Commentary

Baron Davis sees the end

The Clippers' veteran guard is now able to put his career in perspective

Updated: December 11, 2010, 3:14 PM ET
By Chris Palmer | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

In a minimalist art gallery in Culver City, Calif., the hum of fluorescent blue lights against a sterile decor of concrete, glass and nebulous shadows creates a hypnotic effect. At the opening of a "Tron"-inspired exhibit -- items on display include a futuristic snowboard and louvered high heels that go for $800 -- Baron Davis walks hand in hand with his fiancée, Rebecca Marshall.

Many seem to be unaware they are in the presence of an athlete. Davis' fashion sense, which is more N.E.R.D. than NBA (he's wearing red plaid pants, glossy shoes and a knotted scarf), nearly allows him to blend in with the sake-sipping dandies clad in skinny jeans.

[+] EnlargeBaron Davis
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesClippers guard Baron Davis, seeing the end of his career fast approaching, has taken the role of mentor to the young talent around him.

Whether it was the mesmeric lighting or his nagging injuries or the funk of yet another Clippers season spiraling prematurely into the abyss, Davis seemed to be keenly aware of the slowly approaching inevitability -- in particular his own basketball mortality.

"I can see the end coming," said Davis, 31. "But I'm not afraid of it. I embrace it because I think my time in this league has been well-served."

His tone is matter-of-fact but earnest, spoken like a man who has a plan.Then again, Davis has always worn his ambitions for all to see.But just as quick as his first step used to be, Davis crosses up and serves notice. "But I'm not done yet. I want to play until I'm 38."

Davis is in the third year of a five-year, $65 million contract, a deal that brought him back to his hometown with a hero's swagger and grand hopes of turning around a maligned franchise.

One league source says if Davis wants to make it to 38, he'll likely have to play for the veteran minimum when his current deal is up, but the source could see Davis accepting virtually any role thanks to his genuine passion for the game.

"He's well-liked and I don't see him having difficulty transitioning into the back end of his career, which is something in his favor," said the source.

When Davis was asked if he would like to join a superstar-laden, championship-chasing team such as the Heat in a role-playing capacity when his Clippers contract is up, Davis quickly deflects the question. "I'm not even gonna go there," he said. "I play for the Los Angeles Clippers."

True enough -- but this season, that has happened only eight times thanks to a swollen left knee, and now the hamstring just above it has been acting up.

His season averages of 7.9 points, 6 assists and 2.4 rebounds are the lowest since his rookie year. Granted, it's a small sample size, but Davis is shooting a career low from both the field (.325) and behind the arc (.174).

While Davis' production is far from what he'd like it to be, he's earning his keep beyond what happens on the court by helping to mentor the Clippers' three rookies: Blake Griffin, Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu.

Davis routinely dispenses an array of helpful veteran tidbits from what to look for in film study to the ideal situation to use a bounce pass to the importance of learning your big man's tendencies. But perhaps his biggest dime comes as a motivator.

"For me, it started last year," said Griffin of Davis' mentorship. "He let me know that he believed in me from the beginning and was always telling me not to get too down when I wasn't playing."

Davis has dealt with Bledsoe's surprise emergence (he's now in BD's starting position) not by pouting but by making sure the 20-year-old from Kentucky is always ready to play.

"He keeps me fired up for each game, but at the same time tells me to pace myself because it's such a long season," said Bledsoe. "He's the kind of leader that's always in your ear. It really does help you. I'm so busy trying to get adjusted to life on and off the court, I need all the help I can get. I'm still getting used to the time difference. Every time I try to call home I forget my family is already sleeping."

That he's the voice in the ear of players expected to carry the franchise into the next decade -- a position he once relished -- only serves to further drive home the fact that Davis' role has transformed in front of his very eyes.

His biggest regret? The injuries that have changed the way he plays, but he doesn't dwell. "I've been up, been down, been everything since I've been in this league, but that's who I am."

It's easy to forget that Davis was once a high-flying, durable guard -- he didn't miss a single game in his first three seasons -- who was a nightly fixture on television highlight packages.

Early in the second quarter of Sunday's game against Portland, Davis swooped across the lane and powered in a one-handed dunk over Joel Przybilla. The replay actually showed it to be a more of an authoritative layup than a clean dunk, but he'll take it.

"Felt like I got up on that one," Davis chuckled.

But save for that phantom slam, Davis says he can't remember the last time he dunked in a game, a telling admission from a guy whose game was once based on eye-popping athleticism.

His spectacular one-handed baseline throwdown over Utah's Andrei Kirilenko, in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals in 2007, is arguably the signature moment of Davis' career.

"My game now is below the rim," he said. "I'm fine with that because I have a lifetime of highlights above the rim. The funny thing is, when your game has to change, you pick up all kind of valuable stuff you never paid attention to that makes you better. Looking back, I wish I knew these things when I was still dunking."

Lost in the quagmire of injuries, basement finishes and scrutiny about his work ethic is the fact that Davis is quietly climbing the NBA's all-time assists and steals ladder. He's 37th all-time in assists and needs just 177 more dimes -- a month's worth of games at his career average of 8.8 -- to pass Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird for 33rd.

Davis hears the names and he's taken aback.

"That's incredible company," he said. "It makes you think about your place in the game. It's humbling. Just crazy."

But statistics may do little to shape the lasting impression of Davis' time in L.A. So ultimately, what is Davis' legacy?

"If I want to make the Hall of Fame, I'd have to finish on a strong note," Davis said. "I think it would take me turning this team around and winning a couple championships."

Tall order, he knows, but it can't prevent his eyes from getting wide as saucers.

"Man, to make the Hall would be incredible," he continued. "I'd cry for, like, five weeks straight."

Dreamy Springfield talk aside, Davis' fondness for nurturing younger players gives a possible glimpse into his next move. "I would love to go into coaching someday," he said. "I could see myself coaching at the high school level, but I'd really love to coach at UCLA. That would be a dream for me."

He stops short of saying he'd like an NBA job but wants to be "very involved" with the league after his playing days.

"This league made me the man I am today," Davis said. "It gave me everything I have and now I want to give back to it."

Seems he's already started. Just ask Eric Bledsoe.

Chris Palmer

ESPN the Magazine