It’s not the size of the man, it’s what’s inside him.
Mel Davis, in his booming voice, bellowed those exact words one Sunday afternoon at the Kitsilano Community Centre while coaching basketball to a group of young people in February 2005.
He was making the point that the short kids on the court shouldn’t be afraid of the tall ones.
In another whistle stoppage, when a pass got intercepted, he raised his voice again.
“That ball has got air inside it, your head doesn’t —it’s got brains. You’ve got to go to the ball, it won’t come to you.”
At six-feet, five inches tall, Davis was a big, imposing man.
So what was inside him?
If comments filling up an online petition to honour his legacy via a plaque or have the gym at the community centre named after him are an indication, then Davis was a kind-hearted, inspirational mentor to hundreds, if not thousands of people during his 30 years as a coach.
From Chris Peerless: “Mel got so many involved in the sport of basketball, myself included. And 30-plus year later I’m still trying to pay it forward for all that he did for me and others. More than basketball though, he taught life lessons every day and was a wonderful role model.”
From Matthew Orr: “He was a coach to me as a child. He took the bus to small communities and found players that he thought he could help. He had a tremendous positive effect on me personally. He will forever be remembered in my heart.”
From Jesse Hy: “I have amazing memories of hooping with Mel in the Kits community gym. He was an awesome coach and all-around inspirational spirit. Thanks for everything Mel!”
The Chicago-born Davis, who lived in Vancouver since the late 1980s, died of natural causes Dec. 16 at a care home in Burnaby. His family shared the news publicly last weekend in a newspaper obituary. He was 84.
Kitsilano Youth Basketball League
Those who played for him knew Davis as the founder of the Kitsilano Youth Basketball League, the Have Ball Will Teach Program and Mel Davis Youth Foundation. Others, particularly people of an older generation, knew him as Mel “Trick” Davis, a star with the Harlem Globetrotters.
His teammates included Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neale, Geese Ausbie and Marques Haines.
It was during his time with the Globetrotters that he met his future wife, Megan, in Hull, Que. The couple, who married in 1988 and settled in Vancouver, recalled their first date in a story they shared with The Vancouver Courier in 2005.
I was at an after-hours club.
Megan was 18 and studying at Carleton University. Davis was 25.
“He gave me the head nod to the dance floor and we got up and danced,” said Megan, trying to recall the type of dance.
“The Chicago bop…the Chicago bop—that was it,” Davis said.
“Is that what it was called?” she said. “I don’t think I knew how to do it, but when a slow dance came, I sure knew how to do that.”
Academy Award-nominated Hardwood
The couple’s marriage was featured in the documentary Hardwood, a deeply personal 29-minute film that their son, Hubert, made about his father’s life. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award and an Emmy, was produced when Davis was in his mid-60s.
The younger Davis chronicled his father’s early life as a Globetrotter to his days in Vancouver, where he lived in an apartment near Granville Island. The film features raw details about Mel’s life, including difficult relationships with both sons and his ex-wife, Mary Etta, mother to Mawuli, now a civil rights attorney in Atlanta.
Chicago is where Mel was born to his 14-year-old mother Pearl, who raised him without the help of a husband, a troubling time for the future Tennessee State Tigers basketball star, whose neighbourhood was plagued by violence and drugs.
“I had a lot of violence in me from my mom whuppin’ me, seeing people being beaten and I started beating people,” he told the Courier. “I was that way for a long time.”
His talent — as it did for many poor kids in Chicago — got him out of the “slums,” into a university and around positive people, who helped him become a better person, he told the newspaper.
Reached in Toronto this week, the younger Davis, who has since gone on to make more documentary films, including one featuring Toronto Raptors’ General Manager Masaji Ujiri, said he was at peace with his father’s death.
“He had a full life, he lived it to the fullest,” said Davis, who recalled how much his father enjoyed his 80th birthday party, noting he had five grandkids. “He enjoyed seeing those kids growing up. I think that always kind of gave him joy.”
Since that birthday, his mother Megan has also experienced recent health challenges and was discharged from hospital this week.
“They kind of both went down around the same time a couple years ago, and really neither of them really recovered,” he said, noting he and family were busy this week making accommodations for her.
'I feel good about that'
Asked what making the documentary did for his relationship with his father, Davis said it helped him discover more about the man and the decisions he made, including not being around in the early years of Hubert’s life.
“He was complicated, he was complex,” he said. “He had a lot of layers to him and things that he was overcoming. Someone emailed me and said he did more good in the world than not good. So I think, on a fundamental level, that's what we’re all kind of hoping for, you know.”
When the Courier asked Mel the same question about making Hardwood, he said: "I look at it this way — if people are getting a benefit out of it by my experience as a dad trying to get back with family, and trying to keep families together without a whole lot of lawyers and a whole lot of other crap, then I feel good about that."
Reflecting on the outpouring of heartwarming messages about his father online, on social media and in private emails, Davis said he knew teaching young people about basketball and —by extension — life would be his father’s legacy.
“But it's always nice to hear the human side of it, and the people coming out and talking about their experience or wanting to reach out and share with me how important that experience was,” he said. “I think he would have appreciated that.”
The family plans to have a celebration of Davis’ life at a later date in Vancouver and in Chicago, where a tall, lanky kid with a rhythm for the game fell in love with basketball at 13 years old.
“I played it all day, all night, in the rain, in the snow,” he told the Courier. “I would scrape the snow off the court sometimes and just get out there and shoot and shoot.”
Davis, who earned his nickname “Trick” for his agility with a basketball, is survived by his wife Megan, his sons Hubert and Mawuli, their wives Kelly and Jana, stepdaughter Melana, his five grandchildren, and a host of family.