Pain and perseverance: The Walter Davis story

“… Not your average shooter. He’s an artist. His jumper is picture perfect. If you wanted to teach someone how to shoot the ball, you would say to them, ‘Do it the way Walter does.’ He has great rotation on the ball and a soft, gentle touch.”
- Former Phoenix Suns head coach John MacLeod 

Walter Davis is one of the NBA's unheralded all-time greats, but he could have been even better.

Walter Davis is one of the NBA's unheralded all-time greats, but he could have been even better.

For much of his decade-and-a-half in the NBA, namely the 11 seasons spent with the Phoenix Suns, Walter Davis was not only one of pro basketball’s most consistent and prolific scorers, but one of its most graceful. Given his frame — he stands 6-foot-6, but tipped the scale at just 193 pounds in his playing days — and the effortless fluidity exuded by his every on-court movement, it’s difficult to imagine a player in NBA history more deserving of Davis’ “Greyhound” moniker.

And then there was the picture-perfect jump shot. Beautiful form, quick release, perfect rotation, elbow extension and follow-through… it was a thing of beauty. “Sweet D” was the Ray Allen of the mid-range J.

One of NBA history’s unheralded greats, Davis assembled a statistical resume that’s comparable to those of all but a handful of shooting guards in history. In 1,033 regular season games, he scored 19,521 points (18.9 per game) — a still-franchise-record 15,666 with the Suns — before retiring as the 18th leading scorer in NBA history.

In 11 seasons as a Sun (1977-88), Davis made 52 percent of his shots, averaging 20.5 points in just 30.2 minutes per game, and posted a 19.6 PER. He was selected to six All-Star teams (more than either Reggie Miller or Chris Mullin) and was an All-NBA Second Team selection each of his first two seasons. During that stretch, he averaged at least 17.9 points nine times (20-plus six times), converted more field goals (6,497) than any guard not named George Gervin and outscored all but eight NBAers (seven Hall of Famers and World B. Free).

Selected fifth overall out of North Carolina by the Suns in the 1977 draft, Davis transitioned seamlessly to the NBA with one of the best rookie seasons in history. Taking the floor in all but one of the Suns’ regular season games, he averaged 24.2 points, 6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, while making 52.6 percent of his shots. His scoring average is still tied for 13th all-time by a rookie (with fellow ’77-78 rookie Bernard King) and has only been topped twice in the past 35 years — by Michael Jordan (28.2) in 1984-85 and David Robinson (24.3) in 1989-90. His 22.1 PER is the 10th highest mark (tied with Chris Paul’s from 2005-06) by a rookie in the last 50 years. All but one of the players ahead of him are Hall of Famers (seven are in, it’s only a matter of time for Shaq and Tim Duncan), and the last, Terry Cummings (22.8 in 1982-83), was pretty damn good as well. Davis’ greatness as a rookie did not go unnoticed, as he was named Rookie of the Year and Second Team All-NBA, and voted a starter on the Western Conference All-Star team.

Historically great as it was on an individual basis, the impact of Davis’ debut season extended beyond the box score. He teamed with fellow All-Star and Second Team All-NBAer Paul Westphal (25.2 points, 5.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game) to help the Suns to a then-franchise-record 49 wins — up from 34 the previous season. The Suns made the third postseason appearance in the franchise’s 10-year history as the West’s No. 3 seed. Despite getting edged out by the Milwaukee Bucks in a best-of-three series, the addition of Davis to a core of Westphal and Alvan Adams had set the stage for a period of prosperity in the Valley.

The following season, with All-Star big man Truck Robinson now on the roster, the Suns, led by 47.6 points and 10.8 assists per game from Davis (23.6 and 4.3) and Westphal (24 and 6.5), hit the 50-win plateau for the first time ever and once again locked up the third seed in the West. They bested the Trail Blazers and the Kings to advance to the conference finals, where they came within a victory of the Finals, falling to the eventual world champion Super Sonics in seven games. In 15 postseason games in 1979, Davis averaged a 22.1-4.6-5.3, and shot 52 percent from the field.

The next four years, led by Davis, Westphal and Dennis Johnson (for whom Westphal was traded prior to the 1980-81 season), the Suns won 53-plus games three times, only failing to do so in 1981-82, when an elbow injury cost Davis the opening months of the season and prevented him from truly hitting his stride. The Suns were unable to advance past the conference semifinals during this stretch — losing twice to the Lakers and once, after an opening round bye, to the Kansas City Kings. However, thanks to their backcourt stars, the franchise, now a fixture in the West’s top half, was experiencing its first run of sustained success.

One game from this era stands out as not only the best individual performance of Davis’ career, but one of the most impressive in NBA history. In an otherwise meaningless game in Seattle on Feb. 25, 1983, Davis put together as efficient a 36-point performance as has ever been seen, making 15 of 16 field goals and all six of his free throw attempts. If the thought of a guy dropping 36 on a combined 20-for-21 is not sufficiently impressive, consider that he essentially achieved the feat flawlessly. His only miss of the night came with 55 seconds left in the fourth quarter, with a perfect 34 — which broke Larry Costello’s 1961 record of 32 points without a miss — already in the bank.

Ironically, the Suns’ return to the heights of playoffs past didn’t come until the bull market in regular season wins had drawn to a close. Still led by Davis (and his 20 points and 5.5 assists per game) and now flanked by the frontcourt trio of James Edwards (14.7 points per game), Maurice Lucas (15.9 and 9.7 rebounds) and a young Larry Nance (17.7, on 57.6 percent FG, and 8.3 rebounds), the 1983-84 Suns finished 41-41. The mediocre mark was misleading, however, skewed by an awful 6-14 start. The Suns gained steam (took some restraint to not go with “heated up” there) as the season progressed, winning 35 of their next 62 games, including eight of their last nine, and entered the postseason as a No. 6 seed.

That momentum carried into the postseason as the Suns knocked off the third-seeded Trail Blazers in the first round, before taking out the N0. 2-seeded Jazz in six to advance to the conference finals against the top-seeded Lakers. Sadly for Phoenix the upset tour of 1984 went no further, as the Suns were stopped in a fairly competitive six-gamer. Despite the disappointment, the Suns, with a still-very-much-in-his-prime Davis (24.9 points and 6.4 assists per game in the 1984 playoffs) and one of the NBA’s best front lines, once again looked poised for a run of success in the Western Conference.

It is in these moments — calm, tranquil, everything functioning as it should — that we are least prepared for, and most devastated by, unexpected calamity.

Now, lest you think this is strictly a “Player X is underrated and I’m here to tell you about it” piece — make no mistake, it’s largely that — there is another side to this tale. For all the picturesque jumpers and graceful drives to the hole, pain — much of it self-inflicted — and perseverance are the enduring themes of the Walter Davis story.

First, in a preseason game against the Lakers, a slippery spot on the Forum floor claimed three ligaments in Davis’ left knee and, medical technology not being what it is today, seriously threatened his career. In a feat of recovery that’s incredible even by today’s standards, Davis not only battled his way back on to the floor that same season, he actually took the floor 23 times, averaging 15 points in 25 minutes per game.

With a summer of rest and rehabilitation under his belt, Davis began the 1985-86 season looking very much like his old self. In the season’s first 22 games he averaged 24.4 points on ~47 percent shooting from the field, scoring 25-plus nine times and 30-plus on five occasions. His return to the All-Star Game was a virtual lock, as was the (now defunct) Comeback Player of the Year award. It was at this point that Davis enlisted himself in the most important battle of his life, one against which the rehabbing of a knee injury pales in comparison.

On Dec. 12, 1985, the morning after making 17 of 27 shots and tying a career high with 43 points against the Golden State Warriors, Davis called then-GM Jerry Colangelo to notify him that he was voluntarily seeking treatment for cocaine and alcohol dependency. (Side note: The more I read that last sentence, the more a single question echoes in my head: WHAT HAPPENED THAT NIGHT?)

Anyway, Davis underwent 29 days of treatment at a Southern California clinic before returning to the lineup on Jan. 11, 1986. He took part in 48 games after his return, and while he was productive (20.6 PPG on 49 percent FG), his characteristic consistency was slow to return as nine times he made less than a third of his shots and 14 times he scored 15 points or fewer. More troubling is the fact that not only did his team not miss him, they were markedly better in his absence. The Suns, 6-16 at the time of Davis’ departure, had managed to win seven of the 12 games he missed, won just 19 more times in 1985-86, and then ended the season 32-50 — the worst mark of the Davis era and tied for third-worst in franchise history.

Another summer, another comeback.

A presumably sober Davis returned to the Suns for the 1986-87 season and, as he had a year earlier, returned to top form. While the Suns, now clearly in decline, struggled to a 36-46 mark, Davis started 79 games and played some of the best ball of his career, averaging 23.6 points, making over 51 percent of his shots and posting a PER of 19.3 — his highest since 1980 — to earn his sixth All-Star selection. But then, just when the reclamation of both his career and his life looked completed, Davis’ demons again reared their heads.

On April 17, 1987, three members of the Suns — James Edwards, Jay Humphries and Grant Gondrezick — and two former Suns — Gar Heard and Mike Bratz — were indicted by a grand jury for the trafficking of cocaine. In light of this Davis came forward, again voluntarily, and admitted to having relapsed in his battle against the drug. He was suspended without pay for the final game of the 1986-87 season. This was his second violation of the NBA’s drug policy. A third would mean a lifetime ban.

As they had before, the Suns stood by Davis in his time of need, allowing him to return to the team in 1987-88 and play out his contract. Davis, now beset by chronic back pain and advancing age (he turned 33 in September 1987), continued to battle, but endured his worst season as a professional. It’s worth noting, however, that Walter Davis’ 1987-88 season (17.9 PPG, 47 percent FG, 89 percent FT, 4 APG and a 17.8 PER in 68 games), the worst of his Suns career, would rank among the best for all but a select few in NBA history.

And thus the curtain fell on Davis’ days in Phoenix. That summer, Davis joined the Denver Nuggets, with whom he spent three and a half of his last four NBA seasons (he was traded to Portland during the 1990-91 season, waived at season’s end and returned to Denver for the 1991-92 season), averaging 15.6 points per game. Since his retirement in 1992, Davis has worn several hats — eight years on Nuggets and University of Denver basketball broadcasts, scout for the Washington Wizards under friend and fellow UNC alum Michael Jordan, assistant coach under his UNC roommate Holland.

These days, Davis is inextricably linked with the Mile High City, running his high-end cigar lounge, conducting basketball lessons for children and teens and working as a community ambassador for the Nuggets. Most importantly, he is living a healthy post-NBA life.

From a basketball perspective, however, Walter Davis forever will be not only a Phoenix Sun, but given his longevity, productivity and immense effort and perseverance, there is a case to be made that he remains to this day the greatest player in franchise history.

Emile Avanessian is a guest writer for ValleyoftheSuns.

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  • Steve

    Ah, Walter Davis. One of the NBA’s most unheralded greats. I would be willing to bet that more than half of the average Suns fans out there wouldn’t know Davis is the all-time leading scorer in franchise history. It’s sad that the past is forgotten so quickly. I like this type of article to remind us there was life before Barkley.