You probably know the basic details of the Tim Duncan story.
Grows up a competitive swimmer in the Virgin Islands…eventually takes up basketball as a teenager…gets discovered by Wake Forest…becomes one of the greatest players in history.
But here’s a nugget that you might not know: The coach at Wake Forest that found Duncan was current UC assistant Larry Davis.
“We had a kid abruptly leave that was starting at center for us as a freshman,” Davis recalled. “He walked in one day and said that he was homesick and we couldn’t talk him out of it. Going into the spring, we had no guy on our roster that was bigger than 6’8”. So (head coach) Dave Odom called all of the assistants in and told us to turn over every rock because we had to find a center. So I started making calls. I had met a guy by the name of Holman Harley who was working for an agent at that time, and I called him and said, ‘Do you know of any big guys anywhere?’ And he said, ‘Yea, there’s a 6’10” kid in the Virgin Islands.’ He gave me Tim’s name so I tracked him down, got him on the phone, and asked who he was being recruited by and he said, ‘I got some letters from Delaware State and one letter from Providence.’
“About the fourth time that I called Tim on the phone I asked him if he had ever been to the United States. He said, ‘Yes, I have a brother-in-law in Ohio and I went to Ohio State’s basketball camp last summer.’ I said, ‘Is Ohio State recruiting you?’ Tim said, ‘No.’ I got off the phone and immediately called Holman Harley and said, ‘Are you sure this kid can play? He’s 6’10”, he was at Ohio State’s basketball camp and they’re not recruiting him. How can that be?’ Holman said, ‘Larry, I’m telling you – the kid can play.’
“I went in to Coach Odom and told him that I might have found a kid and he said, ‘Where is he at?’ I said, ‘The Virgin Islands.’ It wasn’t hard to talk him into making the trip. So Dave went down to see him and I’ll never forget – he calls me on the phone and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this guy. He’s 6’10”, he can run like a deer, he’s got great hands, and we’re bringing him in.’ Tim ended up visiting Providence and Wake Forest. It was 45 degrees when he visited Providence and 80 degrees when he visited us. That’s when I knew that we were getting him.”
And that’s how Larry Davis helped sign perhaps the greatest under-the-radar recruit in college basketball history.
While the former head coach at Oak Hill Academy (1983-85) and Furman University (1997-2006) hasn’t landed the next Tim Duncan at Cincinnati – at least not yet – his relentless recruiting efforts have been instrumental in helping Mick Cronin rebuild the program.
“I’ve never been around a guy that loves recruiting, evaluating, and working like he does,” said Cronin. “Most guys his age become the resident veteran coach on the bench, but he loves recruiting like a 25-year-old. He can’t get enough of it. He loves it.”
“A lot of colleagues knock recruiting, but I like it,” the 56-year-old Davis told me. “I like meeting people, I like travel, and it’s a challenge. It’s competition and I like competition – what can I say.
“It can drive you nuts because kids make decisions based on some of the craziest things that you could ever imagine, and there are always hidden land mines out there. You have to figure out who is on your side and who is not on your side and sometimes, somebody that you don’t even know is in the background either helping you or killing you. So when you get a kid to commit and sign, it’s a great feeling.”
Cronin became aware of his colleague’s zest for recruiting nearly 20 years ago when Davis was an assistant coach at Ball State.
“We met when I was a high school coach at Woodward and he was trying to outwork people for Eric Johnson,” said Cronin. “He ended up at Louisville, but Eric would tell you to this day that the best job that was done in the recruiting process was by Larry Davis. He loved Larry Davis, but it was hard to turn down Louisville for Ball State.”
Observing Coach Davis’s recruiting persistence made a strong impression on his future boss.
“My dad taught me to be smart enough to listen to older guys and Larry helped to guide me in the business,” said Cronin. “I’ve tried to pattern myself after his effort in recruiting.”
The key word in the last sentence is effort.
“Young assistant coaches in our business need to spend a week with him in July,” said Cronin with a laugh. “When you’re out there in July, he’s watching games from 8 am until midnight. He’s not a guy that will watch a few games, get a workout in, and go out to dinner. He’s in the gym when the first game starts and the last game ends. He’ll tell me who I need to see and I’ll say, ‘Where are you going?’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, I’m going to see a half of this game and a half of that game and then I’m going to go check on this kid.’ If he lays eyes on 10 kids he might find that guy that wasn’t highly-rated – whether it’s a Sean Kilpatrick or a JaQuon Parker.”
While Davis has inked his share of big-name recruits over the years such as 11-year NBA veteran Bobby Jackson when Larry was an assistant at Minnesota, his ability to find lesser-known recruits has been invaluable at Cincinnati.
“What I’ve learned is to be able to rate his tone of voice,” said Cronin. “He call and say, ‘I think I’ve found one,’ and I can tell by the way he says it how good that he thinks the guy is. I can tell by his excitement level that we had better hurry before too many people see the kid.”
“Scouting services and ratings are great, but I’ve always been taught from the first day that I got into this that you should judge with your own eyes,” said Davis. “You try to see what a guy’s potential is down the road. Some of it, quite honestly, is a little bit of luck, but you have to have an eye for it too and know some of the characteristics that you’re looking for. I take pride in trying to do that and I work for a boss who could care less about the ratings. Mick wants to know if the guy can play or not – that’s the most important thing to him.”
“What Larry understands is that good players don’t have to be highly-rated,” said Cronin. “He believes in out-working the opponent. He doesn’t just go to a city and see one practice. He’ll talk somebody into working out at six in the morning, so that he can see another kid practice at three, and another kid play at seven. It’s sheer numbers. In sales, the more people that you get in front of, the more sales that you’re going to have. In recruiting, the more guys that you see means that you’re eventually going to see somebody that can play. That’s how you find Hasheem Thabeet in a back gym when nobody else was recruiting him at the time.”
The 7’3” Thabeet was a late signee in Coach Cronin’s first year at Cincinnati who chose UConn over UC and ultimately became the 2nd overall pick in the NBA draft – unfortunately in recruiting, you don’t always get the guy. But Davis has won his share of battles and landed Troy Caupain and Jamaree Strickland in this year’s early signing period. According to Rivals.com, Caupain is a 3-star recruit while the 6’10” Strickland received 3 stars from 247sports.com.
But before you put too much stock into the scouting services, you should consider the Wake Forest class of 1993.
“When the recruiting rankings came out that year,” said Davis, “we had signed three or four other guys so it listed their names and how many stars they received and ended with, ‘and Tim Duncan.’ No comment, no rating, just ‘and Tim Duncan.’ In the end, he was the number one guy in the country.”
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