PBS Premiere: Aug. 16, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

Interview with Mel Davis

POV: How did you come to play for the Harlem Globetrotters?
 Mel DavisMel Davis: When I was a sophomore in high school, a guy who worked for Abe Saperstein (the owner of the Globetrotters) saw me play at an Illinois Tech Tournament and the score was about 13 to 11. We beat them. That was a full basketball game, that wasn't no half time score. And in the game I had all the points but 2. After the game, this guy came over to me and asked me about playing with the Globetrotters. I went back and told my mother about it. She said, "You finish high school, get you a trade and get out and work."

Well at Tennessee State University, the end of my senior year, our basketball team's coach, Coach Hunter, told us we could go home for a week. And I went home to Chicago and messed around for about two weeks before I went back to the university. Well, they had had the tryouts. The NBA, the ABL, the Harlem Globetrotters, I think Goodyear had a team that traveled around the world, the Harlem Magicians, some European teams. And I missed it. I missed it. I think nine guys on the team were drafted by different leagues. Dick 'Skull' Barnett was one of the guys drafted by the NBA.

So I decided to go on back to Chicago, and then come back to work on completing the credits I needed before I graduated. In Chicago, I started working with the Park District and Ernie Jones called me up and said, "Hey man. We been practicing out here for about two weeks." He said, "Clarence 'Cave' Wilson, the Globetrotter coach, has been asking about you. And how come you hadn't came to the tryouts?" So someway I got with one of the Globetrotters' scouts. But I came to the practice the next day, I think the practice was on the west side. On Racine. Well, we worked out every day on the routines and I made the team and we hit the road all around the Illinois area putting on exhibition games.

I was really lucky to get with the Globetrotters. And I mostly got there because of coming out of Tennessee State University. Most of the guys with the Globetrotters then was from Tennessee State, which had a quality of basketball players I couldn't explain. They always had a basketball tradition at Tennessee State. And the guys who was coaching and doing some of the management with the Globetrotters was from Tennessee State and so I was lucky.

POV: What were your expectations and first impressions when you started playing for the team?

Davis: I had seen a lot of other Globetrotters around in Chicago. Most of those guys was working with the Park District or they got into politics, they got into businesses. Some of the guys got their degrees from university and they taught school. But with the traveling -- I never thought what it would be, when we came out of our dressing rooms. There would be thousands and thousands of people. People praising you and telling you what a great person you are. I did never think that I was a great person, I just thought I was part of a team. You had other guys who was getting more publicity than I was getting so I was just lucky to be there.

Mel, left, in a Dunbar Vocational High School basketball game. Mel, left, in a Dunbar Vocational High School basketball game.

My first years traveling, I was going to the museums and the movies in all different languages. You had to read the subtitles and that would get me, cause my reading skills wasn't too cool. I danced all night long. I danced every night and came back. I think that kept my sanity. I was sweating so much dancing, and then sweating playing basketball. I remember I used to catch cramps. Oh, some terrible cramps. I still do.

I would go down to the lowlands, I called it. Where the guys eating all kind of foods. I would eat the food and everything. I wouldn't drink the water, but I would eat the food. And I didn't get sick off of it. But the water I would get messed up on. I started getting bottled water. Stopped using ice.

 Mel and teammates in front of the Eiffel Tower in 1961. Mel and teammates in front of the Eiffel Tower in 1961.

When I got to France and places like Berlin, my first years, I was just curious how people could hate people so badly they started a war. I was fascinated by this guy Hitler with his ruling a country when he wasn't even German. I looked for this Iron Curtain in Berlin and there was a wall, but I was looking for a curtain. Boy, I just fell out laughing. I'd been reading about this curtain.

But I got there and I seen all the buildings. I seen different cultures. People was going to siestas -- stopped working for two, three hours, and came back later in the evening. I thought that was cool, you know. Not like in the States, there was rushing and running and carrying on. I got a good education of different cultures. Different people. I was fresh. I wanted to learn. I wanted to see. I was a mama's boy. I wanted to see what the world was all about and the best way was with the Globetrotters.

POV: And how did your perspective on the Globetrotters change over the course of your career? All in all, what years did you play for the Globetrotters?

Davis: 1961 to 1979. I look at some of the guys who was out there. They was good basketball players but -- some of the guys had been out there 13, 18, 19 years. And, I don't know. There was some guys out there that was two-faced kind of people. They tried to straddle the fence, you know, play both ends. At one time there was a word that they used, Uncle Tom. And a lot of guys would just kiss the white owner's behind, and some of the managers' behinds. I never did want to get into that, you know.

 Mel in a 1963 Globetrotters game.Mel in a 1963 Globetrotters game.

And there were guys out there who cared about you. Who tried to teach you the right way to start off. I had guys who I just took a liking to, really. Paul Hardy. Leon Hillard. Murphy Summers. I remember one time we was doing a gag where I acted like I was slapping Murphy. And I just hauled off and slapped him. I mean slapped him. And he looked at me and said, "Hey man, this isn't part of the act." But there were guys like Murphy and Ernie Wagner. Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton. Ted Strong. Guys who was my mentors, who showed me. I was a wild kid. I was a wild kid.

But I just looked on it as a job. A business. You had to be in shape. You had to be on time. You had to wash your own uniform out. You know, it was just a part of my life. Because I loved basketball. I don't know if I would have played for nothing out there. But it was similar to nothing. I wasn't making no $125,000 or $250,000. You wasn't making that kind of money. It just started off as you traveling and you meeting this and meeting that, you know. I never did go back to my neighborhood like I was a celebrity or anything like that. I was just Mel 'Trick' Davis. That was me. It was mostly a job. A job. A J.O.B.

Freddie Freddie "Curley" Neal, Hubert "Geese" Ausbie and Mel "Trick" Davis at half-time; Athens, Greece, Summer 1965.
All archival photos courtesy of the Davis family, all rights reserved.

You know, the Globetrotters used to play before the NBA games. Sometimes after the Globetrotter show some people would just leave. The Globetrotters did a lot in basketball. I learned a whole lot about promotion. I learned about how to be a good entertainer. About what people will do and what they won't do. And how to say this and that, and how to learn to use my voice in rapping to people. Different languages. Not fluent but I learned the gags in different languages. I learned how to say some of them in French. I learned how to say some of them in Spanish. It had a big influence on me -- the Globetrotters. But like I said, you had your ups and downs. It was really a human educational experience for me. You know, to see the racism, and the jealousies, the mishaps some of the guys had out there. It made you think. It made you think.

POV: Did you have any token moves or any particular role in the comedic routine the Globetrotters did?

Davis: I used to do a lot of high-pitched yelling. I got it from a guy called Shellie McMillion. He used to yell like a native. And I used that. And then I learned mostly all the routines. I watched the Meadowlarks and the Geeses and the Pablos and Willie Thomas. I watched their roles. I watched what they did out there. What made them last for a length of time out there. They came in shape. Some of the guys had fantastic shots. We're playing every night. Some of these guys are hitting these shots every night in the routines.

POV: You said you began working with young people while at Tennessee State. What made you become involved in coaching kids?

Davis: I think I got it from Dick Barnett. We both had keys to the gym and we used to open it up, and all the high school basketball players used to come, most of them was from Pearl High School. And they used to come out to see the games. Especially my sophomore year, my freshman year. I just took a liking to the kids. Get out there and play ball with them. That kind of thing, which still helped me. Cause I kept doing it even after I got with the Trotters. I would go back to my high school in Chicago, Dunbar Vocational High School, and play against the high school kids. And they'd be aggressive. They'd want to beat you. So that'd help to make you better. So I used that as a guiding, skill-building program for the kids, within my mind. Helped them by showing them how to shoot jumpers. Dribbling right. Passing.

I worked with the Park District in off-seasons. I did the recreational programs for the Park District because my background was P.E. at Tennessee State. We had track events. I did a Special Olympics with Eunice Shriver. I worked in the communities. I worked with the Polish community on the west side. I ran a camp up in Wisconsin for one of the community centers. I did a lot of basketball camps.

Mel today, coaching students in Vancouver. Mel today, coaching students in Vancouver.

POV: What is your philosophy in coaching? How do you try to instill values in your players?

Davis: Teach the kids basketball, but use basketball, as something that the kids love to do. And show them how to do it on the up-and-up. Not half-way. Don't teach a kid how to play basketball without teaching him how to be a person, too. You know, you don't elbow nobody. Unless they're on your back. Learn how to balance it off. You don't come out as a bully kind of person. You come out there with your skills. Teach them how to have the right attitude about the game. And teach them what sportsmanship is. Teach them about respecting another person, or his ideas, during a game. Respecting the officials, the other coaches, the other players. Leadership. Teach kids how to be leaders. How to be followers. Good followers make good leaders. Not the person who thinks they know everything, and don't know anything. Just like an empty wagon. It makes more noise because it don't have anything inside of it, to balance it.

Young student of Mel Davis. Young student of Mel Davis.

You try to keep them from being so wrapped up individually. You know, like it's one basketball and it's 10, 12 guys on your team. All of them got to have playing time. But it's still one ball, so everybody got to share that ball. If a guy is hot shooting the ball, let him shoot, and you retrieve the ball. But everybody can play defense. Everybody. And, you know, that's the way mostly you ought to be checking out life. You know, everything is not just you.

And try to teach. You don't let a kid teach you. You teach the kid. Just try to teach a kid to respect himself and have a lot of confidence in himself. Most kids don't have self-confidence because it's not taught to them.

Mel and Hubert shooting hoops. Mel and Hubert shooting hoops.

POV: What are your goals?

Davis: One of my goals is having a building where you do basketball. Only basketball. Nothing else but basketball. You can show tapes. Invite the NBA ball players, the European ball players. Where you have cooking facilities. Where you can have only shooting in one room and have defense in another room. You have skull practice, you can talk to the kids. You can play table tennis. Three-man volley ball. And a lot of people there tutoring the kids. A lot of people there working on the kids' behaviors. You know, you can develop a good product.

POV: What was it like working on "Hardwood"?

Davis: I just told Hubert that it was OK with me. Knowing if he was going to ask me anything I was going to tell him the truth about it. A lot of times you can tell people how sorry you are about certain things and it still don't register. Nothing you could do about it, but it was so wrong to do or to say. It just opened a lot of my thoughts. Things that was right and things that was wrong. And it took me back, not only to the marriages and the kids. It took me back to all the stuff my mom had to go through for me to even have a position of having a son who could produce a movie and a son who's got a drive to getting reparations for blacks.

POV: What do you think about Hardwood now?

Mel Mel "Trick" Davis.

Mel: Well, some parts was touching. Really touching. It wasn't just the dad concept of it. It was the moms' concept, too. How they raised the boys. It meant a lot to show what two women could do with the absence of a dad for the boys for a length of time.

But it was something in "Hardwood" that just tell you that dads mean a lot, too. You know, they don't carry you for nine months, but they mean a lot to you. Not only learning basketball or football or anything. As a person. I had a lot of people come up to me and say, "Wow... I haven't seen my dad in such a long time and I don't even know if I'll be in contact one day." The only thing I can tell most of them is, "Hey, get in touch with him, if you can. If you can't, ain't nothing you can do about it. You gotta keep living. And don't make the same mistake what that dad did."

POV: What impact has Hardwood had on your life?

Mel: It took me to the red carpet. The Academy Awards. People say the movie "Hardwood" was an experience. That's exactly what it was, an experience that is trying to heal people. Looking at people in another way. What the person went through, cause of you. I don't know, it's hard to set an example. I see guys with their kids. And they want to be with them all the time. That's what I respect. Mawuli tries to stay with his kids. You have to tell your kid, "Hey man, I wasn't no smart guy, you got to be smarter. You got to be smarter in your books. You got to be smarter in choosing people. You got to be smarter in selecting the person you're going to be with the rest of your life."

POV: What are you doing now?

Mel: Just living. Just really living. And just thanking God and my mom for the 68 or 69 years I been living.

Everything ain't going to be the way you want. People say, "The weather is bad." "You're making too much noise." That's not none of my stick. That's just a part of life. Noise. The weather's bad. It's a part of life. So, I'm just trying to accept all those things that I wasn't trying to accept before. Saying, "This is a part of life. What can I do about it?"

POV: What do you want to do in the future?

Mel: I just want to see some of the grandkids grow up, get to an age. I want to put in a little more time going places. But teaching people basketball? I don't know. As Al Saunders, one of my pals, says, "Nothing lasts forever."