Walter Davis, basketball star with a velvet touch, dies at 69
By Richard Sandomir
Walter Davis, whose smooth shooting propelled him to basketball stardom with the University of North Carolina and the Phoenix Suns, but who late in his career struggled with drug addiction, died Thursday while visiting family in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was 69.
The university announced his death but did not specify a cause.
Davis, a 6-foot-6 forward, played at North Carolina from 1973 to 1977 for Dean Smith, one of the most successful coaches in college history. He averaged 15.7 points a game over four seasons on Tar Heels teams that also included Bobby Jones, Phil Ford and Mitch Kupchak.
In one of Davis’ signature games, in March 1974, North Carolina was losing to Duke, 86-78, with 17 seconds left. After North Carolina closed the deficit to two points with time expiring, Davis tied it with a shot from a distance estimated at between 30 and 35 feet. (The basket would have counted for three points and won the game today, but the 3-point shot was not officially introduced by the NCAA until 1986.) North Carolina went on to win in overtime, 96-92.
“I wasn’t trying to bank it in,” Davis, then a freshman, said afterward. “It wasn’t a desperation shot. I was just trying to do my part, that’s all. I didn’t allow myself to think about anything. I just told myself it could only do two things: go in or come back out.”
In 1976 he was a member of the U.S. team, also coached by Dean Smith, that won a gold medal at the Olympics in Montreal. A year later, he led North Carolina with 20 points — and 10 of his team’s last 12 — when it lost to Marquette, 67-59, in the final game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
He was twice selected for all-Atlantic Coast Conference teams.
His nephew Hubert Davis is currently the North Carolina coach.
Walter Davis was born Sept. 9, 1954, in Pineville, North Carolina. His high school in Charlotte won three state titles in basketball before he left to attend prep school in Delaware. He arrived at North Carolina in 1973.
In 1977, Davis had surgery on a broken finger after North Carolina won the ACC tournament in his senior year. “Before they put me out, I remember looking up and Coach Smith was right there,” he told Ken Rosenthal for his book “Dean Smith: A Tribute” (2001). “I remember seeing him and having the screws drilled into my finger.”
Davis was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 1977 NBA draft. After averaging 24.2 points a game — the highest average of any season in his career — he was voted the league’s Rookie of the Year. He remained a steady performer throughout his 11 seasons with Phoenix, averaging 20.5 points a game as a small forward and shooting guard.
During a game in 1983, he set a league record by scoring 34 points (on 15 field goals and four free throws) against Seattle before missing a shot.
“I don’t remember a sweeter shot,” Alvan Adams, one of his teammates, told NBA.com in 2015. “He was a feared shooter. The other team knew it, too.”
Chuck Daly, then the Detroit Pistons’ coach, told The New York Times in 1987: “Walter is a good shooter until the fourth period. Then he becomes a great shooter.”
Davis had two nicknames: Sweet D and Greyhound.
In his later years in Phoenix, Davis dealt with drug problems. In 1986, he spent a month in a drug rehabilitation center to treat cocaine and alcohol dependency. Early the next year he told the Times, “The scariest part is knowing that it is a disease that I will have to work on for the rest of my life.”
When he relapsed in 1987, Davis was suspended by the league and once again entered a drug rehabilitation facility. He also received immunity from prosecution when he agreed to testify against several current and former Suns teammates, who were indicted on drug charges.
In his testimony, The Arizona Republic reported, Davis said that he had first used cocaine in his second season in the league after being introduced to it by a teammate, Gar Heard. When asked by a prosecutor who else was there, he said, “Pretty much the whole team.”
Later that year, Davis said that prosecutors had forced him to testify against his teammates.
“I had no choice,” he told Sports Illustrated. “The last thing I wanted to do was get my teammates and friends indicted. If I’d known I was going to do that, I’d have probably gone to jail instead.”
Davis left the Suns in 1988 to sign as a free agent with the Denver Nuggets. He was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in 1991 and then re-signed with Denver, where he played in the 1991-92 season before retiring.
Davis averaged 18.9 points a game for his career and played in six All-Star Games.
After his retirement, he worked as an announcer and community ambassador for the Nuggets and a scout for the Washington Wizards.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.