I vividly remember the first time I saw Baron Davis play basketball.
It was in the Beverly Hills Tournament and an eager group of college coaches and sportswriters turned out to inspect a point guard who had burst onto the local high school scene.
Crossroads School of Santa Monica had established a reputation as an emerging power and now it had a swift, energetic kid who was being evaluated.
We liked what we saw.
“He was consistently inside the opposing team’s defense,” said Jim Harrick, who was the UCLA head coach. “What opportunities that creates for your offense.”
Harrick offered a scholarship and Davis went to UCLA, staying only long enough to further establish his credentials. Then he was off to the NBA.
In all the years that have followed, Davis has been able to produce, whether he played in Charlotte or New Orleans after the team moved or with Golden State after he was traded.
But not until the current NBA playoffs began did Davis and his teammates do something shocking, something that ranks as the story of this season or many seasons. The Warriors, who hadn’t qualified for the playoffs in 12 years, secured the eighth and final Western Conference berth on the final day of the season, then knocked off the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
Dallas had won 67 of its 82 regular season games and became the winningest top seed in league history to lose in the first round.
Whether or not Golden State defeats Utah in the second round the Warriors have carved out their niche in basketball history.
How did this happen?
“I favor small, fast teams and we made a mid-season trade to get personnel that fit the system,” said Don Nelson, who coached the Warriors’ last playoff team 12 years ago and came back to coach this one. With Baron at the controls we were set up to play this way.”
Said Davis: “The idea was to run, run, run. We weren’t big enough to match up in a slower, more conventional game, so we forced the tempo.”
Dallas Coach Avery Johnson didn’t say, “We won 67 games, we’re good, so you march up with us.” Instead he gave in by starting a smaller lineup in the first game. He let the Warriors determine how the games would be played.
“With Baron running on every possession we had to run to keep up with him,” said Warriors guard Jason Richardson. “We had no choice.”
It might appear to be a fluke that an eighth seed could win a seven-game series from a top seed, but the current Warriors’ roster isn’t the same as it was earlier in the season. To give Davis another running mate, Nelson acquired Steven Jackson from Indiana and swapped two former first round picks who didn’t fit his system – Mike Dunleavy and Ike Diogu.
Jackson, who had off-the-court troubles in Indiana, one involving a gun, took advantage of a new opportunity by becoming, according to all reports, a model citizen.
Then there were two more factors. Nelson had coached Dallas, knew the personnel well and was able to set up a defense that took star forward Dirk Nowitzki out of his favorite spots on the court. And Davis returned in peak form after missing some games in February to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery, a procedure that gave him his speed back.
Davis hasn’t forgotten his Crossroads roots. He has hired former Crossroads head coach Daryl Roper to work with his youth foundation. And Davis annually puts on a basketball clinic in the Crossroads gym each summer.
“Life is good,” said Roper, who gave up the Crossroads coaching job after 15 years but still attends games. “Baron wants youngsters to have the same opportunity that he had.”
Davis was doing this before he hit it big with the Warriors. Imagine how popular his program will become in upcoming years.