Purdue’s Rapheal Davis a real father figure
Senior guard poised for ‘best season’
By Pete DiPrimio
of the News-Sentinel
Thursday, November 05, 2015 - 12:01 AM
WEST LAFAYETTE - Rapheal Davis remembers the phone call. How could he not? You find out you’re going to become a father, WAY before you figured you would, and it hits you like an Isaac Haas elbow to the chin.close window
“I was in the dorm when I got the call. Right away it was panic.”
The call came right after his freshman year at Purdue and panic swiftly morphed into resolve. Davis would make it work because that was the way Richard and Monick Davis had raised him. He would do better than that. It would fuel his growth from boy to man, from basketball non-factor to star.
“It changed my life for the better,” he says.
“I’m not recommending being a father as a teenager, but it helped make me who I am.”
Who is Davis?
For many outside of West Lafayette, he remains in the shadows of shot-blocking superstar teammate A.J. Hammons, who made the preseason All-Big Ten team while Davis did not, even though the former South Side standout is a senior guard on a potential Big Ten title team, the defending conference defensive player of the year and a leader who rates among the best coach Matt Painter has ever had.
He is also the father of Kyndal Rae Davis, who will be 2 on Dec. 5.
“Being a father made me a more well-rounded person. It helped me grow up and stop doing the dumb things I used to do. She gave me a reason to improve -- I’m not just doing it for me anymore. When I’m done here, I have to set myself up (financially) so I can set her up. If I wasn’t a father, I wouldn’t have made that jump from my sophomore to junior year.”
That jump saw Davis’s scoring average nearly double, to 10.7 points, and his assists to more than double, from 42 to 88. He rebounded better, shot three-pointers better and became a defensive stopper Painter hasn’t had on the perimeter since former Huntington North standout Chris Kramer graduated in 2010.
Now Davis wants more, as much for Purdue as for himself, and if his focus ever wanders, he just thinks of his daughter.
“This off-season I worked as hard as I ever have,” he says. “It will come out during the season.
“This is my last go around, and I have a daughter. What am I going to do? How am I going to feed her? She’ll be going to pre-school. How am I going to pay for that? This year is to help set me up so that next year I can start saving up for a college fund so she can go to a nice school like Princeton or Harvard or a place like that.”
Beyond that, it’s a chance to help lift Purdue to basketball heights it hasn’t seen in a generation. It’s a top-25 team with championship aspirations.
“There’s a lot of hype, but it means nothing,” Davis says. “We have to play hard. We have to give it our all and win a lot of games and make the people who won’t buy tickets look silly.”
Why does Davis thrive? Because he cares, because he has parents who acted as parents and not as friends, because he has a coach who doesn’t coddle and because he has a drive that doesn’t take no for an answer.
For basically two and half years Davis was the last person you wanted to take a three-pointer (28.8 percent). He was so bad that for a while Painter forbid him to shoot one. But he continued to put in the extra time, refused to believe lousy shooting was his destiny, and then, during the Big Ten season, became a three-point shooting factor (13-for-34, 38.2 percent).
“He kept working on his game and wasn’t being rewarded for it,” Painter says. “You know it’s going to click, but when? If we told him, ‘Hey, you haven’t made a perimeter shot in a month, quit shooting them,’ he would. He wouldn’t fight you even though he knew deep down he could make those shots. He’d keep missing them in games and every morning he was back in here working.
“And then last year, he didn’t make a bunch of perimeter shots, but he made some tough ones. I want him to build off that, but I also want him to keep the same mindset to be a productive player regardless of whether or not the shot goes in.”
Adds Davis: “I understood what was going to get me on the floor, and that was playing hard, leading and playing defense. You put in the work, and then you have to trust yourself. I trusted myself toward the end of the season and started making shots.”
Davis leads the way all coaches want veterans to lead, and woe to the Boiler who does something dumb off the court.
“The coaches don’t have to punish you,” he says. “I’m coming hard on you. I want my voice in their heads. That’s the leader I want to be. I want to be in your head when you’re thinking about making a bad decision.”
How hard can Davis get? After last season’s 94-63 loss to Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic, the Boilers had a players’ only meeting during which Davis did most of the talking.
It wasn’t a group-hug moment, and it helped ignite the Boilers’ Big Ten turnaround.
“He got after us,” guard Dakota Mathias said. “He said he was here when it was really bad, and he was tired of it.
“We want to do good things for him. He’s always here, always working, always showing us the right way to go about things. That’s huge.”
Davis’ leadership doesn’t come from instant success. He struggled through his first two seasons even as the Purdue program, which had been to six straight NCAA tourneys, including consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, became a Big Ten also-ran lowlighted by 2014’s last-place finish.
“What really helped me was right when I got here, Coach Painter really humbled me. I don’t know if he knows it. He didn’t play me in the non-conference.”
The reason was simple -- Davis wasn’t good enough.
He is now.
“For Ray, he’s had more adversity than some of the (good leaders) we’ve had,” Painter says. “If you look at (former Boiler standouts Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson), we were successful. We went to the NCAA tourney every year. Ray didn’t come into that. We didn’t go to the NCAA Tournament his freshman and sophomore years. Through that, he never wavered where we had some guys who did waver. They gave into things. Ray never did.
You really find someone’s true character through tough times. Ray has proven he’s a Purdue guy. No matter what we asked of him, he always had a positive attitude. He always tried to do it. Just go out and compete.
“He’s had a lot more ammunition, in terms of negative stuff, to battle than other people. He’s really shown his leadership through that.”
That could make all the difference in a potential senior season to remember.
“Any time you have guys stay in your program and continue to work hard, their senior season should be their best season,” Painter says.
“Ray has put in a tremendous amount of time. He’s worked hard from Day 1. He worked on his game even during tough times. He made a big jump last year. Hopefully he can build on that.”
DON’T MESS WITH MOM
Mom wasn’t messing around. Can you blame her? Monick Davis’s military training and tough-part-of-Washington D.C. upbringing left no tolerance for a whining son.
Want to play at Purdue?
“He had to get better,” Monick says. “There’s no sense sulking in it. Be better at it.”
Forget Mother Bear sentiment to tell Painter and his staff to stop being mean to my baby. In fact, Rapheal says, “I would call home and pout about thing, and my parents were on Coach Painter’s side. My mom straight told me to suck it up and play defense if you want to play.
“I didn’t get babied or coddled by anybody. My mom actually told Coach Painter to yell at me more.
“My mom has some toughness to her. No one realizes how tough she is.”
That toughness was passed to her son.
“He never gave in to the disappointment,” Monick says. “It’s not a pity party. He had to suck it up and do what you’ve got to do to be successful.”
And so he has, and you’d better believe mom is proud.
“I knew he had it in him,” Monick says. “He just had to put forth the effort. In high school his natural talent got him through it. Now he had to put in the work to make it better. That’s what he had to do, and he did.”
DON’T MESS WITH DAD
Dad wasn’t messing around. Can you blame him? Richard Davis was a former Indiana State football player and a hard-working man with no use for short cuts. When the teenage Rapheal lost his focus, with academics even more than athletics, there was heck to pay.
For instance, there was the middle school science project Rapheal was supposed to finish before leaving for the prestigious King James basketball tourney in Ohio. That’s the event NBA superstar LeBron James has run for years.
Rapheal blew off the project, figuring he’d finish later, if at all.
“I thought I was smarter than my parents and my teacher,” he says. “I thought I could put the project under the rug and do it when I came back.”
Rapheal’s teacher called his parents. The due project wasn’t turned in. Richard Davis made his move, starting by letting Rapheal pack for the weekend tourney.
“I was amped about going,” Rapheal says. “I got packed. I got in the car with my mom ready to go. Then my dad comes into the garage and tells me I wasn’t going. I was crushed. I couldn’t play in front of LeBron James. My dad made me sit at the kitchen table that Friday, Saturday and Sunday like I was in school to work on the project.”
“It was the best project I’ve ever done.”
Then there was another middle school incident. Rapheal had been at school all day and his father was driving him home. It was close to 8 p.m. On the drive, Rapheal told his father he had a B+ in a class. His father told him he needed to get an A on a test to push the overall grade to an A-.
“I was tired and not thinking,” Rapheal said, “so I asked him, ‘What’s the difference between an A- and a B+? We reached the driveway at 8 and I didn’t get into the house until midnight. He gave him a four-hour talk about the difference between getting a B+ and an A-.”
Grades matter, and the lesson stuck. Davis has a 3.2 grade point average while majoring in sales management.
“My parents always told me education was something nobody can take away from you. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now it’s one of those things you thank them later.”
“Just the other day my dad came up to Coach Painter. Coach probably thought he wanted to talk basketball, but he told Coach I needed to get a 4.0 this semester and the next semester. That probably threw Coach off that I’m 22 years old and my dad still gets on me about grades.
“I see some guys I grew up with, who were good in basketball, who didn’t pan out because of their grades. I hear our coaches talk about not recruiting guys if their grades aren’t good.” It all matters, you see.
Did you see Big Ten defensive player of the year coming?
“If you had told me that as a freshman, I would have thought you were crazy,” Davis says with a smile. “I think Coach Painter would have thought you were crazy. It’s been a complete turnaround.”
As a freshman, Davis was, associated head coach Jack Owens insisted, a defensive disaster.
“When I got here Coach Owens would get on me about defense,” Davis says. “He told me I was the worst defender he had ever seen coming into college. The worst. He still says that. He still talks about my defense my freshman year. It’s unbelievable as a senior he keeps going back four years.”
Davis smiles. He’s not angry. He knows, better than anyone, how far his defense has come.
“In high school, all I knew was scoring. In Fort Wayne growing up there were guys like Eshaunte Jones, Deshaun Thomas, James Blackmon, Bryson Scott. There were guys who could really score. That’s all we learned -- being able to score.
“In AAU I always tried to guard the best players on the opposite team. Sometimes it would work out. Sometimes it wouldn’t.”
In high school Davis had four different coaches with four different defensive approaches. None of them stuck.
“He’d never had a coach more than a year,” Painter says. “That’s hard. You don’t have that baseline of this is the way we do it. Sometimes you have a habit from four years of high school, and it’s tough to break. He didn’t have any habit. Each time a guy told him to do it one way, the next guy would switch it. None of them were wrong, but it was hard for him to form good habits.”
Or, as Davis puts it, “When it came time to play for Coach Painter, I had to learn how to play defense. I had to learn the fundamentals, which meant understanding there actually are fundamentals to defense. I thought fundamentals was for offense, and on defense you just slide around and try to not let your man score. Learning where to be and how to be there helped a lot.”
It helped to the point that last year nearly ever top Big Ten guard suffered a major offensive drop off when Davis guarded him.
“Now you see the benefits,” Painter says. “When you work hard, when you’re athletic and when you know what you’re doing, you’re going to be productive.”
You don’t need to be a father to understand that.