Baron Davis kept his expectations low for his first professional basketball game in four years.
"I’m not dunking," he said, smiling.
One game into his comeback, the 36-year-old Davis already proved himself wrong.
Alone in the open court, Davis sprinted toward the basket on the fast break and threw down a two-handed slam dunk.
Davis was back.
OK, it’s not the NBA, where Davis was a two-time All-Star over 13 seasons and the No. 3 overall pick of the 1999 draft. He was just a backup point guard Friday night for the D-League Delaware 87ers. But the uniform hardly mattered as much as the comeback did — Davis played for the first time since May 6, 2012, when he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee in a playoff game with the New York Knicks.
Davis’ former Clippers teammate Elton Brand also completed a comeback of his own Friday night.
Brand made his first appearance this season after coming out of retirement to sign with the Sixers on Jan. 4. He played for the first time since May 20, 2015, when he was on the Atlanta Hawks. The 36-year-old forward came in to start the second quarter against Miami and finished with eight points and four rebounds in 13 minutes, showing some nice range with a few spot-up jumpers.
"He’s amazing to me because I didn’t know what to expect," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "In a weird way, that was exciting for me to have a touch and taste of Elton Brand, seeing him for the first time, coaching him truly, for the first time in a game. I thought he was excellent."
Far removed from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, Davis played in front of a few thousand fans at a college arena.
But basketball hadn’t felt this good for Davis in years.
"I just never thought I’d be playing again," Davis said before the game. "I’m kind of just treating it as a new experience."
Wearing his usual white headband, Davis dunked and dished for the Sevens in a 114-106 loss to the Iowa Energy.
Davis scored eight points on 3-of-11 shooting with four assists, three steals and five fouls in 19 minutes.
"A lot of it was happening in my brain," Davis said. "I was playing, I was out there, but I wasn’t all the way out there."
He surprised himself with his dunk.
"I thought it was LeBron James coming to block it. I didn’t want to lay it up," he said. "I thought, while I’m up here, I might as well try."
While an NBA return remains the ultimate goal, just suiting up for the Sevens was a personal victory for Davis. The last time the basketball world saw Davis, he pressed his hands to his head in pain as he was taken off the MSG court on a stretcher.
Davis crumbled when his knee gave out as he dribbled upcourt on a fast break. Some players looked away as replays of the gruesome injury were shown on the overhead video board.
Davis also suffered a partial tear of the patella tendon and was told he’d need at least a year to recover. It took almost three.
"When I got hurt, I kind of wanted to give myself amnesia as far as being a basketball player," Davis said.
What fueled his rehabilitation, though, was what Davis could not forget — the final image of himself on the court was on a stretcher, not walking away on his own terms.
He played pickup games in the Los Angeles area with NBA players and worked out at his alma mater, UCLA. Davis, who averaged 16.1 points and 7.2 assists over 835 career games, truly got the itch to return around November. His agent put out feelers and there were offers from the ABA and overseas, but Davis stayed patient and his name was entered early this year in the D-League available player pool.
Davis sat unclaimed, unwanted.
The Sevens had two of the top D-League guards until Sean Kilpatrick and Jordan McRae, their top scorers, recently signed 10-day NBA contracts with Brooklyn and Cleveland, respectively.
So why not take a run at Davis?
The 87ers are affiliated with the 76ers. Davis is free to sign with any NBA team, but he isn’t expecting a call-up any time soon.
"I made it this far, which is crazy," he said. "This is my NBA right now."
Davis practiced once, went through shootaround with the Sevens and entered for the first time with 6:44 left in the first quarter. He missed a pull-up jumper on his first shot, then slammed home two points with 1:06 left in the quarter.
"He’s so smart, that’s the thing that stood out above everything. I don’t know if that’s an indictment on our guys or if he’s a just a guy with that much experience," Sevens coach Kevin Young said, laughing.
Davis took the microphone before the game, thanked fans for attending and wished "best of luck for both teams."
Davis will ride the team bus at 5 a.m. Saturday to hit the airport for the first of two commercial flights to Iowa for the next game. No first class. No gourmet meals. And the Ritz Carlton? Try a night at the Quality Inn.
"The fact that Baron’s doing this, you’ve got to love basketball," Young said. "I don’t know if he knows exactly what he’s getting into."