- Wright Thompson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Glen Davis is climbing. Up a ladder, through the dark bowl of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center he goes, to a catwalk that shakes with each heavy step. Hardwood flashes beneath the maze of metal. Two nights ago, the building was packed with fans screaming his name. Now it's empty. For the first time all day, no one can see him.
He moves through the blackness by memory, toward a sanctuary neither coaches nor teammates know. Up here, the overwhelming expectations recede. Up here, there's no need for the Big Baby act. Up here, he can be himself. He finds another narrow ladder and begins to move, hand over hand, toward the roof.
Long climbs are nothing new for Davis; he has been slogging uphill his whole life. But then came the high-profile Final Four run and the preseason All-America. Growing up with an addict mama taught him how to survive, but nothing in his past prepared him for success. "He was an ass-kicking underdog," says his close friend and father figure, former LSU center Collis Temple II. "Now it's a different deal. Ain't no cover. It's on you, pro. It's your time."
So Davis climbs, in search of peace. He opens a door, grasps one last ladder. A few more rungs and a breeze hits him. The lights of Huey Long's capitol building and the Horace Wilkinson bridge twinkle in the distance. He's here.
On the roof of the arena, about 200 feet above North Stadium Drive, Davis stands at eye level with Tiger Stadium's mammoth scoreboard across the street. "All my life, things around me have crumbled," he says. "Now I'm the center of all this. What if I fail? All these expectations: Glen, Glen, Glen. Am I gonna fail at what I do best?"
On top of his world, he's used to asking questions of the wind. His mother told him, in a rare lucid moment, that he needed a personal place, a place where he can talk to God. This is it. From the center of the PMAC roof, Davis asks Him questions about another challenging year in an always challenging life. This time, though, the challenges are different.
Why are you doing this for me?
Is this who you want me to be?
A CALENDAR year ago, Glen Davis was the funny fat kid. He led the LSU Tigers in points (18.6 pg) and rebounds (9.7 pg) but willingly shared highlights with SEC Freshman of the Year Tyrus Thomas and leadership duties with senior Darrel Mitchell. Davis was a 6'9" court jester, playing everything for laughs, keeping the world at bay. It's how he'd long ago learned to deal with a life weighed down by a pound of bad for every ounce of good.
His mother, Tonya, had been a star high school athlete, an exceptional student and a model. But she didn't talk to God. She talked to a dealer. The day Davis stood at center court, accepting the MVP trophy for the Louisiana state basketball tournament, he was distracted by the sight of his mom's being led away by the authorities. Apparently, in a drug-addled haze, she'd tried to run onto the court to join him.
As a kid, playing football and basketball, Davis would cry and whine after hard tackles and fouls. Coaches, opponents and teammates chastised him, called him a big baby. Eventually, he learned he could shake the criticism if he laughed when he felt like crying. Big Baby was born, the guy who came to a high school costume day dressed in full drag—makeup, lipstick, the works. "Ever heard the song 'Tears of a Clown'?" Temple asks. "That song is about Glen."
These days, with all eyes on him, it takes more and more energy to muster Big Baby. He has to build up to it sometimes. Parked in front of a Baton Rouge T-Mobile store last fall, Davis put on the mask. Talking to himself, his voice started low but got louder and louder as he began winding: "What the hell's going on? I pay my bill every damn month. I wanna new phone. Straight up."
Once inside, he began to jabber in a Jamaican accent: "I want da phone, mon." By the time he left, he had the entire store laughing, he'd gotten another customer's number and told her to let her mom know Big Baby was coming over, and, of course, he'd landed a new Sidekick.
Just before he walked in, an elderly woman had stopped him. "Big Baby!" she shouted, and he laughed. She looked him up and down, noticing what the college basketball world has since discovered: "You done kicked that weight!"
Against UCLA in the Final Four last April, a 340-plus-pound Davis had been too out of shape to run the court. In a game he could have dominated, he kept looking toward the bench, begging for a breather. He shot 5-for-17 and fouled out in just 31 minutes. Sitting dejected at his locker afterward, Davis vowed to Temple he'd drop 50 pounds. He wasn't going to feel that way again.
He'd made similar promises before, but this time he followed through. He ate well, ran every morning and worked out with then-strength coach Jeff Dillman, whose motivating speech was one pointed question: "Do you want to be Karl Malone or Tractor Traylor?" When LSU coach John Brady saw him for the first time at Nike camp in July—Davis was a counselor there—he called his assistants to say, You're not gonna believe Glen. Davis had comfortably settled in below 300. He needed a whole new wardrobe. His Final Four warm-ups sure didn't fit anymore.
The new man with new clothes suddenly had a new rep. But he also had a new problem. Everywhere he looked, he saw people looking back. Most every- Davis. And the lost weight spurred some XXXL expectations. "I got back to school, and I was on every other cover," he says. "People were watching every step. That had never happened. I'd never been the guy." No one had expected much from an overweight kid from a broken home. Now all they demanded was superstardom.
As the pressure mounted throughout the summer, Big Baby kept smiling. But Glen Davis was a mess. A concerned Brady sat him down for a talk. "I wanted success," Davis says, "but when I finally got it, I was like, Everybody's in my face. Do I really want this?"
The night before media and team picture day in October, Davis and his mother had one more in a long line of arguments. Tonya had been in and out of her son's life for as long as he could remember. (Davis, who's met his father only recently, spent periods in foster care.) Nothing was untouched by her addiction, but as frustrated and angry as it made him, Glen had never been able to let go of her. He even invited her to stay with him when she had nowhere else. On this particular evening, she was high and asked about money. When she didn't like Glen's answers, she called him a sellout and a failure. Up until 4 a.m., he arrived late for 6 a.m. practice. The door to the team entrance was locked, and instead of looking for another way in, Davis snapped. He got back in his car and took off. When he didn't show up, Brady called him. Temple called him. Brady called Temple. The most famous guy in Baton Rouge had disappeared.
Davis didn't respond to their messages. He never made it to media day, skipped the picture. That afternoon, he finally got in touch with Temple. Temple asked where he was and said, Don't move. He found Davis in his car, parked by an empty lot. Once a house had stood there—before it burned down. Davis had gone back to his childhood home. When Temple peered into the car, he saw Davis crying in the driver's seat. How can I be what they want me to be if I started off here? The outgoing All-America was gone. An overwhelmed young man sat in his place.
GLEN DAVIS walks to class on a December morning and—no kidding—every third person talks to him. He picks up The Daily Reveille and sees his mug staring back. At a local chicken joint, a woman asks him to sign her box of fries. (For a brief, glorious moment, he thinks she's giving them to him.) The attention is unflagging. Everyone needs "just one second."
For now, Davis is getting his 20 and 10 —and getting by. But it's a daily struggle. For every answer he might find on the roof, another question emerges. How do you handle success? How do you keep from sneaking Reese's? How do you make sure an embarrassing eight-point game in a loss to Washington is just a bad night and not a referendum on your future?
Brady likes to get in his players' faces, but he knows that won't work with his best one. Last month, a classmate lit into Davis about missing a project meeting. The big man screamed into the phone, punctuating a major point with a violent slap on the knee: "I understand that, but—" his voice grew louder, "you getting upset with me accomplishes nothing. What the f—?!" Then his anger faded almost as quickly as it had come, giving way to a low, sweet, I-want-something voice.
Brady and his staff are familiar with this Jekylland-Hyde routine. "With all the pressure on him to be Superman," the coach says, "occasionally, we let him melt down. We're there for him."
Mostly, they listen. After an important December win against Texas A&M, Brady found Davis outside the tunnel of the empty arena. Leaning in, the coach said, "I'm proud of you. Come by tomorrow and chat with me."
The next day, after class, Davis stuck his head into Brady's office. They laughed a bit, watched some tape and talked more psyches than hoops. "Glen seems simple, but he's really complex," Brady says. "Outwardly, he's happy all the time. He's not. It's become more of a strain to appear to be what everybody thinks he is. He has the right to be down, but people don't want to see that."
And Big Baby has begun to man up. The first step was a final tough-love session with his mother. When she came home high again this fall, he decided he couldn't get back on that roller coaster and told her she had to choose between him and the drugs. "I let her know I love her, but this is not healthy," he says. She hasn't been back, except once this fall. Although Davis has stopped leaving her tickets, she found a way into LSU's game against Texas A&M in December and ran the bleachers, screaming his name. After she dropped two trays of food behind the basket, she mumbled, "At least I didn't throw it on the sheriff this time." Davis, playing just 50 feet away, knew he had carried her as a burden long enough.
Temple says it's a miracle that the reigning SEC Player of the Year isn't dead or in jail. In fact, for 19 years, Davis believed being alive and free was enough to consider himself a success. But now he sees that another NCAA Tournament, the NBA and, yes, happiness await him. "The majority of my life has been sorrow and pain," he says from behind the wheel of his Dodge. "I've been so successful at the game, but you start to be like, Do I really deserve this? Then you realize, Damn, I've been through a lot. This is what I do. This is my destiny."
He parks his car in the back lot at the PMAC and enters a creaky side door. The compressors in the dark gym hum. Banners hang above, honoring Maravich, O'Neal and Pettit. He looks at the jerseys in the rafters and thinks, one day his might hang there too.
Turning away, he grabs a ladder and begins another climb.