GARY -- It’s a tough place. The kind of environment that could, and does, swallow a kid up.
If he chooses to allow it, of course.
The basketball courts at the Dorie Miller Homes in Gary’s Aetna/Pulaski neighborhood are where the strong survive and those who lose a game get mocked after the final ball goes through the hoop.
Johnell Davis went there as a lad, dribbling the orange ball and dreaming big. Real big. He wanted to play with the guys several years older than him. He had no interest in shooting the rock with his pint-sized peers.
Let the elbows to the face, the falls on the asphalt be danged.
“I wanted to get better,” said Davis, now a senior at 21st Century. “I knew that was the only way I could.”
His father, John Davis, played basketball for the legendary Ron Heflin at Gary Roosevelt. His brothers, Jeffery Little and Jonathan Davis, also wore the black and gold for the Panthers’ faithful.
Yes, the kid called ‘Nelly did come from a basketball family.
“Whenever I went outside the house I had a basketball in my hand,” Johnell said. “Always. I would just dribble up and down the street. Every day. I loved playing against older guys. They’d block my shots. They were bigger, faster and stronger. I didn’t care. I have just loved the game of basketball my entire life.”
This kind of desire and passion and work ethic, owned by the Cougars’ No. 10, soon changed his destiny. In middle school he ended up at 21 and played some pickup ball against Century’s Eugene German.
Now at Northern Illinois, it was German who put 21st Century on the map.
But Davis and his teammates want to drive the school bus down the map to Indianapolis.
“Geno played against Johnell in the summer in the gym and he said, ‘Wow,’” 21st Century coach Rodney Williams said. “He told me then that Nelly was going to be better than he ever was. He said, ‘He is going to be your next star.’”
Remember, German led the state of Indiana in scoring his junior and senior seasons. And after being snubbed by the Indiana All-Star junior team, German was picked for the team as a senior and was the game’s MVP against Kentucky.
Now, though, Davis needs just 577 points to eclipse German’s school scoring record. That is, of course, saying something.
“I need to average 25 points a game,” Davis said. “I think I can do it.”
German has the single-game scoring record at 51. Davis scored 45 last season against Fishers.
Talk about playing with the big guys in the big court, right?
Recently, Davis committed to play Division I basketball at Florida Atlantic. Coached by Dusty May, the Owls play in Conference USA.
And no one now is saying “Who” with this high-flying bird.
Through hard work and extreme determination, Davis has gone from the east side of Gary, Indiana to Boca Raton, a shining star on a sunny beach.
“It was great to get this dream,” Davis said. “Now, I only have a few more.”
Getting to Indianapolis in March is the biggest.
Coach Williams has much more than just the 6-foot-4 point guard. Guard Triyontae Lomax is being recruited byToledo and Miami of Ohio. Forward Cameron Jernigan also has Toledo, among others, recruiting him. And Indiana State and Ball State are recruiting Demondrick Velez.
“Nelly has a lot of help this year,” Williams said.
When this much limelight hits a teenager and his team, they often have to deal with the old big-head slow dance with ego. Several youngsters through the years have become a victim to pride’s powerful pull.
But Williams said this won’t happen to Davis.
“He’s too good of a kid,” he said.
LaKisha Thigpen was hired as 21st Century’s principal this summer. So the kid who walks around his school with a smile on his face in treating everyone well decided to do something nice. He brought Thigpen a box of Dunkin Donuts.
A few days later, just for kicks, he did it again.
Williams said that Thigpen invited Davis into the office so some parents could meet the pride of this school. Sounds like a great decision.
Hopefully, the Region will back this standout young man. I know his school and city are doing the same kind of thing.
It’s Cash Time in the 2-1-9, a moment where the filled bleachers bowing down to playoff football can chant “Cha ching” as the IHSAA state playoffs kickoff on Friday.
The top will be separated from the bottom. And the middle will most likely be taken apart by those on top. Perhaps.
It is one of the most exciting time slots on the prep calendar. We get to observe great programs, stellar student athletes, emotion-dripping coaching staffs, along with underdogs slinging their arrows from Angola to Zionsville.
Then, we all get to break bread together on Thanksgiving Weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium. To me, this is good eats to say the least.
So here are my predictions for the sectional, regional, semi-state and state championships. And these are money in the bank.
Sectional 41: South Central (2-7) and Lake Station (2-7) have the best records for area teams in this field, with winless Roosevelt also ready to make some magic. But our area will go 0-fer in this tourney. Winamac (4-5) will win this lackluster collection. Give it your all fellas and get to work in the offseason to try and turn this around.
Sectional 33: We go from marginal to massive in just a few more kids in the classroom. This sectional is insanely good. Rensselaer (7-2) plays at Wheeler (4-5). Boone Grove (9-0) travels to Whiting (2-7). Andrean (6-3) plays Bowman Academy (3-5) in Week 1, and North Newton (7-2) awaits the Game 1 winner.
I wish Nancy Pelosi would point her finger at this. There shouldn’t be this much skill all in one place.
Chris Skinner’s Andrean team has played the best regular-season schedule. But the Wolves of Boone Grove have had a historic season, going undefeated for the first time. Whiting played at state in 2015. Rensselaer won state in 2014. And the 59ers won state in 2013 and returned the next November.
This year is the Chris Bowl, Meeks vs. Skinner. I give the 59ers a slight edge, but they better be ready for the Bombers.
Sectional 25: While more attention will be given to other sectionals, this is the young coaches turnaround field. Brian Parker’s Hanover Central squad has a great shot at winning at Twin Lakes and getting an elephant ear at Indiana Beach. Nick Testa has done a great job at Clark, but Knox will be too much in the opener. Rick Good is my “Coach of the Year” at Calumet and his Warriors will win at Hammond. And Joe O’Connell has also done a tremendous job at River Forest.
Take a bow, gents. You are all earning your money.
Knox beats Calumet in a close final.
Sectional 17: Anyone who loves the IHSAA’s “Blind draw” should argue politics on Twitter. It’s just plain stupid. Hessville will host the championship game with Hobart (7-2) playing Morton (8-1). One of the top teams in the state will be done after one playoff game because of gravity and a ping pong ball.
I am giving a slight edge to Sean Kinsey’s Govs, an extremely talented team on its own field. But this is by a razor. The winner will beat Lowell in the final.
Sectional 9: My momma, God rest her soul, always told me to never eat green turkey. She said it had gone bad. But this November the Region will eat green turkey as Bill Marshall’s Valparaiso Vikings will make it to Indy to play on the big stage. Not one team in this sectional has a chance against this Green Machine.
Sectional 1: If there is going to be a so-called “Blind draw,” why can’t it be broadcast live. Let the fans of Indiana see the ping pong balls bounce out letting us know who plays who. It’s done in the lottery drawings and this is about some serious lettuce, right?
Merrillville (8-1) hosts Lafayette Jeff (9-0) in the opening round. Just insane. The Pirates will get the close win. Crown Point should beat Lake Central in the other semifinal. And while, on paper, it looks like the Bucs will win. Remember C.P. took Merrillville into OT in Week 3. This could be a classic.
Sectional 2: Chesterton will win this sectional as Mark Peterson and his team make some history and it will be his story. Their story.
Indianapolis Lutheran will win the Class A state crown. Evansville Mater Dei will grab the 2A hardware. Indianapolis Chatard do the 3A dance. Former Griffith coach Russ Radtke will win the 4A title with New Prairie. New Palestine will edge Valpo in 5A. And Avon will beat Merrillville in the 6A state final.
And ya’ll know what this is. Cash money.