The basketball community in B.C. is reflecting on the influence of a former Harlem Globetrotter who ended up teaching thousands of youth in Vancouver about the game and how it could help them in their lives.
On Dec. 16, Mel Davis died of natural causes. He was 84 and had lived in Vancouver since 1987.
He is best known in B.C. for his “Have Ball, Will Teach” basketball clinics, which taught basketball skills and the importance of education. He also founded the Kitsilano Youth Basketball league in 1998.
Joel Haywood, a professional basketball player, was one of his students who thrived in the game — and in life — under Davis’s direction.
“I just fell in love because I felt like that was a place for me to become really good at basketball, but also just seeing a really positive Black role model,” Haywood said.
Davis was born in Chicago in 1937 and quickly distinguished himself in the game in high school and university before going on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, an American exhibition basketball team, for 18 years starting in 1961.
He played more than 300 games around the world and was known by the nickname, Trick.
In 1987 he told CBC News about the role the game had played in his life.
“I fell in love with the basketball and used the basketball to get an education … to take me around the world … to earn a living with,” he said.
Davis married a Canadian who he met while playing with the Globetrotters in Ottawa. They settled in Vancouver, started a family and he began teaching and giving back to basketball in the city.
Cynthia McKenzie-Cook learned basketball under Davis’s tutelage with his Kitsilano basketball league.
“He was a no nonsense kind of person, tell you like it is,” she said. “He really built my confidence.”
McKenzie-Cook said his passing is a big loss for Vancouver and for the people who knew him.
“I don’t think he thought of … how much he touched us, our hearts and lessons and life … and just to be ready for what life throws at you unexpectedly.”
In 2004, his son Hubert Davis released a National Film Board documentary about his father’s past and his relationship with him.
In 2011, Davis was inducted into the Basketball B.C. Hall of Fame.
Haywood spent time with Davis while he was in hospital in December and said he still had a strong presence despite his failing condition.
“I grabbed his hands and I was talking to him, and stuff like that, and was holding it tight, and I saw a lot of energy from him,” he said.
‘Acceptance, respect and hard work’
There is an online petition to have a plaque erected in honour of Davis in the gym at the Kitsilano Community Centre, where he ran his program.
“Mel provided a welcoming environment for kids of all backgrounds, teaching acceptance, respect and hard work,” the petition says. “These lessons and connections made still shape our lives today.”
According to a tribute page to Davis, he is survived by his wife of 33 years, Megan, two sons, a stepdaughter, Melana and her son Zachary, his grandsons Kobie, Khari, Kaden, Jackson, and daughters-in-law, Jana (Mawuli) and Kelly (Hubert).
His family is planning memorial services in Vancouver and Chicago for this summer.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.