted to play basketball, Mike put him on the same youth team as Davis. The two have been linked ever since.

Cash says there are two traits about Davis that have helped him get ahead in life. “The thing that comes to mind first is he’s incredibly loyal to those who care about him and he cares about,” he says. “But the thing that opens doors for him is he’s incredibly funny. Here’s this guy who is famous, smart and wealthy...but his sense of humor is really disarming.”

Cash is married to actress Jessica Alba, who knew when she met Davis she was meeting somebody who was different.

“What stood out,” Alba recalls, “is how grounded he was. He’s very smart but really down to earth.”

Davis and Cash’s latest venture is a Website, ibeatyou.com, which invites users to “Compete online with anyone in anything.” They see the site as an opportunity to unite people from all walks.

“I want to see the site become a combination of YouTube and MySpace,” Davis says. “It’s a friendly competition on a social network, where people can make light of the world and concentrate on humor and the creative side of our country. I think a lot of times people take things too seriously. Ultimately, you can go there and see what people think about products, social issues, patriotism and, at the same time, have fun with it.”

Cash thinks it could be a place where everyday people can interact with celebrities. NBA stars Steve Nash, Chris Bosh and Gilbert Arenas have already joined in, and they’ve managed to get Will Ferrell, Anna Faris and Adam Sandler to promote their most recent movies there. It also doesn’t hurt that Alba herself is addicted.

“I love to talk smack,” Alba says, “and there’s always an open forum to do that. I’m on that site almost every day. It’s an amazing platform for competition.”

“It’s like a bridge between Hollywood and Silicon Valley,” Cash adds. “We think we can utilize celebrities and bring them together on this site. Most of all, it’s fun. It has become a creative outlet for anything and everything we want.”

For Davis, it’s just another way to help get his message out. At the crux of that message is for people to follow their hearts. While he admits his coming back to Los Angeles was more about basketball than anything else, he figures he can do a lot of good while he’s here—and he’s going to do it his own way.

“I know who I am and know what to expect from my friends and people I work with,” Davis says. “I think it’s great to be in a leadership position. I love to motivate people and give positive encouragement.”

Plus, he doesn’t want to let his grandmother down. He has never given her “any trouble—not even once,” so why start now?

“She’s right,” Davis says with a laugh, “I never did give her any trouble...I just gave other people trouble. Don’t tell her.”