“Growing up in Atlantic City, my favorite game was Monopoly. It’s not a game anymore.”
—Brian Davis, on continuing with such real estate ventures as his West Village development in Durham
Brian Davis ’92 is on the phone from a hotel room in Washington, D.C. He’s made a name for himself around Durham as a developer, so it comes as a surprise when he reveals that he hopes to return to the NBA. He has spent recent months working out with the New Jersey Nets, the Washington Wizards, and the Miami Heat. Suddenly, call-waiting interrupts. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m supposed to be in on this conference call.”
Davis, age thirty-one, has covered a lot of ground: growing up on the hard streets of Atlantic City, four Final Fours, hoops in France and the NBA, a job in the NBA’s New York headquarters, a wife and new son, and a role in creating West Village, a development a few blocks from campus.
The partnership between Davis, Tom Niemann, and Davis’s former roommate, Christian Laettner ’92, acquired five former Liggett & Myers tobacco warehouses and converted them into 243 loft apartments and retail space. Plans are under way to build brownstone condominiums in downtown Durham, as well as Soulard Village in historic St. Louis.
“The idea for West Village began when Laettner and I were looking for our own apartment as students and found a shortage of good housing stock near campus,” Davis explains. “One summer, I had an internship in [former Duke president] Terry Sanford’s Senate office on Capitol Hill. I told him about our idea and he suggested I meet with his son, who introduced me to Tom. There were a lot of skeptics who thought we would fall flat on our face. But those are the same skeptics who thought we’d never beat UNLV.”
A thirty-point loss to UNLV in front of millions of viewers in the NCAA final in 1990 inspired Davis and his teammates to make amends by committing themselves to a vigorous conditioning program in the off season. In 1991, they got their chance for revenge in the NCAA semifinal game. In a nail biter, Duke came away with a 79-77 win over UNLV and a place in the final, where they defeated Kansas.
Davis, who says the win in the rematch against UNLV was the highlight of his Blue Devil career, gives most of the credit to Coach K: “He instills in his players that they can accomplish anything if they set their minds to it. It’s the intensity and organization of the practices, the first-class way you travel, the attitude around the program. It breeds success; and you have that feeling in class and after basketball is over.”
Davis was an entrepreneur early on. He made his own business cards at age nine, and cut grass, washed cars, raked leaves, and picked blueberries. Before Mike Krzyzewski became Davis’ authority figure, there was his mother, who raised four children. “I never knew my father; he had a gambling problem,” he says.
The family moved to Prince George’s County, Maryland, when Davis was twelve, and he played football and basketball at Bladensburg High School. He sent his own letter of introduction to fifty colleges, trying to win a scholarship. “I didn’t even make All-County in basketball; I won an MVP award at an all-star camp and suddenly Duke was interested. It helped that my high school coach knew Mike Brey [Duke assistant coach] and that I had a 3.5 GPA and good SAT scores.”
At Duke, Davis wasn’t a prolific scorer, but he made the kinds of contributions that don’t show up in the agate type. One especially memorable moment came as a sophomore in the last moments of the 1990 regional final against Connecticut in the Meadowlands. Huskies guard Tate George had just hit a huge turnaround baseline jumper that put Connecticut up by one point with seconds remaining. Coach K called a timeout and devised a play in which Laettner would throw the inbounds pass to Davis, step inbounds, and then get the ball back from Davis. The play worked like a charm: Laettner hit the shot at the buzzer and Duke fans were suddenly spilling on to the court, celebrating another Final Four.
In Davis’s senior year, Duke went 34-2, but was knocked out early in the NCAA tournament when Grant Hill ’94 and Bobby Hurley were injured. Davis, drafted as the forty-eighth pick of the NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns, was released during training camp. He signed to play with a French team alongside seven-foot-seven Gheorghe Muresan. Offered a spot with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1993-94, he played sporadically on a team that went 20-62. “I found the NBA to be more about politics and marketing than basketball,” he says. Yet he wants to return. “I know the odds, but I think I can still play on that level.”
In August 2000, life took another turn when he married Marsha, an attorney and former Miss Maryland who runs her own hair-care products company in Washington. In June, the couple had a son, Brian Davis Jr. Recently named to the board of the National Historic Trust, Davis says he hopes to build on his Durham entrepreneurship and help inner cities by building development bridges between community leaders and money lenders. “Growing up in Atlantic City, my favorite game was Monopoly,” Davis says. “It’s not a game anymore.”