There was a time last month when Baron Davis must have felt a lot like Wally Pipp.
Davis signed a one-year contract with the New York Knicks in December, and the hope was that the two-time All-Star, who was recovering from back surgery, would eventually emerge as the Knicks’ next great point guard — or at least a more viable option than dead weights Mike Bibby and Toney Douglas.
But as Davis continued to rehab his back and inch closer and closer to his triumphant return, a little-known kid named Jeremy Lin — an undrafted scrub from Harvard — stepped in and showed that, well, he’s a little more than an undrafted scrub from Harvard.
And as Linsanity unfolded over the next few weeks, gripping the hearts and consuming the minds of fans both in New York and around the world, Davis seemingly watched his perfect opportunity at a comeback for the ages evaporate before his eyes.
The story is not so different from that of Pipp, the New York Yankees first baseman who famously took a seat on June 2, 1925 — some say it was the result of a headache, other say it was simply a benching — paving the way for a little-known slugger out of Columbia University named Lou Gehrig to get the start.
The “Iron Horse,” Gehrig — then known as nothing more than “that guy who replaced Pipp” — went on to play 2,130 consecutive games, a record that stood until 1995, while cementing his legacy as one of baseball’s all-time greats. Pipp, on the other hand, was sold to the Cincinnati Reds before the start of the 1926 season and was out of the league three years later.
Fortunately for Davis, his future seems somewhat brighter than Pipp’s, and now the Knicks — who at one time this season had no viable options at point guard and were one of the East’s worst teams — are 18-19 and likely playoff-bound, with two standouts who are perfectly capable of filling that role when necessary.
And though it appears his function will be that of the supportive backup, not the flamboyant superstar, Davis says he’s just happy to be back having fun — especially after so much disappointment the past few seasons.
In July 2008, Davis left Golden State to sign a five-year, $65 million contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, but his production once he got to Southern California left plenty to be desired. Over the course of 183 injury-plagued games in a Clippers uniform, Davis averaged just 14.6 points on 39.4 percent shooting — down from an average of 19.8 points on 41.2 percent shooting during his previous seven seasons.
It also didn’t help that Clippers owner Donald Sterling, apparently suffering from a serious case of buyer’s remorse, made it his mission to make Davis’ life a living hell. Sterling’s contempt for his bad investment reached a head last season, when he allegedly heckled his highest-paid player from the sideline at Clippers home games, reportedly firing barbs criticizing Davis’ conditioning, shot selection and overall talent.
“There’s nothing I can say,” Davis said at the time. “I have no comment on that. You just get to this point where it’s a fight every day. It’s a fight. You’re fighting unnecessary battles. I’m fighting unnecessary battles."
The fight eventually ended last season, when the Clippers traded Davis and a first-round pick — one that turned into a lucky lottery winner and likely Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving — to Cleveland for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams. Cleveland used its amnesty clause to release Davis before the start of this season, allowing him to sign with the Knicks.
“I just want to get back to having fun," Davis said last week, an apparent jab at his time in Los Angeles. "For a good part of my career, I wasn’t having fun in basketball, I wasn’t really enjoying the game. I think if I’m playing in a system that fits my talents, I’ll be able to do that."
Davis has certainly found that system under Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, a freewheeling offensive-minded leader whom Lin has described as a “genius” on multiple occasions, and one who helped transform Suns point guard Steve Nash into a household name the past decade.
Since Davis’ return last month — which coincided with Carmelo Anthony’s return from a nagging groin injury — his numbers have been marginal (three points and five assists per game) and the Knicks are just 2-3, but last week’s win over the Cavs served as something of a breakthrough moment for a guard who was badly in need of one.
Davis scored just four points on 2-of-4 shooting against the Cavs, but he dished out eight assists in 14 minutes and played an integral role off the bench in New York’s come-from-behind win.
“He really has a vision that not many people were born with,” D’Antoni said. “He can see people, he can see the second pass ahead, he can fake and he’s really good. The ball will be in his hands and he will create and distribute and play. I thought he was very good tonight, but I really think he’s just at the start of what he’s going to be.”
The highlight of the night for Davis was an alley-oop lob to former Hornets teammate J.R. Smith, who flushed it home over his head to give the Knicks a 99-86 lead with 6:18 left to play, sending an already-rabid home crowd over the edge.
“It was incredible,” Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire said. “That’s a mixed tape; that’s the swagger we play with. Baron is showtime. He gets the ball and he’s into it. He’s totally swagged out, and J.R. is athletic, man. He’s a freak of nature. He just gets to the lane so easy, and he elevates so high, it’s hard to guard him.”
A short time later, Davis and Smith checked out to the deafening roar of the Madison Square Garden faithful.
“That ovation was sweet,” Davis said. “That’s why I came here. I love the energy; I love the fans. They love basketball, so they can appreciate good basketball.”
And all that positive feedback is having a positive effect, not just on Davis, but on the entire Knicks bench — a group that contributed 50 points Wednesday night, including 38 points on 13-of-19 shooting in the telltale second half.
“Baron’s making his way back and starting to get his confidence back,” Anthony said. “He’s looking like he’s getting better game by game. The first couple games he looked a little stiff, and now he’s starting to move, getting a little pep in his step, getting to the hole. He’s going to get more comfortable finishing, and the better he gets, obviously the better it’s going to make our team.”
In addition to rediscovering his groove, Davis has also developed a humility that has done wonders for the Knicks’ chemistry. There was a time when Davis would have been livid over a reserve role behind an unproven player like Lin, but Davis seems to understand his role, and he’s playing it to the fullest.
“Basketball is basketball,” Davis said. “Whether you start, whether you come off the bench, you’ve just got to make the most of the minutes you’re out there and that’s all I’m worried about at this point.”
Davis, who says he still doesn’t feel comfortable playing more than 15 or so minutes per game, also acknowledges that he’s not back to 100 percent just yet. So, really, he’s just happy to be on the floor.
“There’s some things out there that I can’t do, and a lot of things that I still need to work on as far as timing and my explosiveness and also just my strength and conditioning,” Davis said. “But whatever I have, I’m going to give it all out there on the floor, coming off the bench for 15 minutes, giving Jeremy some time. That’s all I can do at this point, is just give it my all.”
But even when he’s back at full strength, it’s doubtful that you’ll hear Davis, who has been known for his attitude problems at times in the past, badmouth his teammate, Lin, who has averaged more than 20 points since he started playing significant time.
“It’s been great,” Davis said of Lin’s development since being injected into the lineup Feb. 4. “I told him before the All-Star break that he’s been the inspiration and he’s been key to bringing this thing together. … He’s a great player, and he’s going to get better.”