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.