Don’t let the basketball pedigree fool you.
Georgia Tech’s heralded freshman guard Kaela Davis may be the daughter of former NBA All-Star Antonio Davis. Yes, she has a twin brother A.J., who is a 6-foot-9 freshman on the Tennessee men’s team. And her version of a “god-sister” and mentor is former Tennessee star Candace Parker, one of the greatest women’s players to ever shoot (and dunk) a ball. The Parkers were family friends in Naperville, Ill., when Davis’ father played for the Bulls.
Yet Davis, rated the No. 2 overall prospect in the nation in her class, has some underdog in her.
Her uniform might give the first clue. Davis is suiting up for Tech on Sunday in Athens against Georgia for the fourth game of her college career. The Yellow Jackets have never made it past the Sweet 16 in women’s basketball, never won an ACC title.
Rather than play for one of the twin towers — Tennessee, where Davis originally committed, or Connecticut, which she never considered because of her ties to Tennessee and legendary former coach Pat Summitt — Davis picked the school close to home that intrigued her academically and scored highest in the points system she and her mother came up with.
“The easy decision would have been to go to Tennessee or Connecticut,” Tech coach MaChelle Joseph said. “The hard decision is to come to Georgia Tech and not only take on the challenge of helping push a program over the edge, but also the academic challenges that she’s choosing.”
Davis’ academic interests are another good place to look for evidence that she’s not big on taking the easy way out.
Davis chose Tech in large part because she wants to major in engineering. This is someone who at age 7 rigged the family’s Pacman game to give her extra “men.” Her idea of playing Legos was constructing a 7-foot tall grandfather clock that actually told time. As a high schooler, Davis could help classmates fix their iPhones.
As if college calculus weren’t enough of a hurdle, Davis is thinking about electrical engineering.
“I was just always into building things and figuring out how to work things,” she said. “Being at Tech and just the amazing people that are here — you’re not just sticking out like a sore thumb.”
Frankly, Davis never wanted people to know the real reason why she’s so used to doing things the hard way. It wasn’t worth the risk of being pitied.
But Davis gave a glimpse her senior year at Buford High, when she abruptly quit the basketball team in the middle of the season to focus on her health. After a battery of tests, the diagnosis was Meniere’s disease. That could explain the pattern of balance and inner-ear problems she dealt with for years.
When Davis was 11, she woke her parents one night in their hotel room at one of her basketball tournaments, violently sick to her stomach. She couldn’t open her eyes, and when a doctor who rushed to help finally did, her eyes were rotating like “pupils on cartoons,” her mother Kendra Davis said.
“If you stood in the middle of a room and you spun in a circle and then you stop spinning,” said Davis, explaining the sensation. “It’s like the room is spinning.”
There was ringing in her ears, tinnitus. Within a matter of three weeks, Davis learned at a follow-up appointment that she had lost 70 percent of her hearing in her left ear. She underwent a CT scan, an MRI and even a spinal tap, testing everything from meningitis to a brain tumor.
Eventually the symptoms subsided, and the episodes were sporadic, coming every sixth months or so. The Davises learned that sodium, stress and fatigue could set it off. A migraine headache was an indicator that one was coming on. Davis learned to manage it. She could even play with vertigo.
Stress was unavoidable her junior year. Two years after she committed to Tennessee, she decided to open her recruiting again in the months following Summitt’s announcement that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and ultimately stepped down as head coach.
“Pat was so much about what Tennessee meant to her,” said Kendra Davis, who said her daughter felt disconnected from Tennessee in the aftermath.
In Davis’ first game after reopening her recruitment, with college coaches present to watch, she threw up in a garbage can during breaks in the game.
“She told me, ‘All these people showed up to see me,’” Kendra Davis said. “’I can’t not play.’”
Davis averaged 18.5 points per game her junior year at Buford. The last high school game she played, Jan. 26 of her senior year against Wesleyan, she scored nine points. That was nothing for a girl who once scored 43. “It’s hard to shoot when you’re seeing three baskets, when the whole room is spinning,” her mother said.
The episodes were back, coming more often and lasting longer. After nine days of vertigo, her parents decided she should sit.
“I wasn’t waiting three weeks again for her to lose 70 percent in her other ear,” Kendra said. “I know people were really mad and made up all kinds of crazy stories, but in the end I said, ‘As a mom, I can’t. It’s just too scary for me.’”
The time off was good for Davis. She has had only a flare-up or two since she’s been at Tech, including once at a team cookout this summer. She has doctors she can turn to, she tracks all her symptoms and she has medicines she can use at a moment’s notice to control the symptoms.
“You can’t wake up every morning thinking about it,” Davis said. “You’ve just got to roll with the punches, and if something happens, then you’ve got to address it and keep it moving.’
She has averaged 22.7 points in three games. One of those came Nov. 17 at Tennessee. With her brother A.J., her parents and a crowd of 10,364 looking on, she scored 28.
“Not a lot of freshman go into Tennessee and score 28,” Joseph said. “Not a lot of All-Americans do that.”
Not a lot of freshmen have done the growing up Davis has before she ever set foot on campus. And not of lot of them want to win as badly as Davis does.
The same girl who at age 3 used to turn the Candy Land board upside down if she could tell she was about to lose, cried a few tears on her mother’s shoulder after the Tennessee game. She thought Tech could and should win. The Yellow Jackets lost 87-76.
Yes this is the girl who already has “changed our program forever,” as Joseph said that day. And it’s about more than her 6-2 frame, her ability to finish with her left hand, her shooting touch and of course, her famous father.
“Kaela is the player that she is because she works her tail off because she trains hard, she cares enough, and there’s just a lot of gifts that she has,” said Antonio Davis, now an NBA analyst for ESPN. “I don’t take credit for any of it.”