CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Tucked behind a mask and under a pulled down hat, Mike Davis has spent most of the last three months standing baseline in the corner of Lou Henson Court at the State Farm Center watching his alma mater compete for a Big Ten championship.
He’s large enough at 6-foot-9 to be noticed but concealed just enough that a double take is required to see exactly who the large individual behind the mask is, which is naturally followed by a the question: “What’s he doing back?”
Davis is recipients an internship with Var Variety I and is the second of the Lou and Mary Henson Men’s Basketball Academic Assistance Fund, which was spearheaded by Rod Cardinal, Steve Lanter and Larry Lubin. The scholarship is for men’s basketball players to return to complete their degree from the University of Illinois. Former Illini Leron Black just completed his degree in December by way of the scholarship before Davis began in the spring semester to complete his degree, which simply required a 400-hour internship.
“It’s awesome. I don’t take it for granted at all,” Davis told Illini Inquirer of getting the scholarship. “It’s something that’s special. They put it in place for this reason, to help guys like me finish their degrees so they can put that on their résumé. It’s a special thing.”
Of course, Davis is going to be as close to the men’s basketball program as he can be while he’s back on campus. He’s 27th in program history with 1,269 points and second in career rebounds with 909. He initially returned to Champaign with an eye on Brad Underwood’s revamped coaching staff — and would eventually like to get into coaching — but recognized the need to complete his degree.
He could have tried his hands at coaching at another institution, but being around Illinois and learning from Underwood, who Davis said is ‘the man,’ his alma mater and former teammate Chester Frazier was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“It’s home. I’m an alumni here,” Davis said. “You always want to go back to your alma mater and help out if you can. It’s one of those things that it’s special to come back and have an opportunity to help these guys out.”
Though he works with Varsity I and not directly inside the men’s basketball program, he’s still at some practices and every home game watching his former team with Underwood at the helm. Davis’ responsibilities with Varsity I, include meeting with donors, contacting former student-athletes and “being an ambassador to the program,” said Varsity I director Kevin Mitchell.
“I think any time we can bring back former athletes to come back and finish their degrees so that they can go on and be successful in life after sports, that’s what it’s all about right there,” Mitchell told Illini Inquirer. “For us, that’s the satisfaction of just having folks like that back in the building.”
Davis played nine years of professional basketball after his Illinois career ended in 2011, ranging from the NBA G League in 2012-13 and again in 2016-17 to Turkey, where he spent most of his professional career overseas highlighted by averaging 20.6 points and 9.1 rebounds for Adanaspor in Turkey during the 2014-15 season. But coaching is where Davis ultimately wants to be, or at least around the game of basketball, to help develop young people like he was developed.
“Helping these guys and push these guys to be successful,” Davis said before Illinois hosted Ohio State last week. “I’ve been in their shoes before. I know how they think. I know they’re hoping to get to the NBA, overseas. I’m a guy who has done it, seen it and been there and I’ve got connections to help them get there.
“For me, my goal is always to help the players. Coaching was one of the avenues I wanted to explore. If it works out, I’m all about persevering and trying to get my foot through that door. It might not work out. I might go another avenue. We’ll see. My goal is to help the student-athletes and guys get to the next level.”
Though right now Davis wants to coach, he’s also learning valuable things from “the other side of the street” in sports administration from booking hotels to planning and events and getting to know donors.
“His passion for Illinois Athletics and the basketball team,” Mitchell said of what stands out about Davis. “He wants to be a part of this thing in any way, shape or form. The biggest thing for us is representation.”
Davis calls members of the basketball team his “little brothers” and closely monitors how the Illini coaching staff goes about their jobs. Underwood and his assistant coaches have been a valuable resource for Davis as he learns the ins and outs of coaching. He’s hopeful his time will come, but for now he’s relishing the opportunity to return to campus debt-free to complete his degree.
“It’s very important for student-athletes,” Davis said of the scholarship. “I know in this world we just think about the next level. You don’t think about after basketball. It’s one of those things where I’ve got to help these guys see past their playing career. This opportunity, the Henson Program, is something that’s huge for me especially and guys after me. You never know who is watching me go through this process and want to come back and do the same thing.
Said Mitchell: “Then to have the ability to come back and finish because someone else put up their own money to pour back into someone else’s education, that’s huge. You can’t put a value on that. I think you don’t really fully understand it until you actually have that degree in hand and the opportunity that opens up, is phenomenal.
“That one semester can hold somebody back for a lifetime. I want to educate the current student athletes about the importance of this. Everybody is different but you don’t want that one semester or two semesters or a year or whatever that is to really have an effect on the rest of your life.”