Davidson's return from tragedy helps Tide roll
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands -- Jermareo Davidson turned 22 on Thursday.
On Friday, he buried his girlfriend.
On Saturday, the day that girlfriend, Brandy "Nikki" Murphy, would have enjoyed her own 22nd birthday, doctors in Atlanta operated on Davidson's brother, who was shot in the head the week before.
On Sunday, Davidson recorded a double-double, with 15 points and 11 rebounds against Iowa in the semifinals of the Paradise Jam.
And on Monday, Davidson put up another double-double, this time 12 and 10, to help Alabama win the tournament.
Trite clichés are the backbone of sports. Athletes toss safety nets around to deflect a rabid media contingent or to save themselves from saying something foolish. But when Davidson, minutes after playing his first game since an unbelievably tragic 10 days, said he wanted to play every game like it was his last, meaning dripped from every word.
The Alabama senior, who was a passenger in the SUV Murphy was driving but walked away from the accident that killed her, spoke after the Iowa game with a wisdom that is borne out of tragic circumstance.
"Even before my situation, I wanted to do better than last year, but now I'm dedicating my entire career to my brother and my girlfriend," Davidson said. "I learned it can be over at any time."
This past weekend was supposed to be sun and fun for Davidson. Alabama came to St. Thomas as the favorite in an eight-team tournament that boasted more than its usual ho-hum roster of mid-majors. Much of what made the Crimson Tide so appealing -- as well as No. 9 in the rankings -- was Davidson. A fluid power forward who averaged 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds as a junior, he returned along with preseason All-American Ronald Steele and Richard Hendrix from a team that beat both Florida and LSU last season and finished 18-13.
Paradise, though, was lost before Davidson could even find it.
On Nov. 7, his older brother was shot in the head. The university has been brief with the details, but the situation was grave enough that Davidson missed the entire week of practice to be at his brother's side in Atlanta.
He and Murphy had spent the weekend visiting the hospital and were making the 200-mile drive from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa when the accident occurred. According to one report, Murphy, trying to avoid a convoy of vans that veered into traffic from an on-ramp, swerved and lost control of her car. She was ejected from the car and died a few hours later.
Remembered in her obituary for her "beautiful smile," the Alabama junior was laid to rest the same day the Crimson Tide opened up against Middle Tennessee State in the Paradise Jam. Davidson stayed back for the services and coach Mark Gottfried left the decision to play the rest of the tournament up to Davidson.
There really was no decision. He was on the first plane to St. Thomas on Saturday and in uniform Sunday night.
"I did not anticipate him playing many minutes at all," Gottfried said. "But he kept telling me he was fresh."
Indeed against Iowa, Davidson scored the first points of the game, sinking a sweet fadeaway. He followed up with two free throws, tapping his heart and making the shape of a B, for Brandy, with his fingers before shooting.
Playing on pure emotion and adrenaline after missing the better part of two weeks of practice, he dominated the paint defensively, blocked four Iowa shots and played 36 minutes.
"Understandably, with everything that happened, he was lifeless there for a few days," Gottfried said. "He didn't want to do much at all, but his teammates really lifted him up."
Right now Davidson might need them more, but in the long term, his teammates also need him. The Tide are loaded with athletes, guys who can toss up and throw down seemingly impossible alley-oops with ease and run the floor with frenetic energy. Yet despite always being teasingly loaded with talent, the Tide haven't quite put it all together. In 2004, Alabama cruised to the Elite Eight, but otherwise its NCAA Tournament runs have included four first-weekend crash-and-burns in five years, early dismissals that have turned the Tide into a favorite annual pick for a first-round upset.
This season, though, optimism seems to be outweighing skepticism. Davidson, named an All-SEC player last season; Steele, arguably one of the best point guards in the country; and Hendrix, who took over for an in injured Chuck Davis last season, have people believing this could be Bama's year.
Frankly, though, it won't be up to them. How well Alabama does will be determined by how much Gottfried can get out of a group of talented newcomers: junior college transfer Mykal Riley, freshman Mikhail Torrance and first-time starter Alonzo Gee.
"I don't know if we're deserving of a high ranking because we are so young," Gottfried said. "I don't know if a lot of people have looked at our roster. They see the Steeles and the Davidsons and the Hendrixes, but once you look past there, we're very, very young."
Maybe, though, the Tide grew up over the weekend. Alabama played the opener without Davidson and won. Riley had 13 points and five assists off the bench in the championship game. Gee, after his 46-point, 15-rebound run over the three games, was named tournament MVP.
"Look at the teams we played here. There are some really good teams," Steele said. "We could go out and play a couple of easy games, but we want to be better and this is what it takes. This was good for all of us. Are we a top-10 team? I don't know right now. But we're excited about going out and proving that we're a good team every night."
It may take some time for Davidson to feel pure excitement or pure joy, but getting back on the basketball court, practicing with his teammates, was close. As he stood outside the locker room, he laughed as one of his teammates, Justin Tubbs, made faces at him from behind the small pack of reporters, a small sign of normalcy in what has been a horrifically abnormal two weeks.
He said he never considered staying home, that his girlfriend's family not only gave him their blessing to go play basketball but also encouraged him to go.
There are hard days ahead for Davidson, a holiday season minefield to maneuver through and a long recovery for his brother. But his brother is doing better, Davidson said, and his girlfriend would have wanted great things out of him, so Davidson, too, has vowed to be better.
"I'm going to keep moving forward. That's how I've always been," Davidson said quietly in the hallways underneath the intimate University of the Virgin Islands gymnasium. "I've been wanting to get back to playing, get back into the rhythm. Everything happens for a reason and I'm ready to see the good reason."
Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News and a contributor to ESPN.com.
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