Scott Davenport was shopping for team snacks at Kroger when he called to ask if I wanted to ride on the bus with his Bellarmine University basketball team to its exhibition game at Notre Dame. I told him what you’d expect me to tell him, “You had me at snacks from Kroger.” The trip was supposed to be a chance to observe the team in an all-access setting. But as it went on, I found myself watching the coach as much as the team. The following is the result of the ride.
Davenport has carved a spot for himself in this city’s basketball history. He was born here, played high school ball here, graduated from the University of Louisville, was a high school assistant, then a college assistant before taking over as head coach at Ballard, where he spent the next decade coaching and teaching special education. He coached two of the city’s best basketball products, Allan Houston and DeJuan Wheat, and won a state championship in 1988. He realized a dream when he became an assistant for Denny Crum at Louisville, then stayed on for Rick Pitino, bridging two Hall of Fame careers. In 2005 he took over at Bellarmine, won an NCAA Division II championship six years later, and was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame four years after that.
Now, he’s working on another bridge, ushering Bellarmine from the Division II level to Division I, a move which likely wouldn’t have happened without his success at the school.
That move is fraught with challenges, not the least of which is finding opponents after you led Louisville, ranked No. 5 in Division I, by two at the half, and trailed by only two with just under three minutes to play. Good luck getting anyone to play you in your first Division I season after that, even the school you just pushed to the limit, even if that school is your alma mater and an institution you’ve spent your entire adult life promoting.
Still, before all those challenges comes another – finishing strong in Division II. Bellarmine’s final dress rehearsal was last Friday at Notre Dame. So hop on the bus, find a seat, and let’s go.
The bus has just pulled out of the parking lot at Knights Hall. It is Thursday afternoon. On Friday night, Bellarmine will face Notre Dame. It will be the Knights’ second game against an NCAA Division I Atlantic Coast Conference opponent in four days. For a program in its final year of D-2 competition before reclassifying to D-1, this is a big deal. For a small Catholic school in Louisville headed to play at the most famous Catholic university in the nation, it’s an even bigger deal. A busload of Bellarmine fans will follow on game day.
Welcome to the road. The bus squeezes through the tight streets of the Highlands and out onto Interstate 64, then across the Abraham Lincoln Bridge and up through the Hoosier heartland.
Davenport sits in the first seat to the left, as you look toward the back of the bus. The seat closest to the door. For much of the trip, he talks with players, with assistant coaches Beau Braden and his son, Doug Davenport, or with his wife Sharon. He also studies notes he has made on the game, jots down things he wants to tell the team. And, simultaneously, he is tuned into his iPad and a hardcover book, “Raise Your Game: High Performance Secrets From the Best of the Best.”
But before leaving the parking lot, Davenport has another kind of reading material. He pulls out a letter, handwritten, on ordinary notebook paper. It is from a prison inmate. The cursive is neat, the grammar flawless. The writer expresses his admiration for Bellarmine basketball and its coach, and has invited Davenport to speak at the prison. Davenport had already called the institution. He planned to visit the facility a few days after returning from South Bend.
A ways up the interstate, Davenport turns around and remembers, “The first time I met (Notre Dame coach) Mike Brey, I was coach at Ballard High School. The Derby Classic basketball game was in town and they were going to practice at Ballard,” Davenport said. “I was in the gym by myself, wet-mopping the court, up and down. And this guy pokes his head and the door and asks, ‘Is this the gym for the Derby Classic practice?’ and I tell him, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he asks, ‘Do you mind if I sit in here?’ I told him to go ahead, and just mopped away. Pretty soon he asks, ‘You the coach here?’ And I told him I was, and he introduced himself as Duke assistant Mike Brey. And we stood there and talked as I kept on mopping the whole time. And that was the first time I ever met Mike Brey.”
The next night, they would be opponents. For now, Davenport and his players were cruising up I-65 as the first snow flurries of the year began to spit across the landscape. Players, in the back of the bus, wore headphones, worked on school assignments on their laptops, peered into their phones.
Up front, I showed Davenport a newspaper clipping from The Courier-Journal, the first mention I could find of his name in his hometown newspaper, from a game he won as a high school player at Iroquois in February of 1973.
As soon as he saw the score, he said, “It was at Freedom Hall, before a Kentucky Colonels game, wasn’t it?”
Yes. It was.
“I remember the game, because I lost my contact lenses that day. Case and everything,” Davenport said. “I couldn’t see anything. But I didn’t tell the coach until after the game.”
He finished with six points, and was praised by the coach in the paper. His Iroquois team turned the ball over 29 times in the game. Mercifully, the newspaper didn’t record how many belonged to the vision-impaired kid who now abhors turnovers like a disease.
The bus heads west near Indianapolis and slows to an exit for dinner, at Maggiano’s Little Italy. In the restaurant parking lot, the bus encounters a tight turn, and Davenport hops out to pull a door to a trash bin shut so that the bus can make its turn. Think Mike Krzyzewski does that?
The players file off the bus and into a banquet room, where they take their seats and Davenport asks them a question prompted by his reading of the book: “Has anyone in here heard of Swen Nater?”
They, of course, have not. He asks them to do some research on him. Bill Walton once called Nater the best rebounder in the game. Davenport wants his guys in a rebounding state of mind. At dinner, everyone eats except Davenport. He drinks water, and talks. We begin to discuss media topics. Davenport is a news junkie. Little happens in his hometown that he doesn’t notice. A veteran of 10 years of teaching in Jefferson County Public Schools, he especially takes notice of stories involving schools and kids, as does his wife, a longtime public school teacher herself.
At dinner, players wander in and take seats. I will sit in on several team meals during the trip, breakfast at the hotel, team lunch on game day at Outback Steakhouse, and at every meal the groups are different.
“We like that about this team,” Braden says. “We notice that it’s never the same guys always sitting together.”
Stops are clockwork affairs with Bellarmine basketball. Meals are pre-ordered and expected to be ready when the team arrives. The Maggiano’s delivery is a bit slow, but on a non-game day, it’s less of an issue.
The party arrives at the Comfort Inn & Suites in Elkhart, Ind., at about 10:30 p.m. Keys are handed out to players as they enter the hotel. Check-in has been taken care of. Players are told to arrive for breakfast, at 8:45 a.m., followed by a short film session. Players already know, 8:45 means 8:30. Show up at 8:45 and you’re already behind.
With the players in bed for the night, Davenport talks about his team’s 10-point loss at Louisville in the hotel room. Clearly, it’s still eating at him. He’s not interested in coming close. And he expects Notre Dame’s best shot.
“They open with North Carolina,” he said. “They’re going to come in focused. They need to be ready to go. We better be. Rebounds hurt us at Louisville, and Notre Dame is even bigger. If we can rebound with five guys, we have a chance.”
At breakfast, Davenport reads the electronic edition of The Courier-Journal, and shakes his head at a story about Louisville trustee David Grissom’s testimony in a deposition. He receives an email about a new donor to the basketball program, and quickly calls the donor to thank him, leaving a quick voice mail when there is no answer.
“It’s really been something,” Davenport said of the response of the community since the school announced its move to Division I. “People call and say, ‘Coach, what can we do?’ We’ve put together this Bellarmine 100 to give people a way to contribute and get involved. We want to make it fun. You have to do that. Coming to a game in Knights Hall is different. You’re close to the action. You feel like you’re a part of it.”
There’s been some discussion of Bellarmine playing games in Freedom Hall, or a larger venue, but its new league, the A-SUN, likes campus venues, and the plan at present is to expand the current facility as much as is practical.
In the film session after breakfast, Davenport lays out a theme he’ll return to several times. It’s about giving. He wants his team to be a team of “givers.” Players watch clips of Notre Dame, but the video session is not excessive. Coaches show players examples of Notre Dame’s sets, out-of-bounds plays and the like, then it’s off to the bus for the 30-minute ride to Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavillion and the pregame walk-through.
It’s called a walk-through, but no one walks. In fact, the pace is frenetic. Bellarmine wants to make Notre Dame play an up-tempo game – a difficult task.
In the arena, the players run through sets, get up shots, and complete a fairly standard walk-through, which at times looks chaotic. The pace is a bit surprising to a couple of high school coaches who visit the gym to watch. But what happens afterward isn’t routine.
The players walk next door to Notre Dame stadium, walk down the tunnel to music from the film “Rudy” and out into the sunlight of the football field. They pose for a photo there and then, of course, exit the tunnel and walk across the street to do the same in front of the iconic “Touchdown Jesus” stained glass window on the Notre Dame library.
“Three-point Jesus,” senior Parker Chitty corrects, as the group pose breaks up.
The bus pauses for two minutes on the trip back for coaches and managers to run into a sandwhich shop. They emerge quickly with boxes of pre-ordered sub sandwiches, and begin handing them out. It’s the post-shootaround snack. The players will spend a couple of hours off their feet, then report to the bus with their bags packed for the return home.
The pregame meal at Outback Steakhouse goes smoothly, and the mood is light. But it grows more serious once the bus is boarded again, and the ride to the arena commences.
The team arrives at the arena, and the bus pulls into a loading dock where the players get out and head straight to the locker room. They are greeted as they get off the bus by a school usher who says to each, “Welcome to Notre Dame.” Every few feet, they are welcomed by another employee, saying, “Welcome to Notre Dame.”
“I’ve played a lot of places,” Davenport said. “I haven’t been anywhere that they’ve been nicer and more friendly than they are here. This is first class.”
Less than 15 minutes later, players are on the court shooting. Pregame time has come.
In the coaches’ dressing room, Davenport motions to me, and pulls four cards out of the breast pocket of his jacket. One of them is the prayer card from his mother’s funeral, frayed and worn. Another is from the father of Bellarmine athletic director Scott Wiegandt, a longtime youth basketball coach. A third is a card from the funeral of Dr. Joseph McGowan, former Bellarmine president, and the man who hired him. The fourth is a new addition. It’s the card from the memorial service of former Churchill Downs vice president for racing communications John Asher.
Asher, as a reporter for WHAS radio, was the first person ever to interview Davenport, when he was a high school assistant. The only time Davenport says he ever saw Asher angry was when his alma mater, Western Kentucky University, didn’t hire Davenport when a vacancy was created.
In the locker room, Doug Davenport and Braden write Notre Dame’s lineup, selected stats and pregame points on a whiteboard. The coaches go over these things with players. Davenport tells his team: “Guys, we talked today as a staff, after the walkthrough. At Centre (a secret scrimmage) was great. We worked and worked and worked. And we had the day off the next day, and from that moment on, we wanted to let you know how much we admire and appreciate what you have done. Because it’s the right way. We didn’t finish the deal the other night (at Louisville). Tonight we’re going to play 40 minutes of basketball. You understand? . . . The second-chance points the other night. Points in the paint were the same. We outshot them from the field. We outshot them from the three. They shot more threes, that’s all it was. It was rebounds (that won the game).”
After some warmups and another quick talk, the team says the Lord’s Prayer, and tipoff approaches.
It is not a good start for the Knights. Despite being told to attack Notre Dame’s shot blockers to pass, Bellarmine players repeatedly drive at the taller opponents to shoot, and their first three attempts of the game are blocked.
Bellarmine’s offense is sluggish, the ball movement isn’t crisp or quick. After falling behind 12-2, the Knights start to stabilize. They cut their deficit to two with nine minutes to play in the half, and stay close until going scoreless in the final 3:10 of the half, giving up an uncontested three off a turnover and a shot at the buzzer to trail by nine at the half.
If you expected Davenport to congratulate his team on playing close at the half, you’d have miscalculated. He enters the locker room steaming, and heats up from there. He uses every psychological ploy at his disposal.
“Who played good?” Davenport says, stat sheet in hand. “Look me in the eye. He played good, Davenport said, pointing at Ethan Claycomb. Where’s the deflection chart. What did we have?”
Doug Davenport jumps in, “Guys I know it’s a slow-tempo game, but 12 (deflections) is a joke.” The goal is 20 in a half.
“And look,” Scott Davenport says. “He (Claycomb) has more than anybody. Isn’t that amazing? . . . Who played good? How about that stare down three, how about that? . . . I’m going to be honest with you, you really don’t give much of a (expletive). You really don’t. I know you’re human, but you really don’t want to win very bad tonight. You don’t. Great guys. Nice guys. Am I going to get fed well, eat well? You don’t want to just get tough.. . . . The standing around. Wait till you see the film. Are you scared of them? I’ll tell you what, let’s do this. Let’s just do this – we’ll play 2-3 zone and just play the game out. We’ll play 2-3 zone and just get on the bus and go home. You really – I’ve never been so disappointed and gauged a team wrong more than I’ve gauged you.”
Davenport then makes a final push.
“Here’s where we’re different,” he said. “Really different. With four minutes to play Tuesday night, we should’ve won the game. We got beat 10, outscored 11-2.”
Now, Davenport’s voice is rising, and carries down the hallway outside.
“I would go crazy the next time I got on the court,” he is shouting now. “Twelve deflections. Twelve! I’ll swipe at it. Get out of the way of a charge. That’s you! And you wonder why they get up? You don’t want to compete. You got outscored 11-2, and this is the way you respond? With 12 deflections. That’s how you respond?”
Doug Davenport now jumps in, tweaking the offense. Scott Davenport tells them the same four will start the second half that started the game, “but at the under 16, if you don’t have four deflections, you’re done for the night. You’re going to play hard or you’re not going to play.”
The second half goes a bit better. Bellarmine falls behind by 13 in the opening minutes, but whittles its deficit to five midway through the half, and trails by just three with 2:25 to play, before Notre Dame scores the final seven points.
In the handshake line afterward, Brey tells Davenport, “Nobody is going to beat you,” referencing the rest of the season. He echoes the compliments in a text message afterward. Davenport isn’t yet ready for any kind of moral victory.
“Look,” Davenport begins with his team after the game, “there’s not a coach in the world that wouldn’t want to coach a group of guys like you. Not a coach at any level of basketball. High school to NBA to international. . . . That makes it more frustrating. When you don’t do what you’re taught, that’s our fault. If you gave a quiz to the class and everybody gets it wrong, that’s the teacher’s fault. But that being said, what happened the first half? That’s the film. We did not play 40 minutes of basketball. That’s the learning. And it’s veterans. Not make a play on the ball. Not draw a charge. Cough it up. It was veterans. What happened the first half? I’m asking? I want to know. Are you tired?”
The locker room is quiet. Players are down. Then Davenport asks them a question. “What’s the first thing I said to you guys when I came in here after the game?”
No one answers. He goes around the room, from player to player. Wrong answer, wrong answer. Only one, guard Dylan Penn, remembers – Davenport said that any coach would be happy to coach a group of players like them.
“We should’ve won the game,” Davenport tells his players. “I don’t care what anybody says, we should’ve flat won the game. . . . That blows my mind that we have a team like this, and only one guy knew that I praised you when I started talking. One guy. That’s sad. That’s a really sad commentary. All we talked about before the game, I asked you why you came here, and we talked about being a giver, and listening and helping teammates. I asked you this morning before we started film. . . . And now we’ve got guys coming in here and can’t even listen, because they’re worried about themselves. This was a lost day, a total lost day, that not but one guy thought enough to listen. . . . I am really disappointed. But, to be honest with you, that’s how you played. . . . Well, it starts now. This part of the season is over. We’re playing two regional games right out of the box. We’ll see if we get better. You guys have anything to say? You can’t just talk when it’s good. Ben you got anything? Alex?”
Alex Cook jumps in: “I already told them, we don’t like this feeling, we’ve got to get better this week, and we’ve got one Friday that counts.”
Davenport says, “That’s great, but how are you going to do that, but how? I admire that, but how are you going to do that?”
Cook: “Work our butts off in practice.”
Davenport: “You know what I’m going to say. Show me, don’t tell me. . . . Practice is going to be different Monday, you can’t write that down. Trust me. That’s not punishment, it’s to make you better. Not that anybody is listening to what I’m saying. We’ve now played two games in a row and had one guy called for a foul blocking out (for a rebound). . . . I’m serious, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed because you didn’t do something as simple as listen. So let me repeat it – there’s not a coach anywhere in this world who wouldn’t want to coach as good a group of guys as you. I mean it. And it rips my heart out when you cheat yourself, and that’s what you did the past two games. They’re all controllable, fixable things. All right, bring it up.”
The bus pulls out of South Bend at 9:30 p.m. Trainers hand out pre-ordered pizzas to players. From his seat, Davenport studies the stat sheet. He huddles with his son and Braden, talking about personnel, and potential moves. The bus rolled back into the Knights Hall parking lot at about 2:15 a.m.
There are those who might hear or read his comments to the team and consider them harsh, given that Bellarmine is a small D-2 school taking on Power 5 opponents. They’re not looking at it the way Davenport does. He sees those games as opportunities. He sees how tight they were at the end and knows how close his team was, even without playing its best.
More than anything, he knows, he can’t allow losing to become acceptable, no matter who the opponent is. He can’t let it be comfortable, not if he wants his team to use it the right way.
On Thursday night, Davenport said, “We had a great week of practice.”
On Friday night at 8 in Knights Hall, the season begins, and from here on, the games count.