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Braves New World: Mike Davis

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Information about Mike Davis is a bit difficult to find. The basics are present – he was an outstanding basketball player in high school and college, and spent a few years in the pros. But Mike wasn’t quite good enough to stay in the NBA or ABA past four years, and he stepped away from the game and worked with youth in New York City. The details of his life are hidden as his common name tends to hide him on internet search engines. Still, he was the first-ever member of the Buffalo Braves, and thus is still fondly remembered by the team’s fans.

Michael A. Davis was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 26, 1946. He stayed in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of that borough through high school, as he attended Eastern District. That facility was closed in 1996 because of a poor academic record of its students. Before it was shuttered, though, it had quite a list of famous alumni. It’s a diverse group: Red Auerbach, Mel Brooks, and Barry Manilow. Davis, who picked up the nickname “The Crusher” along the way, led Eastern District to two New York City PSAL (public school) Championships.

Davis graduated in 1964, and despite his obvious talents, there weren’t a great many options as a possible college destination. The sport had not become fully integrated at that point. Virginia Union, one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, turned out to be a good choice. After apparently taking a season off (records from that era aren’t too complete), he moved into the starting lineup for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association team. Then a year later in 1966-67, Mike averaged 22.6 points per game as a sophomore. A highlight for Davis came on January 30, 1967, when he set a school record by scoring 53 points against Hampton. By the way, the leading scorer in the conference that season was Earl Monroe at 29.9 points per game. Davis’ Panthers went 6-15 that season, 6-13 in the conference.

That sort of record was the norm rather than the exception for Davis during his time at Virginia Union. He piled up the points, but couldn’t lift his team to a conference championship. In his last three seasons there he was named all-CIAA, and was all-tournament in the CIAA playoffs. In 1967-68, Davis led all NCAA Division II players by averaging 36.7 points per game. Davis had his best game individually when he scored 62 points in a contest against Hampton on Feb. 21, 1968. That broke his own school record, and the new mark has stood for decades. The guard had at least 50 points in four other games.

When he was done, the 6-foot-3 Davis had finished with a scoring average of 31 points per game (a total of 2,758). That’s hundreds ahead of anyone else in the school’s history. Keep in mind that there was no three-point line and no shot clock in those days in college basketball. As a senior, the NYC native was selected as the conference player of the year, which meant he won the first-ever Clarence “Big House” Gaines Award, and was a third-team Little All-American.

Sometimes college players from the HBCU group were overlooked by pro scouts. For example, Bob Dandridge of Norfolk State was picked by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969 in the fourth round. Dandridge was part of some fine teams with the Bucks and Washington Bullets. He went into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021. But speaking of the Bullets, that team (located in Baltimore at the time) picked Davis in the first round of the NBA Draft. He became the first college player from the state of Virginia to go in the first round. That was all good with the newest Bullet. Before the draft, he had said, “I would love to be drafted by the Bullets. They play my kind of game and I really think I can fit into their style.”

Eventually, more players from that state went in the first round. Barry Parkhill was the first one to play for the University of Virginia; he was picked in 1973. Charles Oakley of Virginia Union went in the first round in 1985. But Davis’ status as a trail-blazer for the entire state will never be challenged.

For the record, Davis was taken in the late rounds by the Pittsburgh Pipers of the American Basketball Association, but he signed a two-year contract with Baltimore. The Bullets were quite a good team at that stage in their history. Monroe was the biggest star, but he had plenty of help in the starting lineup with Kevin Loughery, Jack Marin, Gus Johnson and Wes Unseld. But there wasn’t much depth, and when the inevitable injuries struck, players could move up on the depth chart even if the team’s record suffered a bit. That’s what happened to Davis, who no doubt received a boost when Loughery missed 27 games that season. Mike played in 56 games, averaging 11.9 points in 23.8 minutes per game (both career highs). He also set a career high with 40 points against San Diego on November 18.

That season was good enough to put him on the NBA’s All-Rookie team for 1969-70. And Davis was certainly in good company on that list. Dandridge was one of three of the Hall of Famers on that group. The other two were Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) of Milwaukee and Jo Jo White of Boston. Guard Dick Garrett of Los Angeles rounded out the team. It came in spite of the fact that Davis didn’t play in a game that season after February 22, 1970, due to a broken wrist. Even so, Davis had a successful start to his pro career, and probably thought he was set in Baltimore indefinitely.

The business of pro basketball got in the way of those thoughts. In the period between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, Davis was traded to a team that hadn’t played a game in its history yet. The Buffalo Braves were scheduled to enter the league in 1970-71, and they were assigned a draft choice in the middle of the first round along with the other two expansion teams (Cleveland and Portland). Washington offered to trade its first round pick (No. 15) and Davis to the Braves for Buffalo’s first-round pick (No. 9). That sounded good to the Braves. That made Davis the first member of the Buffalo Braves in history.

The Bullets took center George Johnson of Stephen F. Austin with at No. 9 (he did little in Baltimore in one season), while Buffalo selected John Hummer of Princeton at No. 15. When the Braves made their expansion picks later on, they grabbed Garrett. Therefore, they had two members of the All-Rookie team on the roster, which seemed like a great building block for the franchise.

Mike arrived at the Braves’ training camp in the fall of 1970, and there were no players like Monroe and Unseld in sight. The team had a bit of a crowd at guard, though. Garrett was there, and so were veterans like Em Bryant, Herm Gilliam and Fred Crawford. Davis suited up for the first-ever game in Buffalo on October 14, 1970. He had 14 points in 20 minutes as the Braves defeated Cleveland, 107-92.

Mike was in double figures in points in his first five games. Then on November 5, he poured in 32 points in a loss in Detroit. Davis followed that up with 25- and 26-point games later in that month, and then scored 31 against Boston on November 30. But consistency was a problem Davis had two points on 0-for-5 shooting on December 4 against New York. Overall, Mike finished with a scoring average of 11.4 points in 22.2 minutes. In other words, his point production and playing time were down slightly from his rookie season.

Davis went home to New York, got married, and worked out over the summer in an attempt to improve. Meanwhile, the Braves had acquired Walt Hazzard in the offseason, and the former UCLA star figured to play a lot at guard during the 1972-73 season. That meant Davis competed with Garrett, Bryant and rookie Fred Hilton for playing time. In the season opener, Mike scored four points in five minutes during a terrible loss to Seattle. Davis had a few bright spots during the course of the season, but couldn’t put a run of games together that might have put him in the starting lineup. The third-year pro finished with a scoring average of 9.1 points in 17.2 minutes, the lowest numbers of his career.

Davis was invited to the Braves’ training camp in the fall of 1972, but he was waived on October 9. Mike was only unemployed for a couple of weeks, as the Bullets signed him as a free agent. He wasn’t bad in a supporting role, averaging 9.5 points in 21.8 minutes – consistent with his production in other seasons. But the Bullets still let him go on December 5.

Davis next turned to the ABA for a job, as the Memphis Tams signed him on December 22. That franchise must have been constantly churning its roster, because Davis was one of 21 players to suit up that season. Two of the others were named Davis – Lee and Warren. Mike averaged 6.7 points in 14.6 minutes in 38 games. He lasted for the rest of the season, but that was it as he was waived by the Tams in training camp the following fall. Davis played in 242 games as a pro, averaging 10.1 points a game in his 20 minutes on the court. It’s a little surprising that he didn’t get more of a chance.

It was time to move on with the rest of his life. Davis was a good student at Virginia Union, and he put his sociology degree to good use. Over the years he worked in adult education, vocational rehabilitation, and career counseling. Mike also spent some time working with young players on their basketball skills. He was one of the commissioners of the NYC Department of Education Public Schools Athletic League, completing a circle started with his high school championships. Davis also worked with homeless youth at Covenant House. Meanwhile, brother Pete was running a youth basketball camp in California into his 60s. He had been an all-New York City pick before moving on to Michigan State. Pete was drafted in the seventh round by the New York Knicks in 1975.

Mike was inducted into the CIAA’s McLendon Hall of Fame in 2006.

(Follow Budd on @WDX2BB)

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