It’s been nearly 10 years since Baron Davis played in the NBA, and he laughs when asked about a possible return now that some of the players he faced have agreed to 10-day contracts on the NBA’s hardship exception.
“Just to know you have contemporaries out there, and they are in shape, and it’s super motivational to be in shape,” he said.
Davis, however, has a bigger calling. The former two-time All-Star has embraced promoting an often overlooked and sometimes forgotten character in our Christmas consciousness, Black Santa.
Davis, 42, is the owner of the Black Santa Company, which sells merchandise featuring an African-American Santa Claus, one that resembles the bearded Davis. Davis has set the groundwork for retired NBA players who want to delve into non-sports business ventures.
Promoting a holiday character has not only given Davis a booming business, but offered a relatable symbol for people of color.
“Just having Black Santa is to show that Santa Claus can be in any shape, form or fashion, and through the eyes of this Santa Claus who’s Black, we finally get to see a character that exudes positivity, that exudes giving, that brings cheer and joy and always has a smile on their face,” Davis said. “The depiction of Black men in America has been the total opposite. So, that was the goal of Black Santa, is looking at Walt Disney and studying how he built Mickey Mouse, and was thinking this character has to have so much purpose and all of us as a people can actually gravitate and feel like we can be a part of this and we can share what our heritage is through our inclusive eye and our look at the world.”
Many NBA players struggle to find a calling after their careers are over. Others are beset by financial obligations. That creates pressure to flourish in post-career business. Davis said he wanted to set an example for younger players to consider businesses and investments during their career, which would make for a smoother transition when their playing days are over.
“The transition was definitely not smooth for me,” said Davis, whose career was derailed by a knee injury during the 2012 playoffs. “I would say when I stepped out to do this, there were not a lot of athletes putting themselves out there on the front line, willing to make mistakes. I wanted to use myself as an example of if I wanted to manage athletes, if I wanted to speak to them, knowing that this next generation is coming and I could share with them successes but more importantly my failures where they can feel they can come in and create their own space and not get in the way of the next generation of athletes and entrepreneurs.”
Davis has taken up acting, producing, creating video games, as well as NBA commentary since he retirement. The Black Santa theme is the most significant because of its impact on younger people. Many kids grew up with the vision of Santa as just one color, and Davis wanted to provide options and a means of creating role models for a more diverse audience.
“Project Black Santa was a recipe for success, a recipe for what we bring in a positive light to this world and a celebration of Black culture and a celebration of all cultures to our inclusive eye,” Davis said. “The world needs more color, to find the storytellers, the artists, the producers, and say come in, here’s a place for you, here’s a place where we’re going to build our own community and be able to reap the benefits of what we’re building. Santa says giving has no season, so we want to up our giving experience and really start to change the narrative, starting from telling those stories from our point of view.
“This is not a religion thing, this is more about creating stories and narratives and characters explaining who we are in our best way.”
Davis said he encouraged players to monetize their interests, invest in things they enjoy, so they can begin reaping post-career profits.
“The lifestyle you want to live, if you’re going to invest in your lifestyle, take 20 to 25 percent in the companies that you’re investing your lifestyle in,” he said. “There’s so much more to it, I think the opportunity is to get them to look at the companies that they’re buying from and make those the focus of their investments.”
Smith and Rose don’t mince words
The NBA has nearly as many off-the-court stories as those on the floor. There is COVID-19, which has returned with a vengeance, taking away some of the game’s stars and replacing them with G-League and former retired players.
Meanwhile, former All-Stars such as Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, and John Wall have yet to play this season. The Nets had refused to allow Irving to play unvaccinated, with the city of New York also mandating anyone attending indoor events be vaccinated.
Simmons demanded a trade and then told the 76ers he needed time to prepare to return. He appears no closer to returning than he was months ago. Wall asked for a trade from the Rockets and the sides agreed to inactivate him until a deal happens. Meanwhile, Isaiah Thomas, Joe Johnson, Brandon Knight, and Lance Stephenson are back in the NBA on 10-day contracts.
ESPN/ABC commentators Stephen A. Smith and Jalen Rose had plenty of say on the state of the league and how COVID-19 will affect teams long term.
Smith has long been critical of Irving for his vaccination stance. He also has an issue with the Nets changing their minds and saying they would allow Irving to play road games. There is no mandate for players on visiting teams to be vaccinated, meaning Irving could play in every game outside of New York.
“I thought it was an egregious decision on the part of the Brooklyn Nets. I don’t think it’s something that they should have done,” Smith said. “Not only because I think that it’s a culture issue from the standpoint that you are either all in or you’re all out. This is something we religiously hear sports organizations and the players that represent those organizations articulate, but also, if anybody wasn’t worth it, it’s Kyrie Irving.
“I’m not talking about Kyrie Irving as a talent. I think as a talent he is a superstar. I think he is box office, but I don’t think that he is somebody that has shown a willingness to come to work. I think every excuse under the sun that he can find to not show up to work is something that he does. History has shown that. To make this kind of concession and capitulation for him, I think it’s foolhardy, to say the least. I think it sends the wrong message, and I was completely and adamantly opposed to that, and I stand by it.”
Rose said the Nets were astute to reconsider, especially because Irving remains on the payroll.
“I think it’s a good decision for the Nets for the simple reason that you’re paying him anyway 50 percent of the salary not to participate,” Rose said. “It could be an issue except he has the buy-in of [Kevin Durant], and since he has that, the organization now has to basically allow him to play in 50 percent of the games in the road games. I don’t think it’s a heroic act that he decided to not get vaccinated and chose not to perform with his team. However, at this point the Nets have dealt with so many injuries.
“I think this unlocks James Harden. For those of us that’s really in the know, James Harden has been, I’ll just say, in a funk, based on the fact that he came to be a part of a Big Three, and Kyrie isn’t participating because he is choosing not to get vaccinated, so I think when you get Kyrie back into the fold, you keep KD happy, keep his minutes down, take pressure off of him, and you get a Harden that’s back motivated, and now you’ve got a team that’s not just the No. 1 team in the conference, but now they’re my favorite to win the conference, and Kyrie, even if it’s part time.”
Harden reportedly has been unhappy about Irving’s absence because Harden is the lone one out of the Big Three without a championship, and he forced a trade to Brooklyn with the express purpose of winning a title in his prime.
An emerging story line is the list of former players on these 10-day contracts because of COVID protocols. The question is whether any of these temporary signees can stick around beyond 10 days. If these players want to stick around, they have to be signed to a second 10-day or added to the roster for the rest of the reason.
“Not only do I think [Thomas] is going to get signed by another team, but with COVID, you’re going to see other older guys, Lance Stephenson and Joe Johnson already, probably like a Jamal Crawford maybe,” Rose said. “You’ll see more guys that have recently retired and kept themselves in shape to be eligible to possibly join rosters because so many teams are going to be shorthanded.”
Former All-Star Baron Davis believes the NBA’s open style of play will be more inviting for aging players.
“It is motivation to get in shape; I think it’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “Teams want to win and need vets, and vets can come in and play all kind of different roles, especially when you have the G-League thing. So, I think there’s going to be a place for veteran guys to have the opportunity to finish out their careers strong. Especially now that the style is different, so guys can play into their 40s because it’s more aerobic, to where before it was more brute force, and then dudes who have games like that, like Joe Johnson, one-on-one games and he can shoot. He can spot up on teams with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and get open shots and knock them down.”
The emphasis on 3-pointers and spreading the floor has allowed players to last longer, thus giving more opportunities to experienced players who can fill specific roles.
“Anybody that can score from the perimeter has a chance,” Smith said. “If Isaiah Thomas is making shots from the perimeter on somewhat of a consistent basis, he has a chance. If he struggles, he has no chance. When it comes to him, there’s a level of empathy that you’ve got to throw into the equation because this is a man that played for the Boston Celtics, averaged 29 a game, and was a league MVP candidate, but had injuries. Whether they were mishandled or he mishandled it or whatever story you want to believe, his career has never been the same.
“When you look at it from that perspective, it’s sad because the bottom line is whether it was a missed opportunity on his part or something that just wasn’t capitalized on because of the influence of others, you just find yourself looking at a guy like him knowing what the potential was that was there, and no matter what it can ultimately morph into, it certainly won’t be what it once was, and that’s what you find yourself feeling sad about when it comes to him.”
The atmosphere at games this season is dramatically different because each arena has allowed maximum capacity. The bubble was a surreal experience because of the secluded environment with no fans and drummed-in noise to simulate the game experience.
Does the return to a more normal setting affect play? Is home-court advantage as impactful as before the pandemic. The answer is yes.
“It’s definitely relevant,” said Rose. “It makes you have a competitive edge when you have 20,000 people or so cheering for you. So, on every level, high school, college, pro, the home record for teams is going to always trump the one on the road. There are a few exceptions. The Spurs come to mind where they were kind of doing both, but for the most part that’s still going to stand.”
Said Smith, “Those dudes remember what it was like to play in empty arenas. They remember what it was like to play with no fans in attendance. You’ve got these fake props in the stands and stuff like that. No real fans. Stuff was virtual. They remember the difference. That’s why it’s important that the league says 100 percent vaccination or we’re going back to the bubble.”
One of the more overshadowed stories has been the absence of Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, who missed training camp and the first month of the season for personal reasons and still has not played despite reporting to the team. He was listed as questionable for Thursday’s game against the Knicks, but instead may return to action Sunday against the 76ers. Hachimura played for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics and served as an unofficial host and face of the Games. He did not report to the Wizards for camp and has been working on conditioning the past few weeks. Hachimura gives the rising Wizards another presence in the paint and should help the team’s playoff push … The Maine Celtics have experienced perhaps the biggest transformation of any G-League team during the recent COVID surge. Two-way contract players Sam Hauser and Brodric Thomas, the team’s top performers, were placed in COVID protocol this past week. Meanwhile, the shortage of players prompted teams to nab three other Maine players for NBA contracts. The Cavaliers signed Luke Kornet, the Mavericks added Theo Pinson, and the Raptors brought in Juwan Morgan. Maine was severely shorthanded in the G-League showcase this past week and is likely to have to add several players over the next few days … A new coaching prospect has emerged in Sacramento, where former player and commentator Doug Christie has taken over from interim coach Alvin Gentry, who is in COVID protocol. Christie made the jump from the broadcast booth to joining Luke Walton’s staff this season. He accepted more responsibilities when Walton was fired and replaced by veteran Gentry in November. The Kings are in playoff contention despite a losing record, and Christie helped the Kings to a surprising win over the Wizards and was presented the game ball. It’s uncertain what owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Monte McNair are looking for in their next coach, but Christie may make a push for the permanent job despite his inexperience. The Kings are one of the candidates to make major moves by the trade deadline as players such as Harrison Barnes, De’Aaron Fox, and Buddy Hield could be moved. Fox, a former lottery pick, is a rising player but may not blend well with second-year guard Tyrese Haliburton. The Kings also drafted Baylor guard Davion Mitchell in the first round and would like to play him more.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.